Water is a contradiction for Western Nebraska. It’s both seemingly abundant, yet simultaneously finite and scarce.
A new film by a local award-winning documentary filmmaker explores this contradiction and tells the story of water in the Panhandle, from the founding of the numerous irrigation and natural resources districts that line the North Platte valley, to the legal fights surrounding the regulation, distribution and control of that water.
Insight Creative Independent Productions Executive Producer and Director Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water,” was originally designed to be a web series, and viewers will get a first peek at it when the film premiers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. The screening of the documentary is in conjunction with The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street the Water/Ways” exhibit, which is open now until April 13 at Legacy.
“Everyone knows how to use YouTube, and they’ve gotten used to web series,” McMillan said. “They’re used to watching short pieces.”
In essence, each of the segments of the film is a self-contained documentary which covers a different facet of the story of our water, she said.
The hour and fifteen minute feature is the product of more than three solid years of work, with much of the footage and information gathered over a greater period of time. McMillen said that her father, Udell Hughes Sr., helped her with much of the technical research for the film. It also contains material gathered during production of McMillen’s last major project, “River of Time: Wyoming’s Evolving North Platte River,” a half-hour program which premiered on Wyoming PBS in November 2012.
“We’ve been sort of building up towards this film,” she said. “A lot of my historical research was actually done at Legacy of the Plains.”
The film contains interviews with managers of irrigation districts, farmers, UNL researchers and footage from public hearings concerning water issues.
“I knew that I needed to talk about the Ogallala Aquifer, but it took me a while to understand that issue,” McMillen said.
So she consulted UNL research hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, who is known as “Mr. Water.” Goeke researched the aquifer and arguably knows more about the water under our feet than any other human being.
McMillen said she was surprised by how candid Goeke.
“He gave me courage to address issues that probably weren’t very popular and won’t be very popular,” she said. “We have sucked so much water out of the aquifer and I’ve been watching the Pumpkin Creek battle for years, but lost track of it.”
The challenge for McMillen was to tie together the surface water and ground water portions of the story.
And it was a lawsuit over the little western Nebraska stream that became a big State Supreme Court case.
In 2009 The Spear T Ranch settled with more than a dozen upstream ranchers and farmers in a dispute between irrigators feuding over water in Pumpkin Creek.
“I was thinking about Pumpkin Creek, but I didn’t have any visuals,” she said. “I’d filmed a meeting of farmers years ago, but the camera went south on me and there was no way I could recover the footage.”
Then synchronicity struck. McMillen’s bookkeeper was from the Spear T Ranch, and the family over time had saved all of the newspaper clippings about the fight.
“That helped me tie it all together,” McMillen said. “You just have to be able to listen and when you hear something say ‘What was that?’”
And the hunger for investigative work is what fuels most of her projects.
“I have to tell myself to stop, take notes and check things out,” she said. “I hear stories all the time and I’d love to go chase them, but I have to be responsible and pay my bills.”
McMillen said a lot of the project has been self-funded because she couldn’t kick the habit once a lead seemed promising.
Newspapers also provided McMillen a window into the issues. As the “first draft of history,” clippings are featured at prominent portions of the film.
“The Star-Herald is in a lot of these stories that I brought back from the past,” she said. “There was so much information that really help me understand what was going on at the time.”
Another portion of the film is spent exploring contamination concerns, especially the 2015 fight against a Colorado company who sought permission to use an abandoned oil well in Sioux County as a wastewater disposal site. Sioux County landowners eventually won their appeal and state lawmakers reformed the process in which permits are granted.
“I documented almost everything, and there is a lot of that in there, along with newspaper clippings” she said. “The physical thing is really important, because I couldn’t have told any of this story without the work of reporters from back in the 1800s on to the present day.”
And those are the little things, McMillen said.
“I saw articles where they hung effigies of law makers because they were going to shut the water off,” she said. “There’s always a fight about water. One guy will say ‘I was here first,’ and another guy will say, ‘hey I need that.’ And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to have all of it.”
And over the course of making the film McMillen said that she’s learned that there needs to be change to protect and preserve not only the Valley’s greatest gift, but the way of life for Farmers and Ranchers who live here.
“We’re going to have to look beyond what we’re calling ‘traditional practices,’” she said. “We can continue on the same track that we have been. We can’t keep expanding and still be able to sustain that.”
It was her discussions with farmers that drove home the point for her.
“I think we need to look at it as growing food,” she said. “I would like us to grow more food that doesn’t have to be shipped, because we’re going to have to address climate change and reverse it.”
And at the same time, caution needs to be exercised when employing solutions, she said.
“What we think are the solutions are not always the best way of doing things,” she said. “We can’t just blindly forge ahead just because we think it’s a good idea. At the time we’re looking at sustainable energy, we’re also wanting to put it in places that will never be the same.
“We need to work within the infrastructure we already have and not go to condemning land so that we can use it for transmission lines or wind farms. There is plenty of space for that without tearing up areas that can’t be returned to their natural state.”