Paying today for yesterday's excesses

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

We're paying again for the excesses and short-sightedness of the past.

Drill a well, throttle up the pump engine, pour on the nitrogen fertilizer and produce a bumper crop. It worked for a long time, but now we're paying the piper.

That over-fertilization polluted our groundwater, forcing thousands of towns to find new sources of clean water.

In McCook, that search encountered a plume of TCE -- a solvent dumped out on the ground in another example of short-sighted irresponsibility.

It took 20 years, but we've finally "solved" the drinking water problem at a cost of $12 million or more plus a million dollars a year to run McCook's new water treatment plant being dedicated today.

How long will it take to solve the other problem?

A long time, a lot of pain, and a lot of money, according to Ray Supalla, University of Nebraska agricultural economist.

Supalla, who did a report for the governor's Water Policy Task Force, said Nebraska could be out more than $500 million unless it cuts back heavy irrigation in the Platte and Republican river basins.

Most of that, about $334 million, could be the cost of complying with the 1943 Republican River Compact agreement, with the remaining $168 million for following the Platte River management plan designed to provide enough water for endangered species, farmers and growing communities along the I-80 corridor.

At a minimum, he said, the cost for both rivers will be $110 million.

"The total state budget costs associated with reducing consumptive use by the required amount in both the Platte and Republican basins depends primarily on the type of program which the state chooses to use to achieve the desired results," Supalla said.

After Kansas alleged in a 1998 lawsuit that Nebraska was using more than its share of the water -- 40 percent for Kansas, 49 for Nebraska and 11 percent for Colorado -- Nebraska avoided paying money damages, provided it saw that Kansas got its due.

But Nebraska's a long ways from complying. Earlier, two Republican River valley irrigation districts agreed to sell their water allotments to the state, to be sent down the river to Kansas.

McCook should be proud of its new water treatment plant, and enjoy today's ribbon cutting ceremony.

But it will be a long time before we can celebrate solving the Republican River problem.

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