Letter to the Editor

Why water law is needed

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dear Editor,

The common myth is that Nebraska is out of compliance because there is too much groundwater irrigation. Yet, anyone looking at the numbers will quickly realize there are multiple reasons, and most causes are being allowed to continue to create problems.

Right now, Nebraska has two groups responsible for managing water: the Department of Natural Resources and Natural Resource Districts. They have different goals and provide services to different groups. The DNR regulates surface water irrigation. The NRDs regulate groundwater irrigation. The DNR and NRDs have difficulty agreeing on what the other should do or even what share of responsibility each has. The DNR has required certain actions of the NRDs. And, the Basin NRDs have done everything asked of them. But, the State says, "That is not enough. We want more." 

The DNR and the NRDs each say it is the other's job to solve the problem. The NRDs are waiting for the State to fix the problem into which it got everyone.

The State is saying, "It isn't us. You're the ones at risk, so you'd better figure out solutions." People in Lincoln believe fair warning has been given and if a shut down happens, it is because local communities didn't heed the warning and protect themselves.

The DNR is correct. Local areas cannot afford to wait for the state to solve the problem. If basin communities do not protect themselves, a federal judge takes over, bringing probable dire consequences. The DNR appears willing to allow this.

The primary cause of stream flow depletion is not groundwater pumping. Groundwater irrigation is a significant factor in stream flow reduction but less of a cause than conservation and vegetation. The drought has also reduced the available water supply by more than 100,000 acre feet, which is equivalent to the amount Nebraska is over its allocation.   

Conservation is a good thing, but it is reduces the amount of water getting to the stream. Conservation limits erosion and retains more water on the ground where precipitation falls. The more conservation practices we implement, the less water gets to the stream. According to Roger Patterson, former director of the DNR, conservation causes more than 50 percent of stream flow reduction. According to a report by James Koelliker, professor at Kansas State and currently co-chairing a conservation effect study commissioned by the Republican River Compact Administration, conservation reduces the amount getting to the stream by up to 80 percent. Even DNR Director Ann Bleed acknowledges that conservation is the primary cause of stream flow reductions.

In the fiscal year 2004-05, the DNR installed about 150,000 miles of terraces, which reduce the amount of water getting to the stream. It installs about this many miles of terraces each year.

In the Republican River Basin, there are more than two million acres with conservation practices. (There are 1.2 million irrigated acres. Extensive conservation practices that reduce stream flow are common on dry land and range land, as well as irrigated.)

To keep Nebraska in compliance, Senator Mark Christensen's proposed legislation, LB 701:

* Establishes a neutral party that will quantify the responsibility that each NRD and the DNR have.

* Allows the DNR and NRDs to each meet their targets as they individually think is best for their constituents; provides a sufficient penalty to assure that each agency does its best to succeed.

* Stops new conservation practices from making the problem worse.

* Helps manage riparian vegetation.

* Provides the resources to keep the State in compliance.

* Provides a mechanism to conduct basin-wide activities beyond the scope of any one agency.

* Clarifies existing rules that permit the movement of water so that there are no questions about what is permitted and required.

It is possible for Nebraska to stay in compliance with the agreement it has made with Kansas on an annual basis, once the accumulated overages are removed, but the underlying causes of the problem must be addressed. That is what LB 701 does.

Steve Smith,



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