Future of basin's economy depends on action on LB701

Monday, April 9, 2007

Elected officials that few of us town-dwellers give a second thought could soon see their budgets quadrupled and their taxing authorities increased accordingly.

The proposal, LB701, has alarmed local interests, and the fact that Sen. Mark Christensen, the bill's sponsor, abstained when the vote came to send the measure to the floor of the Legislature, didn't help.

The fear is, another legal victory by Kansas could end irrigation in the Republican River valley, with catastrophic economic consequences.

LB701 would give the Natural Resources Districts power to issue bonds, increase their property tax levies by 10 cents and impose a new $10-per-acre fee on irrigated land. Combined with other state and federal money, as well as a controversial use of corn-checkoff money, the funds would buy water rights, possibly pump water into the river, and remove unwanted vegetation along the river, to make sure Kansas receives the water it is due under the Republican River Compact.

There's no guarantee the plan will work.

And, many Southwest Nebraska landowners fear our area, farming interests and non-farm property owners as well, will bear an unfair burden of the cost.

The bill barely made it out of committee -- Christensen's abstention being part of the reason -- and only did because lawmakers knew they could modify the bill on the floor.

It's the classic case of laws and sausages -- if you like either, you should watch neither being made.

McCook agribusinessman Claude Cappel called for a statewide "occupation tax" on irrigated acres to fund the plan, citing state interference with earlier NRD attemps to stave off depletion of the aquifer. His testimony also calls for a vote of the people of the basin before the new property taxes are imposed, saying "this tax will hurt too many individuals for the benefit of a few."

Activist Steve Smith of Imperial, a registered lobbyist, lists a number of problems and proposed solutions on his WaterClaim.org blog

Among the problems are a lack of accountability for NRDs, lack of a requirement that the NRDs work together, problems with the figures the state uses to set policy, lack of reliable forecasts and reporting on the amount of water used, lack of measures to offset water kept out of the river by conservation measures, too much financial burden on groundwater irrigators, who Smith claims are no more than 20 percent of the problem, and no groundwater irrigation representation on the vegetation task force.

Among the proposals Smith offers are a sunset requiring the NRDs to go back to the legislature unless a long-term solution is in place by Jan. 1, 2009; a cap on the amount of the bond NRDs may float to finance the solution; a requirement for a balanced water budget; a requirement for NRDs to cooperate; a requirement that the state pay 2007 costs to avoid complicated and expensive bonding requirements; increased state share; offsets of new conservation measures; more accurate forecasts; audit and review; more state responsibility for vegetation and management; and landowner representation on the vegetation removal task force.

Time is short; farmers need to know soon whether to put their seed in the ground this year. Whether they do so next year, and for the forseeable future, depends on the Legislature's action as it debates LB701 this week.

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