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Coming together to address water use

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This is the third letter in a series where I have discussed the Kansas lawsuit and the reasons to come together as a basin to address water use and economic stability, and the three options the Department of Natural Resources has given to the Natural Resources Districts in the basin to amend their Integrated Management Plans for dry year compliance with the compact.

This letter will focus on the tools that have been put in place by the passage of LB 701 in (2007) and LB 862 in (2010) that give locally elected officials an additional flexibility to manage water to avoid water-short years and create a more stable economy.

LB 701 created a mechanism for eligible NRDs to bond and raise additional revenue for specific projects through an occupation tax. These projects, or what I like to call tools, are limited to those outlined in section 2-3226.04 of our Nebraska statutes. There are four tools available to NRDs. They are vegetation management and removal, retirement of irrigation rights, augmentation of the river flows, and the purchase or lease of ground and surface water.

The occupation tax levied on those engaged in the activity of irrigation was challenged in district court, and earlier this year, was found to be constitutional on all questions. The case has been appealed.

The Nebraska Legislature also passed LB 862 this year improving the language being challenged in court. Under LB 862, the qualifying factor for NRDs to be eligible for the current bonding and taxing authority under LB 701 was shifted to the Integrated Management Plan (IMP) of the NRD. An eligible NRD would need to create or change their IMP to reference and explicitly state their intention to use the four tools in section 2-3226.04 (listed above) to be an eligible NRD for bonding and occupation tax authority.

The IMP process is a process outlined in Nebraska law that requires the NRD to work together with DNR and local stakeholders to develop their plan. I believe this will allow local people to have greater influence in the process.

With this background, let us discuss the four tools and how they may help bring a stabilizing effect to our local economies.

Vegetation management and removal has already been a great success in increasing water in the stream and increasing the stream capacity. This has short-term benefits and long-term benefits. It reduces unwanted water consumption and increases the efficiency of the stream. More water and efficiency of the stream reduces the likelihood of entering a water-short year, which lessens economic uncertainty for agricultural production in the area.

The volunteer retirement of irrigation rights can help with the long-term sustainability of the basin water supply and compact compliance. Allowing the NRDs to compensate these retirements softens any negative economic impact of reduced production in the area. This is definitely better than uncompensated shutoffs and the instability that brings to the economy.

The augmentation of the river flows is a tool that can build long-term flexibility into the basin. An augmentation project would allow water managers to time the adding of water to the stream, maximizing our compact credit and our use of water. This too reduces the likelihood of entering into a water-short year, avoiding potential shutoffs, and building in more certainty into agricultural production in the basin.

Lastly, the purchase or lease of ground and surface water so it is not diverted from the stream is a short-term option, which should only have limited use when necessary.

All of these tools build flexibility into the management of water in the Republican River Basin, and are available to locally elected officials. Without these tools, the potential of negative economic impacts during dry years in the future is much higher.

As I said in previous letters, a large reduction in irrigated agriculture will affect the funding of schools, emergency services, and our communities. We cannot afford to divide into different competing groups who are unwilling to work together. Instead, let us commit to finding solutions that can sustain our way of life in the best part of Nebraska, the Republican River Basin.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns regarding this issue, or any other issue, please, call my office at 402-471-2805 or for more information you can view my legislative website at http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist44/

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State Sen. Mark Christensen
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