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MRNRD reaches compromise with surface water irrigators

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

CURTIS, Nebraska -- A compromise was reached with surface water irrigators concerning the occupation tax levied by the Middle Republican Natural Resources District.

By a vote of 7 to 4, directors decided to reimburse surface water irrigators for the $8.50 occupation tax levied on irrigated acres, if timely proof of payment is brought to the MRNRD office.

The motion, at Tuesday night's regular meeting, was made by John Palic and seconded by Bill Hoyt.

It was explained that those who voted against it were not against the measure, but wanted a procedure put in place before implementing it, to avoid legal issues.

Those who voted against the measure were Kevin Fornoff, Joseph Anderjaska, Rick McConville and Brad Randel.

The occupation tax will generate about $2.55 million in tax funds, primarily to be used to purchase and permanently retire Riverside Irrigation District properties. It is part of a plan the MRNRD wants to use to help comply with the Republican River Compact.

The occupation tax was increased from $4.90 to $8.50 and is part of the 2011-12 budget that directors adopted Tuesday night.

The 2011-12 budget will use $703,388.74 in property taxes, with a tax rate of 0.030281, or 3 cents per $100 of valuation.

During the budget hearing, several surface water irrigators contended that the occupation tax is unfair, not only because of the lack of available water compared with groundwater irrigators, but because surface water was not the cause of compliance issues.

The availability of water for surface water users compared to groundwater users should also be taken into consideration, testified Jay Schilling of McCook at the budget hearing.

"The canal system from which I receive water has averaged 3 inches per year over the past 10 years," Schilling said. "Keep in mind this was the maximum allowable delivery and not the actual usage. This is considerably less than the average groundwater usage during that same time period. I believe the surface water users have already made their sacrifice."

Schilling added that surface water projects have not caused an increase in stream flow depletions or compliance issues but that the decline in base flow was caused by groundwater use.

Board Director James Uerling agreed that the occupation tax was not equitable. He produced numbers that had some surface water irrigators averaging 2.1 inches per year, from the Red Willow Canal, or 2.2 inches, from Bartley.

Groundwater irrigators are allowed up to 12 inches in the MRNRD, according to the integrated Management Plan that the board revises and approves each year.

"It would be a monumental mistake to tax people who weren't using any water," Uerling said.

MRNRD General Manager Dan Smith said that Dist. 44 Senator Mark Christensen introduced a bill last year that would have exempted surface water users but it never made it out of committee.

In the Middle Republican NRD, There are 42,500 acres of surface water irrigation and of that amount, about 20,000 are surface water only.

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