Letter to the Editor

NRDs can't comply with settlement

Thursday, December 8, 2005

There is no legal way for Republican River Basin NRDs to comply with the Settlement Agreement with Kansas. The only authority the NRDs have is to regulate the amount of water that can be pumped from the ground. Even if the NRDs ordered the shut down of every Basin irrigation well for the next 2 years, Nebraska would still fail to comply by the 2007 deadline. Plus, many of the 55+ communities of south central and southwest Nebraska would go broke. The economic devastation would be worse than any natural disaster that has ever hit Nebraska.

The NRDs recognize the threat, but their hands are tied. There is only one way the Basin can comply: import water into the Basin. The shut down of wells will help future year compliance, yet the benefits of shutting off wells will take years to be noticed.

Even if the NRDs wanted to import water into the Basin, they have no legal authority to raise the money needed to finance the project. NRDs are limited to $0.055 per $100 of property valuation. In the case of the Upper Republican NRD, this permits the District to raise a little over $500,000 a year. Most of it is already allocated for staff to collect data and monitor ground water for quality and quantity compliance. The cost of importing enough water into the Basin will require several million dollars a year. Even if the NRDs fired every employee and all the money was used for importation, there still would not be enough water to insure compliance by 2007. 

Given the fact that shutting off every well for multiple years will not solve the problem, given that revenue restraints imposed by the Legislature on NRDs prohibits the NRDs from financing the importation of sufficient water, there is no way for the NRDs to comply with what the State (DNR) committed the NRDs to do.

Therefore, unless the Nebraska Legislature changes how things work, Nebraska will fail to comply with the Agreement, and the State will be responsible for damages. We believe the cost to Nebraska will be between $15 and $30 million dollars for damages caused through the year 2007. This will be paid by the State of Nebraska, as the NRDs simply do not have the cash. The Court will order additional damages to be paid for each year that Nebraska continues to fail to comply and will also order Nebraska to reduce usage or increase supplies to insure future compliance. Nebraska can do this through either forced shut down of many irrigation wells or it can artificially increase the supply of water in the Basin. 

The NRDs have done all the State (DNR) asked them to do and told them would be necessary. The Agreement the State made with Kansas was done without the participation of the NRDs, yet the NRDs are compelled to live by an Agreement with which it is impossible for them to comply. What the DNR told the NRDs was false. The NRDs are not to blame for the problem and neither is the drought. The drought has not caused Nebraska to use more than its allocation. The problem is caused by an Agreement that commits Nebraska to compensating the stream for 60 years of conservation practices and all of the water that has been pumped from the ground for the last 60 years. The drought of 2002 will cause a problem in the future but is not the cause of the current failure to stay within the allocation.

If Nebraska wants to remain in compliance with the Agreement by the end of 2007 deadline, Nebraska has one choice. The 2006 Legislature must take action to permit the immediate transfer of water into the Basin and create a mechanism to finance the transfer. If the 2006 Legislature does not do this, then the Federal Court will order Nebraska to pay Kansas damages in the year 2009 or 2010. 

WaterClaim has devised a method that protects Nebraska and keeps the money in Nebraska. It also protects the Republican River Basin's economy, along with that of the State. The solution has been provided to nearly every water policy maker in the State and is the only idea that results in Nebraska honoring the Agreement.

The cost of compliance is far less than the cost of failure -- not only for the Republican River Basin but also for the State of Nebraska.

-- Smith is director of WaterClaim is a nonprofit organization formed to promote the interest of irrigators. Its headquarters is in Imperial and more information is available at its Web site, http://www.waterclaim.org

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