Compensation for irrigators advanced

Senators advanced a bill April 23 that would provide compensation to members of irrigation districts.

The state Department of Natural Resources adopted a regulation in 2006 to prohibit surface water appropriators from storing or diverting in-stream flows in order to comply with an interstate compact. A 2007 negotiation between the department and landowners established a compensation schedule for those unable to access surface water for irrigation.

LB522, as originally introduced by Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen, would have required the state to provide financial compensation to irrigation districts affected by the department’s decision. Christensen said the state has an obligation to compensate landowners for the loss of water usage.

“The state has decided that surface water irrigators should sacrifice their water for state compliance because it is easier and faster than the regulation of ground water,” he said. “Surface water [irrigators] should not be a sacrificial lamb but an equal partner to ground water [irrigators].”

A Natural Resources Committee amendment, adopted 26-0, replaced the bill. The amended bill would require the department to provide compensation to affected water users equal to the current compensation for dry-year leases used by natural resources districts.

A Christensen amendment, adopted 27-0, would place a $10 million limit on compensation provided to landowners under the bill. For both fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15, $5 million would be transferred from the General Fund to the Water Resources Cash Fund.

Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz supported the bill, saying that the state must find new ways to address water shortfalls.

“We need to move forward with the understanding that we cannot operate our water systems the way we have in the past,” Schilz said. “If we do that, we cannot create the opportunities that we’re going to need to be successful as a state going forward.”

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said the Legislature will have to continue to deal with water issues until the problem is addressed.

“If we can set a course this year for sustainability, then I might be persuaded to pay some of those people who are losing money,” he said. “We need to figure out if we are balancing all the interests out in the Republican River Valley or if we’re ignoring the problem because the political price is too high.”

Senators advanced the bill on a 27-0 vote.

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