Session Review: Natural Resources

The Natural Resources committee advanced bills this session authorizing construction of a South Platte River canal and several water recreation and tourism projects across the state, including a proposed lake between Omaha and Lincoln.

Water recreation projects

LB1023, introduced by Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, authorizes the state Game and Parks Commission to oversee the construction of marinas at Lake McConaughy and Lewis and Clark Lake and an event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park.

It also authorizes the state Department of Natural Resources to build and manage a lake in eastern Nebraska within the Platte River’s floodplain.

The department may purchase, sell or lease land and enter into contracts for construction and management services related to the lake. It also could enter into agreements with natural resources districts.

The bill requires the department to give preference to contract proposals from a certain nonprofit corporation and those that provide for a public-private partnership.

The nonprofit’s board will include at least four directors who are appointed by the governor with the approval of a majority of the Legislature. It also will include a member of the Legislature and a representative of the state Game and Parks Commission, both of whom will be nonvoting members.

LB1023 requires the department to ensure that the public has complete access to the lake. The land selected for the lake will be owned by the state, and the bill prohibits any private entity from designating any portion of the lake for exclusively private use.

It also prohibits the department’s director and employees from having a financial interest, either personally or through an immediate family member, in any purchase, sale or lease of real property relating to the construction or development of the lake or in any lake-related contract.

A similar prohibition applies to members and employees of the commission.

LB1023 passed on a vote of 38-6 and took effect immediately.

Canal project

A measure passed 42-4 requires the state to build a canal to divert South Platte River water from Colorado to reservoirs in Nebraska under the terms of a 1923 compact.

LB1015, introduced by Hilgers on behalf of Gov. Pete Ricketts, authorizes the state Department of Natural Resources to develop, construct, manage and operate the Perkins County Canal Project.

It also authorizes the department to use eminent domain to acquire land and resolve any legal disputes that arise as a result of the project.

The bill prohibits the department’s director, employees and their immediate family members from having a direct or indirect financial interest in any entity that is party to a contract or from having a financial interest in the ownership or lease of any property relating to the development, construction, management or operation of the project.

The conflict-of-interest provision also applies to members of the Legislature and elected officials in the executive branch of state government. The provision relating to executive branch officials applies while those officials are in office and for two years after they leave office.

Omnibus bill

A bill passed on a vote of 46-0 includes provisions of several measures heard by the committee this session.

LB809, introduced by Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus, authorizes the state Department of Environment and Energy to use the Drinking Water Facilities Loan Fund to buy or refinance the debt obligation of any municipality for a public water supply system if the debt was incurred and construction began after July 1, 1993.

The bill also allows the department to provide grants and loan forgiveness to certain public water systems and municipalities for drinking water and wastewater treatment projects, including certain lead service line replacement projects.

The bill includes the provisions of LB803, introduced by Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, which expand who is considered an immediate family member to include grandchildren for purposes of limited hunting permits issued to qualifying landowners and increases from four to eight the number of permits in the three days immediately preceding the opening day of firearm deer hunting season.

Also included are the provisions of LB924, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, which allow first class cities to apply for grants to cover the cost of deconstructing abandoned buildings.

Finally, provisions of LB978, also introduced by Hughes, authorize the state Department of Environment and Energy to assume authority for regulating the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the U.S. under section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Other measures

Lawmakers voted 45-0 to approve a measure raising the limit on total compensation for Nebraska’s representative on a Southwest Power Pool committee.

The SPP is a regional transmission organization that manages the electric grid and power market for a 14-state region in the central U.S.

LB804, introduced by Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, increases the compensation cap for Nebraska’s designated representative on the SPP’s Regional State Committee from $20,000 to $35,000 per year.

It also increases the limit on aggregate board member pay for activities related to the SPP from $25,000 to $40,000 per year.

Senators also approved a bill intended to help farmers adopt practices that protect Nebraska’s soil and water.

Under LB925, introduced by Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton and passed 42-5, the state Department of Natural Resources will provide technical and legal assistance to a nonprofit, voluntary learning community led by agricultural producers to foster skills and share knowledge related to healthy soil management.

The department will hire a facilitator and may lease private land for the purpose of establishing demonstration and research farms. The department also will submit an annual report to the governor and the Legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources committees from 2022 through 2027.

Nebraska could seek to be selected as a regional clean hydrogen hub under another bill advanced by the committee this session.

LB1099, introduced by Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman, creates a work group whose members will be appointed by the governor.

The group will include representatives from manufacturing or industry, agriculture, transportation and energy. It also may include a representative of a clean hydrogen manufacturer.

The group’s purpose is to draft a proposal which may be submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy seeking Nebraska’s selection as one of four regional clean hydrogen hubs authorized under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed last year.

The bill authorizes the state Department of Economic Development to contract with private consultants to create the proposal. LB1099 passed on a vote of 47-0 and took effect immediately.

Lawmakers also passed a measure intended to give a state agency the ability to respond more quickly to the release of pollution.

LB1102, introduced by Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard and passed 46-0, creates the Nebraska Environmental Response Act.

It authorizes the director of the state Department of Environment and Energy to issue an order requiring a person responsible for releasing a pollutant to clean it up or take action to do so if that person fails or refuses to act.

If the state responds to a release, the responsible person is liable to the state for cleanup costs, which become a lien on any real property owned by the person and subject to or affected by the cleanup.

The director may cause an administrative order to be served upon those the director has reason to believe have violated the act. An order may assess a penalty of up to $5,000 per day per violation.

The director may allow another person, entity or responsible person to remediate site conditions voluntarily under the Remedial Action Plan Monitoring Act instead of issuing a cleanup order.

LB1102 also authorizes the director to issue a cease and desist order if the director finds that a person has performed any act that presents or may present “substantial” harm to the environment.

Finally, the bill requires the state treasurer to transfer $300,000 from the state general fund to a new cash fund that the department will use to pay cleanup costs and collect recovered funds.

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