Water sustainability funds sought

The Appropriations Committee heard testimony Feb. 18 on two bills that would provide funding for water sustainability projects in Nebraska.

LB1046, introduced by Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, would create a Water Sustainability Fund with an initial $50 million transfer from the state’s general fund. An additional $50 million in general funds would be transferred annually, beginning Oct. 1, 2015. The fund would be administered by the state Natural Resources Commission and used for water sustainability projects throughout the state.

Carlson said he considers the bill a companion piece to LB1098, a measure he introduced this session that would restructure the state’s Natural Resources Commission to create a greater emphasis on water sustainability.

He said the newly restructured commission would evaluate projects and fund those that best meet the needs of future generations across a range of priorities, including reducing aquifer depletion, increasing stream flow, managing flood threats, ensuring that municipal and industrial needs can be met, protecting wildlife and promoting conservation.

“We have a tremendous challenge but this is an immense opportunity,” Carlson said. “I think this is the most important decision on [water] issues in my eight years in the Legislature.”

LB940, introduced by Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, also would create a Water Sustainability Fund and would make a one-time $50 million transfer from the state’s cash reserve to the new fund by July 31, 2014.

The Water Sustainability Fund would be used to fund programs, projects and activities identified by the Water Funding Task Force. The fund could not to be used for new capital projects.

Water projects are central to Nebraska’s future, Schilz said, but are underfunded at the state level.

“Water is the issue of the decade,” he said. “Water funding needs to go along with that.”

Mace Hack, state director of the Nature Conservancy of Nebraska, testified in support of both bills. Nebraska needs to bring together urban and rural stakeholders to find creative solutions to the state’s water sustainability challenges, he said.

“The status quo isn’t sustainable or acceptable to anyone,” Hack said. “We really need to commit to comprehensive planning.”

Ron Wolf of the Nebraska Water Coalition testified in support of both bills. Wolf said he understood lawmakers’ reluctance to use the state’s cash reserve for water funding, but said any savings account can be invested wisely.

“One of the best things you can do for economic development in this state is to ensure a dependable water supply,” Wolf said.

Ken Winston of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club testified in opposition to both bills, citing concerns regarding a lack of specific criteria for how the funds would be spent.

“It’s not an objection to the goals,” Winston said, “It’s how we get there.”

The committee took no immediate action on either proposal.

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