Bill would shift commission focus to water sustainability

The Natural Resources Commission heard testimony Feb. 26 on a bill that would restructure the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission to create a greater emphasis on water sustainability.

LB1098, introduced by Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, would increase the commission’s membership to 27 by adding 11 governor-appointed members. Currently, three members are appointed by the governor and 13 are elected to represent river basins across the state.

The bill directs the governor to appoint members that represent diverse geographic regions of the state, including urban and rural areas. The 14 appointed members would represent the following:
• agribusiness and agricultural interests;
• ground water irrigators and surface water irrigators;
• irrigation districts;
• manufacturing interests;
• wildlife conservation interests;
• municipal water users;
• outdoor recreation users;
• public power and irrigation districts;
• range livestock owners; and
• metropolitan utilities districts and public power districts.

The reconstructed commission would be required to establish criteria by which projects, programs and activities would be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals established by the commission.

Carlson said the commission would evaluate proposals 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.

Nebraska can retain its important agricultural position in the country only by ensuring a sustainable water supply for all of the state’s needs, he said.

“In Nebraska, agriculture is our number one industry,” Carlson said, “and now that we’ve just become number one in the nation in cattle on feed – there’s a reason for that. People are leaving other states like Texas because they don’t have the water to raise crops to feed the cattle.”

Clint Johannes, member of the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District, testified in support of the bill. The current commission has done good work, he said, but may be slightly slanted toward agricultural interests and would benefit from broader input from all water users in the state.

“I think it’s appropriate that we have this good base to build on … but that we add all of these other interests,” Johannes said.

Marian Langan, executive director of Audubon Nebraska, also supported the bill, saying the state’s current approach to water issues has been disjointed. Nebraska needs to commit to comprehensive planning and funding to ensure its future water supply, she said.

“We haven’t taken a big enough look,” Langan said.

No one spoke in opposition to LB1098 and the committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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