Water fund and commission restructuring advances

Senators gave second-round approval to a bill April 8 that would create a Water Sustainability Fund and restructure the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission to better emphasize water sustainability.

LB1098, introduced by Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, would require that the Water Sustainability Fund be used to contribute to multiple water supply management goals, fund municipal sewer infrastructure projects, increase water productivity, enhance water quality and comply with interstate compacts or other agreements.

Funds would be distributed equitably throughout the state with no more than 10 percent dedicated annually to sewer infrastructure projects.

Carlson said controlling the state’s water supply is essential to the long-term security of the state’s future.

“We have responsibilities to make sure people across the state have adequate water supply,” he said. “This bill will be a huge move in the right direction.”

Currently, three state Natural Resources Commission members are appointed by the governor and 13 are elected to represent river basins across the state. LB1098 would add 11 members to the commission who are appointed by the governor and represent the following interests:
• agribusiness;
• agriculture;
• ground water irrigators;
• irrigation districts;
• manufacturing;
• metropolitan utilities districts;
• municipal water users;
• outdoor recreation users;
• public power districts;
• range livestock owners;
• surface water irrigators; and
• wildlife conservation.

Carlson introduced an amendment, adopted 42-0, that would require basins including three or more natural resources districts operating under an integrated management plan to develop a basin-wide plan for any areas with hydrologically connected water supplies.

The amendment represented a compromise between Carlson and Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who said mismanagement of water resources could cause the state to fall out of compliance with an interstate compact.

“We’re going to have to start writing checks to Kansas [if we mismanage our resources],” he said. “We need to manage it before it goes so far away from us that we can’t reel it back in.”

Under the amended bill, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee would conduct a biennial analysis of the Water Sustainability Fund, beginning in the 2019-2021 biennium.

Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz supported the amendment, saying that accountability is paramount when funding statewide water issues.

“When the state steps up to pay for something, the state is going to want to know that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” Schilz said. “The state is going to want to know that money is being spent effectively.”

Senators adopted several amendments that incorporated provisions of other bills, including:
• LB391, introduced by Hyannis Sen. Al Davis, which would add “downstream” to current statute prohibiting storing water in reservoirs when water is required for direct irrigation;
• LB710, introduced by Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen, which would require that a natural resources district hold a public hearing before entering into a water augmentation project outside district boundaries;
• LB723, introduced by Christensen, which would create subclasses of irrigated cropland for use in the sales comparison approach of land valuation; and
• LB686, introduced by Christensen, which would extend the annual deadline from March 1 to June 1 for irrigators to file for an irrigated land occupation tax exemption.

Senators advanced the bill to final reading on a voice vote.

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