Expanded water rights transfers proposed

A landowner temporarily could transfer a surface water appropriation to a local beneficial use program under a bill heard by the Natural Resources Committee Jan. 22.

Under current law, the state Department of Natural Resources can cancel a water appropriation if it has not been put to beneficial use for more than five consecutive years unless the appropriator can show sufficient cause of nonuse.

LB714, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Gering, would expand the circumstances under which a surface water appropriation could go unused for its originally intended purpose without the appropriation being cancelled by the department.

The bill would add to the existing exemptions for nonuse. A landowner could transfer his or her water appropriation to a natural resources district (NRD) for up to 15 years for use in aquifer recharge, depletion offsets, maintenance of instream flows and stream augmentation. The bill also would allow the water to be used for up to 15 years by local programs that manage waterways.

Stinner said the bill would ensure that Nebraskans’ water rights are protected from cancellation if they decide to participate in projects designed to preserve the state’s water resources.

David Wolf, testifying on behalf of the North Platte Natural Resources District board of directors, spoke in favor of the bill. He said farmers in his district are hesitant to transfer their water to the NRD for local beneficial use programs because only federal and state programs are explicitly exempted from nonuse in current law. This makes it difficult for the NRD to meet its water management obligations, which include mitigating the depletion of the Platte River, he said.

“LB714 would give the district more flexibility with willing surface water partners without these partners being in danger of losing their surface water appropriations,” Wolf said.

Jeff Fassett, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, testified in a neutral capacity. He said existing law already may cover the type of transfer in question.

“We believe existing statutes really do cover the circumstance involved,” he said. “Perhaps the various producers need to understand what existing law provides for now.”

No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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