Last year, the Legislature passed LB 517, which created the Nebraska Water Funding Task Force. I was appointed to serve on the task force, which met throughout the interim. The task force was to focus on the long-term sustainability of water resources in our state.
The strategic plan established by the task force expresses a vision for funding priorities and financing mechanisms. It identifies options for a significant, stable source of funding, which will be used to help pay for water programs, projects, and activities. It also identifies a system to distribute funds across the state for projects that rank high using a new set of evaluation criteria that emphasizes sustainability.
Three bills were introduced as a result of the task force’s recommendations. LB 940, introduced by task force member Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala, would create the Water Sustainability Fund. It seeks a one-time $50 million transfer from the Cash Reserve Fund in 2014 to be used to fund programs, projects, and activities identified by the task force. LB 1046, introduced by Holdrege Senator Tom Carlson, the chair of the task force, seeks an annual appropriation of $50 million in general funds, beginning in 2015.
LB 1098, also introduced by Senator Carlson, restructures the Natural Resources Commission. It authorizes the commission to adopt rules and regulations to ensure that the funding process establishes and utilizes criteria upon which projects, programs, and activities will be ranked and prioritized according to the water sustainability goals established by the commission.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Nebraska. Farmers in our state irrigate more acres than any other state in the United States. Although, on average only 1% of groundwater storage has been depleted in Nebraska, models show that groundwater pumping has reduced base flow in the Platte and other rivers by up to 15%. Withdrawing groundwater can have long-term impacts on surface water by reducing discharge to streams, as well as lasting effects on groundwater-dependent users, ecosystems, and surface water and groundwater quality. This reiterates the importance of reaching water sustainability, which means that on average, we don’t use any more water than what our supply gives us.
Furthermore, we must keep in mind that we have to protect the domestic use of water, which is our primary priority. Declining water supplies threaten not only the agriculture industry, but the production of electricity and energy, municipal drinking water and wells, recreation, tourism, and conservation, as well as Nebraska’s ability to comply with compacts, contracts, and agreements.
Currently, the state funds approximately $3 million annually through the Resources Development Fund for water-related projects. However, there are more than $900 million of proposed water sustainability projects that need funding throughout the state. Projects that have committed local and partner resources and funding will be given additional consideration.
The public hearing on LB 940 and LB 1046 will be held before the Appropriations Committee on February 18. The hearing on LB 1098 will be held before the Natural Resources Committee on February 26.
If you have any comments on the water bills or any other legislation before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact my office. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.