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A month has passed since the legislative session ended; and after a short respite we now start the process of Legislative Resolutions (LRs). These are requested by senators for interim committee studies and hearings on issues important to their constituents.
We introduced LR323 to examine the issues related to the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement (N-CORPE) (augmentation) project. The Interlocal Cooperation Agreement created by four Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) – the Upper, Middle, and Lower Republican NRDs and the Twin Platte Natural Resources District (TPNRD). Not only do we want the Legislature, led by the Natural Resources Committee to examine the issue, but we also want to give local citizens an opportunity to be heard on the subject, which did not happen when N-CORPE was created.
The TPNRD, which encompasses most of Lincoln County, is involved due to its embroilment in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. Citizens living in the TPNRD area owe, producers downriver, water from over-appropriation of the shared river. When looking at the numbers though, it seems the taxpayers in the TPNRD are paying an equal share of the capital cost, but getting a much smaller benefit from the groundwater usage.
The Republican NRDs are involved because they need to comply with the Republican River Compact, an agreement made in 1942 with Kansas and Colorado. The scare tactic used was that unless we created N-CORPE, Kansas’s lawsuit demanding that Nebraska reduce the number of irrigated acres by 327,000 in the Republican River Basin along with millions of dollars in restitution, would be upheld by the courts. There is no evidence that the court would have agreed with Kansas.
What did happen, is that our 42nd Legislative District – Lincoln County – is now taking the brunt of the effects related to the N-CORPE project. Lincoln County lost 19,500 acres of cropland, which included 15,800 acres of irrigated farmland. Not only did local business lose the sales to the farming operations of the land, but local taxing entities have lost $28.5 million in property valuations and $463,000 in tax revenues. There is also the additional loss of thousands of acre feet of our natural resource, groundwater, lying directly under our county.
Furthermore, area farmers have the burden of being charged $10/acre occupation tax on irrigated farmland, on top of high property taxes that include a relatively high NRD tax levy. The occupation tax in the affected NRDs is generating over $14 million in occupation taxes annually. Of that total, $3.17 million comes in from the TPNRD. Since its inception in 2014, N-CORPE has already spent $21,543,856 in tax dollars, an awful lot of money for an irrational concept of pumping groundwater into a now eroded creek bed. In hindsight, one wonders why rational minds did not look at a long range stewardship plan over the past 30 years; we knew this day was coming.
The Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Senator Schilz of Ogallala, has agreed to hold a hearing in the North Platte area sometime in mid-August.
Some questions concerning government power and transparency need to be answered. How were the preliminary decisions to create N-CORPE and purchase the land made outside of open meetings of the boards? Do open meeting laws need to be addressed on what constitutes an open meeting? When a school or county board decide to build a school or jail, they must seek voter approval. How were the NRDs able to put the taxpayers in debt for an $83 million land purchase, and millions more for a pumping field and pipelines, without the voters consent?
The focus of the resolution is to address the long term consequences of the augmentation pumping and try to answer the following questions: Which entity is responsible for oversight of the project? What are the long term consequences to property tax receipts? Is any harm being done to neighboring landowners, and does this do more harm than good to the long term future of irrigated agriculture in our area?
Our goal for this resolution is threefold: to highlight the burden Lincoln County is carrying for a statewide problem, seek more transparent government through open meeting law revisions, and encourage a search for better answers to the dilemma we face. One idea is to go back to the Federal Government to look at diverting Platte River floodwaters to storage dams in the Republican River Basin, and add new ones in the South Platte Basin. We need to do a better job of stewardship of our groundwater to protect irrigated farming for future generations.
Remember, this is not a debate about us versus them. The Natural Resources Districts and the groundwater they govern, belong to all of the citizens. So show up at the hearing and let the senators on the Natural Resources Committee know where you stand on the future of your groundwater.