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Tuesday, I attended the educational water management event at the West Central Research and Extension Center here in North Platte. The event was a perfect example of the success of the United States Congress’s passages of the Morrill Act in 1862 and the Hatch Act in 1887; first to create land grant colleges with an emphasis on agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote education for the industrial classes, and second to establish agriculture research and extension stations.
The event was also a good example of public-private cooperation. The private organization “Nebraska Water Balance Alliance” (NEWBA) provided research to the forum covering stewardship practices and profitable economic solutions to maintaining long term irrigated farming in western Nebraska. Lincoln County Farmer Roric Paulman has been one of the driving forces behind the work of the statewide alliance. In order to make stewardship of our ground water popular, it has to also be profitable; the NEWBA is providing much of that research.
What we are looking at on the legislative side of the ground water issue:
Sale of N-CORPE approximately 20,000 acres: We are researching legislation to allow the NRDs that own the land a way to sell it off but retain control of the water rights. The occupation taxes, paid by farmers, should be collateral enough for the bond holders. Proceeds from land sales would help pay down the bonds thus lowering the present occupation tax and private ownership of the land would put land back on Lincoln County’s tax rolls. Eliminating government ownership would also eliminate much of the cost of operating N-CORPE’s office. Wells could be maintained by private contractors and management cost shared by all four NRDs could be easily accomplished by present employees of the Twin Platte and Middle Republican NRDs where N-CORPE is situated.
Water Sustainability Fund: Looking at legislative ideas that would guarantee that the majority of the $11 million appropriated annually to the fund are used for agricultural purposes.
1) Provide a voluntary opportunity for farmers, within the five mile surface water sensitive area of the Republican River, to farm individual irrigated quarters as dry-land for a year and then be reimbursed the difference in property and occupation taxes between irrigated and dry-land. We would first have to have Kansas agree to a 100% offset credit of the groundwater saved.
2) Water meters: Use the fund to create a voluntary cost-sharing water meter program for agriculture wells in the over-appropriated Platte River Basin and the Tri-State compact controlled Republican River Basin. Encourage installation of meters on wells that don’t presently have meters or to update existing meters. In today’s precision farming world, water over applied at the wrong time is costly. Eventually, I believe we need to manage the Ogallala Aquifer as one entity. The University of Nebraska’s Research and Extension Services is the obvious entity to increase their involvement in gathering accurate groundwater usage numbers and then recommend sound scientific recommendations on management of the entire Ogallala Aquifer system.
3) Platte River flood waters: We have been discussing with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources promotion of a state driven initiative to work with Kansas and Colorado to create a flood water diversion project to keep the water in Western Nebraska. We may present a Legislative Resolution next year to ask the Natural Resource Committee to start the ball rolling in that direction.
The N-CORPE Project was a reaction to a panic situation that forced 4 locally controlled Natural Resource districts (NRDs) to work together. The vast majority of my constituents believe pumping precious groundwater into a creek to be a bad solution to a worse problem. We should learn from that experience: the groundwater issue is a statewide concern. Hopefully another drought will not bring another panic situation. Decisions made in those circumstances are costly and not the wisest, as N-CORPE’s existence can attest too.
Maintaining irrigated farming for future generations should be our goal. It was heartening to observe the mingling of free market solutions and University Research working together at the WCREC open house. My job is to attempt to bring balanced legislative guidance as the third leg of the solution.
Please do not hesitate to contact my office email@example.com or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.