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December 19, 2003

Johanns favors funding for water
by Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald

Despite the state's difficult finances, Gov. Mike Johanns on Thursday threw his weight behind finding the money to fix some of Nebraska's water problems.

A water policy task force that Johanns helped establish has told the governor that $4.7 million is needed to pay for the financial incentives and water conservation projects that will lead the state toward a sustainable use of water. The recommendations are included in a legislative package that will be presented in January.

"Without funding," Johanns said, "we're not going to get very far."

The group has recommended that the Legislature set aside a sliver of the state's 5.5 cent sales tax- about 1/50 of a penny -- for water projects. Although that's a tiny amount, most veteran observers of state politics say it is unlikely that the Legislature will agree to a set-aside.

Nonetheless, Johanns said the money can be found somewhere. After all, a successful water policy should reduce the amount the state spends each year on water lawsuits, which averages about $3 million.

"The money's there," Johanns said, "but we've been spending it on lawyers."

If the Legislature does not earmark sales-tax revenue, the likely source is the state's general fund.

But the Legislature already faces a projected revenue shortfall of $211 million in the two-year general fund budget and a number of competing priorities for new spending, including reforms to the state's system for protecting against child abuse.

State Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek, a task force co-chairman, said that his colleagues in the Legislature, in addition to providing money, must resist any urge to change the recommendations.

That's because the proposal is a carefully crafted compromise among competing interests - groundwater and surface water users, environmentalists, electric utilities and city water systems. Change any part, and the difficult alliances that led to the overall package disintegrate.

"If this fails," Schrock said, "we are delegating our water to the courts."

Most of the money needed, about $3.5 million, would be spent on conserving water in areas where a watershed is being fully used or overused. The money would go toward incentives to discourage irrigators from using water and would pay for reservoirs and other water projects.

The rest, about $1.2 million, would go toward science-based studies that would analyze the condition of each basin in the state.

The proposal also asks that the Legislature make it easier for local natural resources districts to increase property taxes for water projects.

About 90 percent of the state's water is used by irrigators, and the task force considered, but rejected, paying for its proposals through a tax on water users.

Task force member Ron Bishop, general manager of the Central Platte Natural Resource District, said people statewide benefit from the economic stimulus provided by irrigated farming. Furthermore, protecting the state's water resources benefits municipal and industrial uses of water.

Central to the new policy is a requirement that every watershed in the state be studied to determine how much life it has left in it. Any groundwater hydrologically connected to the state's creeks and rivers would be included in the analysis. Action must be taken to prevent overuse.

The legislation would designate the Platte River west of Kearney as being overused and subject to a variety of mechanisms to reduce use. The first goal would be to return, within 10 years, the Platte's use to 1997 levels. If that is not a sustainable level, additional changes will be needed.

The legislation does not change the dominant philosophy of local control. Natural resource districts would continue to take the lead on managing their water resources. And groundwater rights would remain "correlative," which means that when cutbacks must occur, all groundwater users suffer equally. There is no priority given to those with older wells.

The proposed legislation does not restrict use of groundwater that is not hydrologically connected to surface water. Thus, stand-alone areas of aquifers can be pumped dry, under this legislation. That includes portions of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The legislation also does not include any specific language that would address the threat of other states wanting to draw water from Nebraska.

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