Water law worries city users
by David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald

NORTH PLATTE, NE -- Representatives of communities in drought-stricken areas of Nebraska drew a line in the sand Wednesday -- but no water sprang from the ground.

"The economic vitality of the western two-thirds of the state may be stunted if it doesn't have water to serve expanding communities," Sidney City Attorney Jordan Ball said at a meeting called to discuss the state's new water law, which took effect last week.

The complex law will have a significant impact in parts of the state.

It is designed to make the state and its 23 natural resources districts more proactive in anticipating and preventing water conflicts between those who tap rivers and streams and those who pump water from the ground.

Some community leaders in southwestern Nebraska and the Panhandle are worried about how potential allocations of groundwater by agriculture-dominated NRD boards might affect their ability to serve the public. They also are concerned about the impact on economic development goals while a historic drought continues in the West.

"Sidney, McCook, Scottsbluff, Gering, North Platte and many other communities are growing," Sidney's Ball said. "Any community that isn't growing has an intention of growing."

Ball, who has represented Sidney in recent water disputes with the South Platte NRD, said overdevelopment of center-pivot irrigation in Nebraska created some of the water-shortage problems now facing many farmers and townspeople in the western half of the state.

The potential under the new law that NRD boards could require cities to purchase water allocations from owners of agricultural land makes no sense, given that Nebraskans in communities consume less than 3 percent of the state's water, Ball said.

"Shouldn't center-pivot irrigators, who have profited from and created the overuse problem, be required to solve the problem?" he asked.

An audience of about 110 people at Mid-Plains Community College was largely made up of community leaders and irrigators. McCook City Manager John Bingham, who helped organize the meeting, said Nebraska cities need to join NRDs in resolving water issues.

"This is a good start," Bingham said. "Some people feel that LB 962 (the water law) might disenfranchise municipal water users from the process, yet we've probably done that to ourselves."

Nothing has precluded people living in cities from seeking election to NRD boards, he said.

"But I don't think the election process is going to move fast enough to correct that problem because of the important decisions that are going to be made," he said. "We need to start talking with our NRDs more effectively than we ever had before."

Rod Horn, general manager of the Sidney-based South Platte NRD, said it is important for cities to have cooperative relationships with the districts.

"Instead of a negative-driven effort, we need to try to look at it in a more positive light, try to work together," Horn said in an interview.

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