Nebraska natural resources chief retires
LINCOLN — Nebraska's water czar, Ann Bleed, abruptly announced her retirement Monday, saying disagreements with the governor prevent her from serving effectively.
Gov. Dave Heineman's office said Deputy Director Brian Dunnigan would be acting director of the State Department of Natural Resources.
In her resignation letter, Bleed said she decided to retire after it became clear that she and Heineman "disagree on a number of significant issues."
She did not describe those issues in the letter and did not return several calls seeking comment. The Governor's Office offered little more information.
Heineman's spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said Bleed and the governor talked Friday about the importance of communicating and coordinating with the Attorney General's Office on water issues that are under litigation.
The state faces legal battles over Kansas' contention that Nebraska has used more than its share of Republican River water. Nebraska also is defending a new law that allows use of property taxes to buy water to help meet those obligations to Kansas.
Heineman, in a written statement, praised Bleed's work.
"Her expertise in water management has been critical in helping our state face our many water challenges," he said.
Bleed, 66, had an annual salary of $105,060 and oversaw an agency with more than 100 employees. She was deputy director of the department from 2000 through 2007, including two years as acting director. She replaced Roger Patterson, who retired.
Her departure comes at a critical time. Nebraska is wrestling with water controversies from border to border.
"The timing is terrible," said Tim Anderson, spokesman for Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, the state's largest.
Bleed was chairwoman of the Republican River Compact Administration, the group of water officials from Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado that is trying to resolve the question of Nebraska's overuse of Republican River water.
In the Platte River basin, Nebraska faces a year-end deadline to complete a plan to roll back groundwater use to 1997 levels to avoid violating a separate agreement with Colorado, Wyoming and the federal government.
In the Niobrara River basin, the Natural Resources Department faces opposition from some landowners, irrigators and others after the agency declared a temporary ban on new irrigation wells until water supply and demand are balanced.
Anderson said Bleed didn't get the cooperation she sought and deserved from some areas of the state as she attempted to coordinate water management, both underground and flowing in streams and rivers.
"She was big on sustainability and long-term thinking. She had the ability to look forward 10, 20 and 50 years. She wanted everyone to understand the impact of their actions, or inaction, years down the road," he said.
"Ann had good and creative ideas. She treated everybody fairly. We didn't always agree with her. But she tried to be fair."
But State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said he encountered roadblocks trying to get information from Bleed, in his roles as a senator and as a member of WaterClaim, a water users' group in the Republican basin.
Christensen said Bleed's departure could help restore trust among irrigators who were unhappy with some of the water restrictions proposed by the agency.
"I'm glad to see the change," he said. "I think it will be a positive move for the state of Nebraska long term."
Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler said changing water czars in the midst of the negotiations with Kansas is worrisome. He said he doesn't know why Bleed would leave so abruptly, although he noted that the job draws controversy.
"I think Ann is in a tough job that is very politically charged," he said.
Jay Rempe, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, said no one had been more dedicated and hardworking in trying to solve the state's water problems than Bleed. But he said it may be useful to have someone who can bring a fresh perspective to Nebraska water problems.