Charting a Course to Sustainable Water Management

4/26/2013 8:00:00 AM

The Chair of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee is no stranger to water issues. Since arriving in Lincoln in 2006 to represent the people of the 38th District, Holdrege, Neb., native Tom Carlson has had his hand in numerous bills targeted at managing one of Nebraska’s most precious natural resources; water. While his experience in dealing with water bills is extensive, his latest venture into the world of water policy is a little different from the rest.

“In terms of concept and idea, this has been the most positive reaction I’ve received on a bill in my seven years in the Legislature,” Carlson said April 11 in reference to LB 517, legislation he introduced to tackle statewide water management.

LB 517 would establish a short-lived Water Funding Task Force to address the long-term, funding needs related to management of Nebraska’s state water resources. Senators gave first round approval to the bill March 28 after adopting a Natural Resources Committee amendment that tweaked Carlson’s original version. The bill, now waiting to be discussed on the second of three rounds of floor debate, calls for a Task Force made up of the Natural Resources Commission, the director of Natural Resources, the Chair of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee and 10 additional members to be appointed by the Governor.

The bill would also allocate $3 million to the Task Force for the production of a report which would be required to be given to the full Legislature by Jan. 31, 2014. The report is to include recommendations for a plan which prioritizes water programs, projects and activities in need of funding in four broad areas: research, data and water modeling needs; rehabilitation and construction of infrastructure; conjunctive management of ground and surface water; and compliance with interstate compacts.

If the initial vote count is any indicator, the bill looks to be on solid ground following a 36-0 first round vote in favor of the measure. According to Carlson, 2003 was the last time the legislature looked to a dedicated study of Nebraska water, and he has high expectations for the current measure and the prospects of what a final report might provide.

“I hope it looks like a 20-year strategic plan for water policy in Nebraska that would have a timeline for projects that need to be done; starting with the 250 water projects that have already been identified.

As a part of that I hope through brainstorming and maybe a working subcommittee we have some actual suggestions for projects that would help us reverse the trend of 1 million acre feet of water coming into the state annually while watching 8 million acre feet of water leave. If we could tackle that issue alone, the work of this task force would be worthwhile,” Carlson said.

Carlson is also hopeful the task force is innovative in its thinking.

“We know water flows west to east and north to south, so we need to think about projects that help intercept some of the excess water in good years and hold it back to help with recharge and have it available so that we can use it. That includes a willing to move excess water from one basin to another instead of having it flow out through the Missouri River,” Carlson said.

Like Carlson, Nebraska Farm Bureau has been heavily involved in the discussions surrounding LB 517. Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Vice President of Government Relations Jay Rempe says the organization is supportive of the bill and the need to achieve long-term planning for water management.

“There are many competing uses for water in Nebraska: irrigation, domestic uses, instream flows, power generation and recreation just to name a few. Proper planning and funding is needed to assure projects and management activities to meet the needs and maximize beneficial use of water for Nebraskans,” said Rempe.

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