- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A couple Nebraska lawmakers are hoping to help the state avoid water problems in the face of drought and other factors by investing in water projects across the state.

Sen. Ken Schilz, of Ogallala, and Sen. Tom Carlson, of Holdrege, both served on a Water Funding Task Force last year that came up with a process for approving water projects. Both now have introduced bills to help fund projects deemed important.

Schilz’s bill would create a Water Sustainability Fund and provide a one-time $50 million appropriation to pay for improvements to existing infrastructure and fund new efforts dealing with flood control, water scarcity and other issues.

Carlson’s bill would provide $50 million annually for such a fund, beginning in October 2015.

“We have to get a point of water sustainability in the state of Nebraska, across the state, which means that on average we’re not using any more water than what our supply gives us,” Carlson said.

The Nebraska Resources Development Fund has approved six water projects costing $36 million, but the efforts haven’t been funded. Those projects, which include recreational and flood control improvements, would likely be funded if Schilz’s bill passed, he said.

The task force report suggested several options for long-term funding of a Water Sustainability Fund, including removing the sales tax exemption from bottled water or soft drinks and introducing a fertilizer tax.

“The general opinion was water is vitally important to everybody in the state and the state should provide most of the dollars to do what we need to do,” he said.

That funding would likely involve revenue from a sales or income tax, Carlson said.

Parts of the state already face water problems.

Last year, an arbitrator appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court said Nebraska should pay Kansas $5.5 million for using too much water from the Republican River Basin from 2005 to 2006. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the arbitrator’s decision this year.

James Uerling, a farmer from Indianola in southwest Nebraska, has been adapting to dry conditions for years.

Uerling had grown wheat and corn, but in 2002 he diversified and also began raising cattle after his irrigation districts stopped delivering water.

It hasn’t been easy.

With water short, he can’t grow enough corn for his cattle and must buy feed.

“I barely have any crop income at all,” he said.

The state tried to take a comprehensive approach to water projects in 2004, but the efforts fell short due to a lack of funding.

“Because we’ve had 10 years of experience and we understand more now where we need to go, this money needs to be used for these projects here now,” Schilz said.

Managing the water is going to be a long-term commitment, Schilz said.

“The state also needs to understand that if we’re going to manage water, we need to manage water for the next 100, 200 years, not for the next 5 or 10 years,” Schilz said.

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The one-time funding bill is LB940. The other bill is LB1046.

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