- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Major water users and regulators in Nebraska would have to come together to develop a water-management plan for each of the state’s river basins, under a proposal in the Legislature.

The bill by Sen. Steve Lathrop would require local and state approval of the plans, which would include input from both surface- and groundwater-users. If the goals outlined in the plans aren’t met in 30 years, the Department of Natural Resources would take over basin management.

Lathrop said the bill seeks to help Nebraska avoid the fates of Texas, Oklahoma and parts of Kansas that are plagued by drought. The Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee will review the proposal Tuesday.

“We are in a position where we can manage (the water supply) and have it around forever,” Lathrop said. “I don’t know how our regulatory structure compares to other states. But I do know that in terms of water management, Texas is an example of how not to do it: Pump, pump, pump until you can’t reach the water anymore - and then grow cactus.”

Lathrop, of Omaha, said he began to study Nebraska’s water problems after noticing the millions of dollars the state regularly spent on irrigators and water projects. Last year, state Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial invited him to visit the Republican River Valley, where Lathrop said he realized that current water usage in the region isn’t sustainable.

Without a consistent supply, Lathrop said, Nebraska will keep struggling to meet its legal obligations to Kansas under the Republican River Compact, a water-sharing agreement that dates to 1943. Nebraska and Kansas have battled for years in a series of lawsuits at taxpayers’ expense.

“You don’t need to spend that much time out in that part of the state to appreciate that we’re using water faster than we can recharge the aquifer,” Lathrop said.

The bill has raised concerns among Nebraska’s natural resources districts, many of which say the plans aren’t feasible. Several natural resources districts plan to speak Tuesday against the measure or in a neutral capacity, said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts.

Edson said some of the surface-water rights were granted as far back as the 1890s, when rivers provided a greater abundance. But the supply is no longer reliable, he said, and the state doesn’t have a sufficient supply to meet everyone’s demand.

Lawmakers have focused heavily on water issues this year, with state budget bills that will generate about $32 million for water projects by mid-2015.

The bill would require irrigators, surface-water users and natural resources districts to work together for a plan that benefits an entire river basin, said Ann Bleed, a former director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Bleed said nothing in the bill requires irrigators to stop using their wells, if other options can be found.

“If we don’t come to some greater equity among all water users - especially between groundwater and surface-water users - we are going to continue to see litigation,” Bleed said. “Certainly, the litigation with Kansas has been costly. When we have water users suing the state or the NRDs, that’s also costly, both in terms of money and the lack of trust that develops.”

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The bill is LB1074.

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