- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - After struggling through major droughts and legal battles over water rights, Nebraska is moving forward with an effort to keep the state’s water drinkable and abundant.

The Nebraska Natural Resources Commission tapped the state’s new water sustainability fund for the first time in April, awarding nearly $11.5 million to 16 projects throughout the state. The next round of applications runs July 16-31.

Lawmakers created the fund in 2014 and approved an initial $29 million investment, followed by $11 million a year, to help local governments deal with floods, water shortages and water quality issues. They also expanded the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission from 16 to 27 members, adding gubernatorial appointees to represent cities, agriculture, power districts and other interested groups.

In the initial round of funding, several local natural resources districts received money to create more detailed maps of their groundwater. The North Platte Natural Resources District was given $900,000 to buy out farmers who irrigate their crops after the Scottsbluff area overused its share of water.

The largest grant, $4.4 million, will help Hastings with a project to clean nitrates out of the city’s groundwater supply. The nitrate concentration in the city’s aquifer has surged in recent years and is now coming close to the state and federal limits of 10 parts per million, said Steve Cogley, a spokesman for Hastings Utilities.

The city’s utility service plans to install pumps into the aquifer to remove top-level water where nitrate concentrations are highest. That water will go into a storage lagoon for later use in irrigation. A second pump will draw cleaner water from the bottom of the aquifer and reinject it at the top, diluting the nitrates.

Cogley said the $46 million project is cheaper than building a conventional water treatment facility, which would cost an estimated $75 million. The state funding approved in April will help pay for one phase of the project, totaling $7.3 million, and the utility will likely apply for additional state water funding in the future.

Without the money, Cogley said the utility would have to raise water rates beyond the 12 percent increase that was approved earlier this year. And the project - the first of its kind in Nebraska - could serve as a template for other cities with similar problems.

“The knowledge we gain will be very applicable to other communities, and we’re more than willing to share that information,” Cogley said. “We aren’t looking for the Natural Resources Commission to take us off the hook for our responsibilities. But we are looking for partners that might benefit from the information.”

The Hastings project would have been “extraordinarily hard for the city to finance on its own,” said Commissioner Don Batie, a Lexington farmer.

Batie, who was appointed to represent farm and ranching interests, said some commissioners expected to see urban members pitted against rural representatives, but it hasn’t happened so far. Under the law that created the water fund, Omaha is expected to receive a 10 percent cut each year for its $2 billion sewer system overhaul.

“The commissioners recognized that this was going to be a challenge, and they worked hard to ensure there wasn’t an urban-rural split,” said Rex Gittins, the state’s natural resources administration director.

Still, the commission has faced some contention. Commissioner Jim Thompson of Omaha said he was “extremely frustrated” that members haven’t tapped all of the money that was available for projects this year. Thompson serves on the Papio-Missouri Natural Resource District’s board of directors, and a Sarpy County dam project within that district wasn’t approved.

Commissioners scored each project based on a series of criteria, but Thompson said the cutoff for which projects made it was arbitrary.

“It was mind-boggling, in my opinion,” he said.

Commission Chairman Kevin Fornoff said members didn’t approve some of the proposals because applicants didn’t answer all of the commission’s questions, but they’re free to reapply. Now that applicants have seen how the process works, he said he expects more will win approval when the next round of funding becomes available.

Commissioners approved projects in different parts of Nebraska, and many of the grants will let local governments experiment with new ways to improve water quality or recharge their water supplies, Fornoff said. He said he expects more cities to apply in the future as they move to comply with federal clean water mandates.

“The first time, we were trying to be cautious,” Fornoff said. “We didn’t want to just throw money around.”

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