Nebraska bill would compensate surface water users

Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Farmers in the Republican River Basin could get paid by the state if Nebraska cuts off their access to surface water, under a bill that won first-round approval Tuesday from lawmakers.

The bill was advanced in the midst of drought fears and repeated legal battles involving the Republican River. Lawmakers voted 27-0 to move the bill through the first of three readings.

The bill by Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial would make up to $10 million available over the next two years to compensate surface-water irrigators. The measure would cap the payments at $300 per acre. Christensen said the state has traditionally given a right to users with a permit to tap the resource.

"We're constantly complaining here on the floor about the feds taking something from us," Christensen said. "Now, it's a little different. We've got the state taking something. Are we going to allow that to happen?"

The state Department of Natural Resources issued an order in January requiring additional conservation measures in the river basin to help Nebraska comply with a long-standing agreement with Kansas and Colorado. The 1943 compact dictates that Nebraska gets 49 percent of the Republican River's water, Kansas gets 40 percent and Colorado gets 11 percent.

The bill was advanced in the midst of drought fears, and concerns over a 1943 water-sharing agreement with Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. Kansas has claimed that Nebraska violated the compact by over-using water.

The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources recently mandated the release of water from four reservoirs in the Republican River Basin, to keep the state from violating the Republican River Compact. The order came after the department warned that drought conditions would require extra conservation by irrigation districts that use surface water and natural resources districts that oversee groundwater.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said the state's natural resource districts need to find a sustainable way to manage water. Without a long-term management plan, he said, water users will continue asking for state money.

"Until we address this problem, we will always have somebody coming back to the Legislature, saying 'I didn't get to use water,'" said Lathrop, a member of the Agriculture Committee. "The question is, are we managing it properly, or ignoring the problem?"

Lawmakers have already given tentative approval this year to a longer-term water study that would identify conservation projects, despite questions about its cost and whether lawmakers will follow its recommendations in the future. The water task force would organize a set of water-project needs and report back to the Legislature by January 2014.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala, a western Nebraska cattle farmer who heads the Agriculture Committee, said he had concerns about how water users should be compensated. Some surface water users are considered "senior" and have first access to the water, and Schilz said it wasn't clear whether payments from the state would get divided in a similar fashion.


The bill is LB522