Nebraska senators debated a bill on the state’s long-term water management for a second time Monday before moving it forward, with amendments.
Legislative Bill 517, introduced by Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, would create a task force to address the long-term sustainability of water in Nebraska. About 20 years ago, people thought there was an unlimited supply of water, Carlson said.
“And now we know better.”
Irrigators started limiting the water they could pull out of the ground from about 30 inches an acre per year to about 13 inches and they might need to get closer to eight inches, Carlson said.
“We can do that, if we have the will to do it because our farmers, our irrigators, are smart enough; they know how to get along if they know what they’ve got,” he said.
Carlson said the task force should bring together everyone with an interest in water from across the state, including “people who just need to turn on the tap and have good, clean, cold water.”
Senators brought several amendments to reduce the fiscal impact of the bill from $3 million to $1 million and to address concerns that the task force didn’t represent everyone in the state.
“If we’re really going to spend this much money, then we better make sure everyone is represented,” Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha offered an amendment that passed 33-0 to set the size of the task force at 11 members and include the Omaha area Metropolitian Utilities District on the task force.
The Omaha area includes about one-third of the state’s population. MUD needs to be included specifically, Mello said, because it’s unique and is undergoing what Mello called the largest water infrastructure project in the Nebraska by upgrading its water and natural gas structure for about $2 billion.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he would propose an amendment to the bill before the final reading, after repeating a concern he expressed during first round debate. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources has the power to do what is proposed with the task force, but in the past 10 years it hasn’t, Lathrop said.
Now the legislative branch is going to act. LB 517 would put members on the task force to represent both legislative and executive branches of Nebraska’s government, but senator members wouldn’t have a vote. Carlson said the voting members in the task force need to be experts and there are no senators with expertise in water issues.
“We’re housing this in the very branch of government that has failed to act and we’re making the legislators non-voting members and the rationale is this is going to be too complex for senators,” Lathrop said.
He said that in his work as a lawyer, he would educate a jury on how to deal with a complex case and by the time they voted, they had become experts. He said he had more faith in the Legislature to learn and understand the issues and bring them to the floor. If they can’t understand an issue, they won’t get a bill passed, he said.
Carlson and Lathrop both agreed something has to be done about water management in the state.
“Ultimately, our north star has to be sustainability,” Lathrop said. “... Whatever it takes to maintain a sustainable water supply, because we do not want to find ourselves a generation from now where those folks who are in the basins can’t irrigate any longer because we didn’t put our eye on sustainability today.”