Nebraska farmers might be reimbursed for surface water taken by the state to send to Kansas, under a bill advanced by Nebraska lawmakers Tuesday.
The bill (LB 522), sponsored by Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, recently advanced on a 27-0 vote with amendments. Senators plan to continue to amend the bill, however, before it would move to select file and final passage.
Christensen proposed the bill because residents of the Republican River Basin irrigation district in southern Nebraska have lost access to much of their surface water from the Republican River during the drought.
After amendments, the bill would use money from the state’s general funds to compensate farmers for the water they cannot use. The amendments set a cap of $10 million each fiscal year to pay the farmers.
Christensen said that expenditure would not be too much.
“We can work around the priorities and needs of the state and do it in a fiscally responsible method,” he said.
Supporters of the bill discussed the importance of water to every aspect of Nebraska’s economy.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton said the loss of water has a “ripple effect” because it can impact the ability to pay taxes, which will affect local schools and communities.
“The decisions we make today are going to be critical to the future of our entire state’s economy,” Dubas said.
Because the Republican River runs from Colorado through Nebraska and into Kansas, Nebraska long ago entered into a compact with Colorado and Kansas to determine the rights to the water. Under the interstate compact, Nebraska is required to permit a certain volume of river water to flow into Kansas.
The compact caused senators to question who owned the rights to the water being compensated with the bill.
“Where does compensation start? Where does it stop? And who owns the water? And who has the responsibility?” Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff asked.
Harms added that he was not against the bill but wanted the body to consider its ramifications.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins asked if federal crop insurance would compensate these farmers for their losses, rather than the state general funds.
Christensen said that crop insurance will not decide how much affected farmers would receive until May 26, which would be too late to plant corn.
He also said that insurance would be more likely to reimburse for natural disasters rather than the state use of water.
“If I knew (insurance) was paying, I would’ve lifted the bill,” Christensen said.
Many senators said Christensen’s bill emphasizes the need for a long-term, sustainable plan for solving water issues that Nebraska faces.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege proposed a bill (LB 517) earlier this session, which was advanced, that would create a task force to research water issues that many said could help with this problem.
Christensen agreed a long-term plan is necessary, but wants to help those struggling this year.
“I want to make sure this year is taken care of because the farmers got blindsided,” Christensen said.
First published in the April 24 issue of the North Platte Bulletin.