The interim has been a very busy time for me — in some respects it's been more hectic than the regular session. I've put several thousand miles on my car this summer driving back and forth to and from Lincoln, but it has been a rewarding experience.
I am serving on the Water Funding Task Force. The Task Force is made up of the 16 members of the Natural Resources Commission, six state senators, the head of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, and eleven individuals appointed by Governor Heineman. We have been meeting twice a week since mid-July to examine the water needs of the state, so we can meet the obligations we have to other states and still provide water for our own constituents.
Make no mistake about it. Nebraska is an incredibly rich state when it comes to water. Over 60% of the Ogallala Aquifer is located under the state of Nebraska. In addition our recharge rates are much higher than other states due to the soil types we have here. Recharge is water which soaks in as opposed to running off into streams or evaporating. Over most of the great plains, recharge rates are below ½ inch, but in the Sandhills of Nebraska over 2.3 inches of water are soaking back into the aquifer. In fact the average for Nebraska is almost 3 times what is is in the other plains states.
This doesn't mean that everything is perfect in Nebraska. Declining water levels plague Box Butte County and much of the Upper Republican basin. Republican River water issues have driven water policy in Nebraska for many years — to the detriment of much of the rest of the state. The 1943 compact with Kansas makes no adjustment for changes in technology which have modified the amount of runoff generated by most farms. Farming techniques preserve much more water on the land through no-till activities, and this is hurting surface water irrigators in the Republican basin, who are shutoff without access to water which must be passed through to Kansas based on river flows in the l940s. The irrigators are obviously upset about that and have threatened the state with a lawsuit to restore their rights. Ground water wells in the Republican basin have also lowered the water table there, and that also contributes to low flow in the streams and creeks which feed the Republican.
Further east, the cities of Lincoln and Omaha are very dependent on river flows which originate in the Sandhills. Both cities obtain their water from a glacial trough which is situated under 90 feet of sand below the Platte River. In 2012 the water needs of our large cities nearly reached the capacity of the existing wells. What this really means is that any significant long-term drought which reduced flows on the Elkhorn and Loup tributaries would devastate urban Nebraska's water supply.
Certain portions of the state still have fairly serious nitrate problems in their water. Adjustments are being made to the application of nitrogen in those areas with hopes that levels will decline over time, but nitrate contamination can have serious health implications with long-term exposure. This is an issue we need to be concerned about.
It is becoming obvious to Task Force members that Nebraska needs to make major investments in water control structures to retime water entering and leaving Nebraska. The great irrigation projects are constructed and there isn't the political will in Washington to devote significant funds to construct further dams, so we probably need to look at other ways to conserve and reuse the water available to us.
As always, I value your input, and welcome phone calls, emails and personal visits from you.
Sen. Al Davis, State Capitol, PO Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509, (402) 471-2628, firstname.lastname@example.org.