State might pay some Republican River farmers for not irrigating

April 23, 2013, 5:44 a.m. ·

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The state could pay farmers in the Republican River Valley a total of up to $10 million over the next two years not to irrigate, under a bill moving forward in the Nebraska Legislature. And a study of the effect of climate change on the state is advancing.

The irrigation bill is sponsored by Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial. It says if the Department of Natural Resources prohibits farmers from using surface water for irrigation, it should provide them reasonable compensation. Christensen said the department is limiting irrigation this year in order to keep enough water in the Republican River not to violate an interstate compact with Kansas.

Irrigation adds about $600 an acre to the value of crops that can be produced, Christensen said, but his proposal limits payments to farmers to $300 an acre. "It’s about half of what it should be. I’ve got a lot of very unhappy farmers that I’ve been that aggressive on limiting the amount, but at the same time I’m working with them to say, y’know, we’ve got to work with the state we’ve got to keep the state in compliance, and we also have to meet our obligations," he said.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said the bill tries to address a question of fairness between surface water irrigators, who use water from rivers and streams, and ground water irrigators, who use wells. "If an individual that’s used to using surface water for irrigation and has no well, and doesn’t get any water, the neighbor has a well and will be able to pump a full allocation. So there’s water available. That’s pretty tough to take when you look across the fence and you can’t irrigate, and your neighbor can," he said.

Carlson also noted that irrigators in the area are suing the state, and said he might not continue to support the bill if that continues. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he sympathizes with farmers’ need to irrigate. But he said there needs to be a better plan for managing water in the Republican River Basin. "Until we address the problem, we will have every year somebody coming back to the Legislature to say ‘I didn’t get to use water. Somebody needs to pay me because I didn’t get to use water. My water, the water I would have irrigated with, has to go down to Kansas. So somebody needs to pay me,’" Lathrop said.

Lathrop said he hopes to amend another bill later to allow the state to determine if water in the Republican basin is overappropriated, which would give it more management authority. Senators then gave the bill first round approval on a vote of 27-0.

On another matter, senators gave first round approval to a proposal to study the effect of climate change on the state and make recommendations. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm. "My bill deals with climate change. It’s here, it’s happening, and we will have to adapt. What LB 583 comes down to is, what does science tell us long term so we can plan and we can adapt?" said Haar.

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha disputed the bill’s premise. "I for one – this is a philosophical position – don’t subscribe to global warming – that theory," McCoy said. "I think there are normal, cyclical, rhythmic climate changes that are not caused by manmade attempts."

McCoy succeeded with an amendment inserting the word "cyclical" before climate change. The bill calls for the state’s existing

Climate Assessment Response Committee, which studies drought, to report by Dec. 1 of next year. It advanced on a vote of 35-0.