Water Augmentation Projects, Climate Response Among Legislative Topics

Feb. 11, 2021, 4:29 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The state's role in water augmentation projects, and how to respond to climate change, are among subjects being considered by the Legislature. NET News' William Padmore talked to legislative reporter Fred Knapp about these and other topics.

Padmore: The Nebraska Legislature continues to hold hearings on various proposals under consideration this year, and here to talk about some of them is in T news legislative reporter Fred Knapp. Fred, what should we be keeping our eyes on?

Knapp: One interesting proposal recently was a bill by Senator Mike Groene to require groups who want to build so-called “water augmentation projects” to get permission from the state. Those projects are the ones that involve taking water that would have been used for irrigation and instead of pumping it into a stream or a river. They’ve been used by local natural resources districts to ensure that Nebraska delivers enough water to Kansas via the Republican River to avoid being fined for violating an interstate compact. Senator Groene argued that they affect the entire state and the state should have a say.

Groene: The aquifer – Ogallala aquifer -- belongs to all of us, the Republican River flow belongs to all of us. And all the people in the state of in Nebraska should have a voice in when we do these things.

Knapp: On the other hand, lawyer Don Blankenau, representing the natural resources districts, opposed the proposal. Blankenau said the way the bill is written, water from the augmentation projects would be considered appropriated, which could prevent people downstream from using it. He used the example of NCORPE, which is a project in Lincoln County, that pumps water into the Republican River in dry years.

Blankenau: NCORPE provides augmentation water during certain years to the Republican River basin expressly to allow both surface and groundwater users to take water when they otherwise would be shut down. Had NCORPE been required to operate under this bill, thousands of water users would have been shut off, and the state of Nebraska may have been exposed to yet another suit by Kansas. So Kansas might have been happy with this bill but the costs in Nebraska users and taxpayers would have been enormous.

Knapp: Blankenau also said the resources districts had consulted closely with the state on the effects before going ahead with the project. And Tom Riley, director of the Department of Natural Resources which would issue the permits required under Groene’s proposal also opposed the bill.

After hearing their opposition, Groene said he's willing to have the idea studied further, but he insisted more thought needs to be given to future projects, which he said pipe water directly into rivers that would otherwise have taken decades to seep there naturally.

Groene: Man is altering that natural system. We're taking water that's meant to go to the river 50 years from now, and pumping it in now. We’re skipping two generations of groundwater users for domestic and livestock by pumping water into the creek, affecting the timing. If we want to do that for the present -- live today, not worry about tomorrow – I’m with it. I made a good living off an irrigated farm, but I have a little bit better conscience than that. We need to have a statewide plan on this.

Padmore: So it sounds like the bill might lead to further study. What else is going on, or coming up?

Today, there was a hearing on the bill to give the University of Nebraska $250,000 to develop an action plan to respond to climate change. Al Davis representing the Sierra Club, said it builds on a 2013 study that found by 2075, North Platte would have a climate similar to Lubbock, Texas today.

Davis: Lubbock is 600 miles south of North Platte. Nebraska Sandhills represent one fourth of the land area of the state of Nebraska and are extremely fragile, and it is unlikely that the prairie grasses, which survive and thrive there could remain viable with the sustained heat and hot nights typical of Texas weather. I don't need to tell you what hundreds of miles of free moving sand would do the remainder of the state and the thousands of Nebraskans who make their living on the land.

Mark Whitehead who was speaking for the Nebraska Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association opposed the bill. He didn't take a position on the merits, but he opposed the funding source, which would divert money from the industry-funded Leaking Underground Storage Tank fund, or LUST. He said industry doesn't cause climate change, it just supplies products that people want to use.

Padmore: So, looking into the future, what's coming up next?

Knapp: Well, the

Legislature is off Friday and Monday. But next week, there's the preliminary budget. There's a bill on redistricting that attempts to eliminate consideration of political affiliation in drawing district lines. There's a proposal to increase the term limits from two terms to three for Legislature. There's the winner-take-all Electoral College vote proposal.There's a proposal for to require voter ID --photo ID -- to vote. And there's one for the legalization of marijuana.

Padmore: Oh boy -- photo ID, the budget, marijuana legalization -- some fun stuff coming up.