By Russ Pankonin, The Imperial Republican Co-Publisher
Imagine, that as an irrigator, you could be told that you couldn’t irrigate your ground next year. Frightening thought—even if you’re not a farmer who depends on irrigation for his livelihood.
For farmers whose irrigated land rests near a stream, tributary or river in the Republican Basin, that scenario could become a reality if a closed-door proposal is turned into regulation.
Over the past several months, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been meeting in executive session with natural resources districts (NRDs) in the basin to discuss just such a proposal.
The big challenge for the State of Nebraska (note that I said “State”) is to stay in compliance with Kansas and the 2002 compact settlement when water becomes short on the Nebraska side of the Republican Basin.
When those conditions existed in the basin several years ago, NRDs were able to purchase water from surface water irrigation districts to divert into Kansas to stay in compliance.
However, the funding mechanisms to pay for those purchases have either been declared unconstitutional or remain in district court limbo.
With no funding to buy water, the alternative being pushed by DNR is to shut down irrigation in a close proximity to streams and rivers in the basin.
Oh, and by the way, farmers forced to shut down irrigation won’t be compensated for that sacrifice either.
So far, the only people privy to this plan are DNR, the attorney general’s office and NRD board members, who have been sworn to secrecy. However, someone leaked the plan to the Associated Press last week.
First of all, development of such a plan that could have dangerous implications in the basin shouldn’t be completely crafted behind closed doors.
The attorney general’s office said “some” of the discussion has to be held behind closed doors to keep Kansas from using the information against Nebraska in its ongoing dispute that remains, for now anyway, in arbitration.
Granted, “some” of the discussions do need to be conducted behind closed doors but the other “some” of the discussions should be conducted in open session so the public has some inkling of what’s under consideration.
It’s never beneficial to create public policy behind closed doors and that’s what is happening here. Someone else obviously agreed and leaked the then-secret policy to the press so some sun could shine on the activities taking place in executive sessions.
So, just what other alternatives exist?
The 10-cent tax levy to help pay for water purchases has been declared unconstitutional and it’s up in the air whether the occupation tax paid by farmers will pass constitutional muster.
So now, it’s imperative that some type of funding option be created in the Legislature to allow farmers to control their own destiny.
Presently, the occupation tax is only allowable in the Republican Basin. If this option were made available to other NRDs in the state for water projects, the occupation tax would no longer be a closed class, a condition that would make it unconstitutional.
Gov. Heineman views this as a new tax and has expressed his opposition to such a plan. Frankly, given the option of paying a tax or shutting their water off, I believe most farmers would choose to pay the tax, regardless of what river basin or NRD they are in.
Unfortunately, that’s a choice that’s not on the table but should be. It’s a much better alternative to pure regulation and shutdown.
Farmers deserve the choice rather than just being told what they’re going to do through policy crafted behind the closed doors of government!