By Nate Jenkins
Associated Press Writer
OGALLALA (AP)—State lawmakers got an earful Tuesday from water officials, farmers and others concerned that irrigation cutbacks and outright shutdowns in the Republican River basin might be too high on the state’s list of options for dealing with water problems.
Officials from across the state pleaded for alternatives to an irrigation shutdown, an option that Gov. Dave Heineman’s administration has suggested, during a legislative committee hearing held near Lake McConaughy—the state’s largest above-ground pool of irrigation water.
“If you start down the road of regulations, where does it stop?” asked Kent Miller, manager of the North Platte-based Twin Platte Natural Resources District.
Ceasing to irrigate thousands of acres may seem like the simplest solution, Miller said, but he called it one of the most impractical and punishing options because of the high cost of buying farmers out and the damage it would have on the economy.
Miller’s district is trying to find ways to put 7,700 more acre-feet of water into the Platte River over the next decade to comply with a three-state agreement designed to boost Platte River flows to protect threatened species. The agreement includes Colorado and Wyoming.
Some of those doing the loudest talking Tuesday were lawmakers themselves—namely those representing heavily irrigated regions.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to solve our problems without shutting people’s doors,” said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege.
Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any other state, and people outside the state’s metro areas complain that urban residents don’t understand irrigation’s importance to the state’s economy.
Last month, state water officials said an irrigation shutdown in parts of the Republican River basin during “water-short” years would be a last resort after exhausting other ways to comply with the three-state Republican River compact.
Nebraska has used more water than allowed in recent years under the compact, which includes Kansas and Colorado; an arbitrator said this summer that Nebraska’s compliance plan is inadequate.
State officials have said they haven’t yet determined which areas might be off-limits to irrigation during water-short years—defined as years when Harlan County Lake near the Kansas border is less than about one-third full.
The locally elected boards of natural resources districts will be asked to sign off on a shutdown; if they don’t, a state water board could force the restrictions.
State Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, whose district includes the Republican River basin, presented several options Tuesday to avoid a shutdown. Among them:
• Moving water from water-rich basins to those struggling to comply with water agreements;
• Taxing irrigators to generate money to buy water and take other steps; and,
• Reducing evaporation from lakes that hold irrigation water.
The latter option, other water officials said, could be accomplished by storing water underground.
Christensen also suggested “water budgeting” for farmers to establish their water needs for certain crops in different parts of the state. If they meet budgets designed to encourage water conservation, they would earn credits they could use for irrigation.
He is expected to present a bill during the upcoming legislative session that would allow more natural resources districts to set per-acre irrigation taxes. A similar law targeting Republican basin irrigators has been stymied by a lawsuit that claims it is unconstitutional because it only applies to basin districts.
Meanwhile, a lack of money to compile the data needed for water budgeting and other options has left the state without alternatives to irrigation shutdowns, said one water official.
Brian Barels, manager of water resources for the Nebraska Public Power District, asked lawmakers to take a long-term view as they consider water spending.
“We’re not doing the necessary planning,” Barels said.