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Dear Editor:

In Nebraska we take pride in governing ourselves differently than most other states have always done. We have a nonpartisan one-house legislature. No other state does. We have public power systems supplying electricity efficiently at a cost that’s beneficial to everyone. And we have placed the state’s most valuable resource, our water, in the hands of local Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) to be controlled by the residents of each watershed in the state. These boundaries don’t follow the boundaries of counties, of legislative districts, or of political parties, they follow the watershed boundaries created by nature .

Other states, like California, have allowed powerful special interest groups to gain control of important water supplies, which has led to unfortunate examples of corruption and abuse when one group diverts that water to further their own economic interests without accountability to the citizens.

In Nebraska we believe good government means keeping those who govern close to the issues they are allowed to decide. That requires having issues decided at the most local level possible by members of those communities. The NRDs have a four decade history of dealing with the difficult issues of protecting, conserving and managing the competing claims for water usage. This system is now under attack as never before.

Senator Lathrop has introduced LB 1074 as his priority bill, summarized vaguely as a bill “to change provisions relating to over appropriation designations” and “to harmonize provisions.” That doesn’t tell us much, does it? A better summary would be this: a bill relating to the transfer of all authority for determining water rights in Nebraska. With 72 pages in the bill and its amendment, it takes a great deal of reading and examination to see this bill’s real intent.

If passed, it would have disastrous effects both on this state’s agriculture and on the tax base of many local governmental bodies. This amendment is also its third one. They keep getting refused in committee, but new amendments with the same bad intent keep taking their place.

Two parallel systems of water rights have evolved over the years -- surface water rights and groundwater rights. As with many systems of rights and ownership, the historical fact is that the two sets of rights are sometimes contradictory, and often, more rights for water usage were granted than nature ‘s limited abundance is able to meet. NRDs have worked hard to balance and manage fairly the contradictions and trade-offs between the two systems of water rights.

The language in the bill and its amendment clearly intends to make all groundwater rights less important than surface water rights. The bill itself is not very transparent, as you might expect of any legislative attempt to create a great transfer of power over our state’s most valuable resource. The bill gives the Department of Natural Resources the task of creating an integrated management plan for every river basin and leaves the NRDs to make certain that all but the groundwater users have their full claims on water met. It specifically mentions bringing together for “consultation and collaboration” all “irrigation districts, reclamation districts, public power and irrigation districts, mutual irrigation companies, canal companies, and municipalities” to create agreements to share the water. These are all descriptions of mainly surface water users.
The thousands of current holders of groundwater rights are written out of the picture. This is not how we should “harmonize provisions” for water usage! We have to ask ourselves, is this omission of all the groundwater irrigators just an accidental omission, or is it really the main purpose for this bill?

So the bill does this -- it sets up a way of saying that when any users of surface water can’t fulfill their entire claim to water, it is the groundwater users who must lose. But when irrigated ground becomes dryland, that ground loses about half its value. Rather than making one type of water user become the sure loser among competing claims, NRDs have the knowledge and expertise to work with those competing claims through conservation,  technology, monitoring and incentives to find acceptable ways of managing that limited supply for everyone 's benefit. A distant state agency does not.

Here is the bottom line. Do you trust a moderate number of local NRDs to handle the competing claims of water usage within their own watersheds and be answerable to their neighbors and communities for the decisions they make? Or do you trust a single state agency, in this case the Department of Natural Resources, having to act under the usual pressure of the governor pushing his own political agenda and under the demands of those who put him in office? Are you comfortable with moving the control of Nebraska's valuable water to one big state agency where it is vulnerable to intensive lobbying by well-funded special interest groups eyeing the potentially high payoff of a huge shift in statewide water ownership? Clearly, local control has been the Nebraska choice for decision-making and has proven its worth. Other states have dealt with water differently and sometimes with tenible results. Our reaction to this bill, like water itself, will touch everything we do in the future.

Linda Luebbe, director
Upper Big Blue NRD

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