With new cash infusion, Nebraska commission prepares for projects to protect water supply



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LINCOLN, Nebraska — With a new cash infusion, members of Nebraska's Natural Resources Commission are laying the groundwork for projects intended to preserve the state's long-term water supply.

The commission received $21 million this month as part of a new state water sustainability law, and is expected to collect $10 million to $11 million annually for water management and flood-control projects.

The law was passed in the midst of recent drought years and legal fights with Kansas over access to the Republican River, which runs through southern Nebraska. Lawmakers spent much of this year's session developing a water policy to ensure that Nebraska doesn't overuse its water supply, as it has in the past.

The law also expanded the commission from 16 to 27 members to include new representation for cities, agriculture, manufacturing, public power districts and wildlife groups, among others.

Before it can act, the commission needs to develop rules and criteria for groups that apply for water-project funding, said Rex Gittins, the commission's administrative director.

The commission can distribute the money through grants and loans to local governments, or it can use the money to buy land for dams and reservoirs. The law is intended to distribute money as equitably as possible throughout the state, with priority to federal mandates, but the commission still has to work out the details. Members will meet again in August for a progress update.

Nebraska must also stay mindful of its obligation to Kansas under the Republican River Compact. The 1943 compact between those two states and Colorado requires Nebraska to send water downstream to Kansas.

The agreement allocates 49 percent of the river's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado. Kansas has long accused Nebraska of violating the compact by allowing farmers to divert more than their legal share of the river's water for their private use.

The initial money from the law will help pay for a backlog of projects that were approved by the commission but not funded, said commission member Dick Mercer, a retired farmer from Kearney. The commission previously got about $3.1 million annually for water and land conservation projects.

"To put it bluntly, we finally have some money for projects that can sustain our water," Mercer said.

Lawmakers specified that some of the money will pay for Omaha sewer upgrades, higher levees around Offutt Air Force Base and irrigated cropland in central Nebraska. Taking the farmland out of production will help recharge the groundwater supply and ease pressure on the Platte River in dry years.

The newly expanded commission will then decide on projects that could include new canals, lakes and additional water research. Commission member Joseph Hergott, of Hebron, said he wants to see additional projects that will capture more rainwater and prevent runoff.

"I think it's a step in the right direction, and I'm glad to see we're addressing this problem," Hergott said. In the past, "I just felt that it hasn't received the priority that I felt it needed. I think people are realizing the value of water."

Clint Johannes, a commission member from Richland, said the larger commission could mean more conflict between groups that are competing for water. At the same time, he said, the combination of virtually every state water interest could give the group more sway in the Legislature when they agree.

"It gives us a unified voice," he said.

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