Nebraska Task Force Recommends Referendum on Solving Water Problems with Sales Tax

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman’s water policy task force will seek legislative backing for a ballot measure to use a portion of the state’s sales tax to solve the growing list of Nebraska’s water problems.

Additional state money will likely be needed to pay farmers not to irrigate land in some areas. The 49-member body also recommended guaranteeing cities in areas of water shortage a minimum supply of water for the next 20 years.

Water issues include drought, heavy irrigation pumping, depleted rivers and streams and the possibility Kansas will sue Nebraska because Republican River flows at the border don't meet minimum requirements to which the state agreed.

Jay Rempe, task force member and state director of governmental relations for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said he saw significant progress in the five hours of discussion toward balancing water supplies with water demand.

"We talked about these issues, and we started down the road to a solution," Rempe said. "I'm not going to sit here and say we have an all-encompassing solution at this point, because we don't."

A law passed last year allowed the state to declare water resources in areas of central and western Nebraska over-appropriated and to work with natural resources districts to design integrated management plans.

Ann Bleed, acting director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said she's optimistic about the task force's recommendation because the cities and natural resource districts were able to compromise. Under the recommendation, cities would be guaranteed 200 to 250 gpd per person regardless of population growth, according to Bleed.

State Sen. Ed Schrock of Elm Creek, co-chairman of the task force, said the proposal would allow city officials to plan for future development because they should have enough water.

"When you figure that our municipalities use about 3% of the water statewide and irrigators use about 9%, why I don't think there's an irrigator out there in the state that wants to cut our municipalities short of water," Schrock said.

The municipal proposal would guarantee eastern population centers 200 gpd per capita and western counterparts with more modest precipitation patterns 250 gal.

Task force member Gene Glock acknowledged lawmakers previously have shunned the idea of earmarking portions of the sales tax because "they don't know where it will stop." But if the idea is put on the ballot, "then, in a sense, the Legislature is off the hook," he said.

Task force member John Turnbull said the group purposely kept the language of its funding recommendation broad. "If you go to a car dealer with too set a price in mind," he added, "you may not be able to close the deal."

According to Turnbull, "The message from the task force that we need to get across is that we've got to deal with it now or the problem is going to get worse."

Jackson Hole Star Tribune

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