The writer is general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
Water, on one hand, is the most basic building block of all life on Earth and the most necessary resource in Nebraska’s No. 1 industry: agriculture. It should be of little surprise then that Nebraska irrigates more acres than any other state in the United States.
Flooding, on the other hand, may be the second most recognizable aspect of water in Nebraska, and it is one of the most destructive forces of nature. Historically, flooding has caused billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure as well as tragic loss of life.
The quantity, quality and control of water resources have been issues as old as civilization itself, and they haven’t become any easier or less expensive in the 21st century. Water touches every aspect of life in Nebraska and impacts nearly every cent of economic activity in this state.
A highly spirited discussion and thoughtful analysis of water and its uses was conducted last fall by the Water Funding Task Force. The task force was formed by legislation introduced by State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege and passed by the Legislature last year.
Meetings with water users, agency employees and other water-related stakeholders were held across the state, highlighting a variety of issues in a number of river basins and agricultural settings. The Task Force prepared a study to summarize its findings and make recommendations to the Legislature.
As a result of the study’s recommendations, a number of proposals have been offered in this legislative session to increase state funding in order to address water quantity, quality and control projects in Nebraska.
Currently, the State of Nebraska funds a little over $3 million a year to the Nebraska Resources Development Fund, which assists in sharing the cost, with other entities, of vital water-related projects in the state.
This year, at the recommendation of the Task Force, a number of legislative proposals would raise that obligation to $50 million a year. As with any proposal to raise the amount of taxpayer funds that would be allocated, it is appropriate to have these questions answered: What will the money be used for, and are these needs or simply wants?
To assist in answering those questions, it is worth looking at the sobering numbers discovered by the Water Funding Task Force as they exist today — and what the numbers may look like in the future if the funding status quo remains:
Currently, there are $35 million of projects approved by the Resources Development Fund that have not been completed. Throughout Nebraska, there are $488 million of existing projects being tackled without state funding and another $907 million of proposed projects as identified by the natural resources districts, the state’s irrigation districts and Nebraska municipalities. If you take these figures and calculate a modest 3 percent inflation figure, the need quickly balloons to $1.2 billion over 10 years and $1.6 billion over 20 years.
A $3 million-a-year allocation not only is insufficient to address the current projects already under construction but also is woefully inadequate to address the long-term water resource needs identified in the Task Force Study.
Many times we hear the saying that you can’t stop all the droughts and all the floods, so why spend the money?
It is true we can’t stop all the droughts and floods. However, I liken this thinking to the fact that we can’t stop all crime, so why do we spend the money on a police force and a judicial system?
Quite simply, water is a need and not a want. Without water, there is no debate. That’s because without water, there is nothing to debate about.