Anyone who thinks the state can afford to ignore water should read UNL’s 2013 Nebraska Statewide Groundwater-Level Monitoring Report.
It tells of a steep, year-over-year decline in the state’s water table of more than a foot. That is as much a danger to Omaha and Lincoln urbanites as it is to irrigators around McCook or Holdrege.
Even the mighty Ogallala Aquifer has its limits.
Years of legislative studies have explored Nebraska’s water needs — from combating drought’s effects on farmland and municipal water supplies to protecting cities and towns from floods.
Most recently, the Water Funding Task Force recommended new state spending of $50 million a year to help fund more than $1 billion in water-related projects. The Legislature is weighing that spending idea and how to pay for it.
But if lawmakers are going to ask taxpayers for that much money, Nebraskans will need to know exactly what they’re getting and why.
The task force has done valuable work in identifying water problems, and the problems are real.
Lincoln residents can point to their experience with water restrictions in 2012 from historically low flows in the Platte River, a key source of drinking water for the capital city. Southwest Nebraska understands. Few places in the state suffer as much from scarcity as the Republican River valley — even if local irrigators share responsibility. After years of unchecked pumping, they practice efficiencies more irrigators will need.
The dangers of flooding are just as real to Omaha, South Sioux City and North Platte.
Nobody has all the answers on water, but Nebraska can’t afford to look the other way. The state already faces a $5.5 million tab for failing to allow enough river water to flow into Kansas.
To see the extreme, look at drought-parched California. They face a future of lawsuits as farmers and cities fight over who gets the water that’s left.
That’s not the future Nebraska wants, and that’s why action on this precious natural resource is needed. The scope of long-term water quantity and water quality concerns will only grow.
Action may not necessarily mean spending the full $50 million a year on water-related projects recommended by Legislative Bill 1046. Nebraskans need a fuller understanding of the interconnectedness of the state’s ground and surface water systems to make informed decisions on such large-scale public projects.
Addressing that knowledge deficit with research should be the Legislature’s first water priority. Perhaps that’s where sponsoring Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege can find some common legislative ground. Such complex issues require knowledge and trust among rural and urban interests.
Lawmakers and stakeholders need to clearly articulate to the public the specific water problems they are trying to solve. Taxpayers need to know why they need to spend the money, how it impacts them and how they’ll know the spending worked.
State officials need a statewide strategy to work with local entities and address these specific problems. Emphasis needs to be placed on communicating an easily understood plan of attack.
Then spending advocates will be ready to push for reasonable ways to pay for needed projects.
Education first. Strategy second. Payment third. All with the vital goal of protecting water for the next generations of Nebraskans.