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With agreement to compromise, Nebraska lawmakers advance water funding proposal

With agreement to compromise, Nebraska lawmakers advance water funding proposal

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LINCOLN — State lawmakers on Wednesday put off until later a fight over a water funding bill.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha had promised a filibuster against Legislative Bill 1098 unless it put more teeth into state laws that seek to sustain Nebraska's precious groundwater and surface water supplies.

But after a couple of hours of debate, he and the chief sponsor of the bill, Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, agreed to work on a compromise before the measure comes up again for debate.

The deal allowed LB 1098 to advance from first-round discussion on a 34-0 vote.

Lathrop's promised filibuster, and the prospect that it could hold up millions in new funding for water sustainability projects, caused an uproar among the state's natural resources districts, which manage groundwater usage in the state.

LB 1098 sets up a mechanism to award the new funds — about $32million over the next two years — for projects that will retain water during wet years so it can be released during dry years to sustain stream flows and recharge aquifers.

Lathrop has said it doesn't make sense to allocate the money unless state law is changed to require the three NRDs in the Republican River valley to develop a water sustainability plan for the entire basin, and not just their three separate districts.

Groundwater levels in at least one area of the valley have dropped 80 feet, the senator said, which illustrates that irrigators are depleting the resource and current water plans are not working.

Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said the state's current network of 24 local NRDs aren't sufficiently protecting water resources, and changes are needed.

Carlson, and another senator from southwest Nebraska, Ken Schilz of Ogallala, disputed that and said “local control” by the NRDs is working.

Schilz said that while groundwater levels have declined in the region, overall, aquifers have been depleted by only 1 percent.

“Across the vast majority of Nebraska, we are not running out of water,” he said.

LB 1098 also would provide some benefits to the Omaha area. It would allow up to $1.1 million a year to go to Omaha to lower the costs of the city's federally mandated sewer separation project. It would also allow some funding to be used to upgrade a levee that protects Offutt Air Force Base from Missouri River flooding.

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