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Neb. lawmakers advance water task force proposal

Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- A proposal to identify long-term water conservation projects in Nebraska cleared a key hurdle in the Legislature Thursday, but lawmakers will likely scale it back to reduce its cost.

Lawmakers gave first-round approval to a bill that would create a 28-member water task force. The group would identify water-project needs, organize them and recommend a set of priorities to the Legislature.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege introduced the bill in the wake of a summer drought that stressed farms, ranches, cities and private wells. Agriculture consumes the vast majority of Nebraska's water.

"Water is life," said Carlson, chairman of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee. "The drought of 2012 helped us realize that our water supply is not unlimited. We must manage our water resources well through future generations, for the benefit of all Nebraskans."

Some lawmakers questioned the measure's cost and whether a future Legislature would have the political will to enact the task force's suggestions, particularly if it involves millions of dollars in new spending.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said the task force recommendations might never come to fruition unless lawmakers are willing to act on them. If lawmakers choose to spend on canals, dams, and other water projects, he said, they likely would have to divert money away from K-12 school funding.

"What if it says we need to spend $1 billion in dams over 20 years?" Lathrop said. "There's no point in doing a study unless we're prepared to pay for it."

Carlson said the task force would focus on ways to retain more water in the northern and western parts of the state, so more can flow south and east in drier years. The task force would focus on ways to maintain water quality and quantity, he said.

The proposal would cost about $3 million, mostly for consultants and research within a six-month window between June and December. The task force would send its recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 31, 2014.

Carlson is proposing using about $1.3 million from the state's general fund and an additional $1.7 million left over from a state environmental study of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline-study money has since moved back into the general fund.

The task force would include all 16 members of the state's Natural Resources Commission, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, and Carlson, the Natural Resources Committee chairman.

Gov. Dave Heineman would appoint 10 others to represent public power, irrigation interests, cities, agriculture, manufacturing and outdoor recreation.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers will likely reduce the bill's scope to help it fit within the upcoming two-year budget. Mello said lawmakers might turn to the University of Nebraska to help with research or they could give the task force more time to complete its review.


The bill is LB517