LINCOLN — Unprecedented snowmelt unleashed record flooding upon Nebraska two summers ago.
Extreme drought took the stage last summer, wilting crops, sparking wildfires and leading to the imposition of water restrictions in dozens of communities, including the state's second-largest.
State Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala recently was thinking it's too bad that Nebraska lacks the ability to hold back more water during days of overabundance for use during days of scarcity. Nebraska doesn't even have a comprehensive statewide plan to deal with water challenges, he said.
“I think we have been neglecting what some have said will be the most important issue of the century,” said Schilz, who makes his living as a cattle feeder and farmer.
He and other state lawmakers say the time to fund a water plan is now. And to pay for it, Nebraskans could be hit up at the cash register under a proposal likely to surface in the coming session of the Legislature.
The Natural Resources Committee has issued a report recommending that lawmakers devote at least $50 million annually for new water projects, management and research. The report even suggests that senators consider a course similar to the one charted in 2011, when they dedicated a quarter-cent of sales tax revenue to roads projects for the next two decades.
Water is just as important as roads, if not more important, said Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial, who is seeking the chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee.
“Without water ... our economy fails,” he said. “Too many people don't see that connection.”
Tapping the sales tax, however, would be a tough sell.
Some still have concerns over what the change in roads funding could do to the state's finances. And other competing budget interests would likely try to dam the flow of sales tax money to water.
Though most of those who support dedicated water funding concede that the sales tax gambit probably won't float, they are serious about making water a priority. If a debate over sales tax leads to a different funding method this session or next, they'll take it.
“It would be an accomplishment if, at the end of the session, most people in the Legislature realize Nebraska needs to allocate more dollars for water management,” said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, also a candidate to serve as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
To write the report, the committee gathered ideas from Nebraskans with the greatest knowledge of water: hydrologists, irrigators, university professors, well drillers, ranchers and engineers.
At the same time, what became known as a blue-ribbon panel of 12 water policy experts with a combined 500 years of professional experience came up with an additional set of recommendations. On the panel were two past directors of the Department of Natural Resources — Ann Bleed and Michael Jess — along with Dayle Williamson, who led the former Natural Resources Commission.
The panel didn't try to solve every water problem in the state, but it tried to encourage lawmakers to put water at the front of the line when it comes to making funding decisions, said W. Don Nelson, a panel member who formerly served as U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson's chief of staff.
“Water discussions have come and gone over the past 45 years,” Nelson said. “The Legislature is like the federal government. They get to the edge of the cliff and don't do anything.”
The panel recommended that the annual funding be broadly spent on research and technology to “grow more crop from the drop” and more efficiently use water in commercial and municipal settings.
They also recommended that funding help develop new large-scale water conservation, storage and delivery projects and be used to maintain the state's aging water infrastructure, which includes reservoirs, flood-control projects, hydropower projects and drinking water systems.
Finally, the report recommends establishing a water funding review body to set priorities and administer the fund.
One of the strongest arguments for using the sales tax to fund water projects is that everyone who shops will help carry the financial load.
As an alternative, the blue-ribbon panel suggested user fees for all water consumers. That means a proportional fee on each glass drawn from the tap, each gallon used at a packing plant and each inch applied to an acre of corn.
The senators who have studied water issues say one of the most pressing challenges Nebraska faces is how to best manage its underground water supplies. While the state sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, North America's largest underground reservoir, the resource is not limitless.
“I think we need to really be concerned about groundwater depletions,” Carlson said. “If we have another year like 2012, it's going to be serious.”
Other states west of Nebraska already are dealing with serious demands on limited water supplies. It's not hard to imagine future pipeline proposals to move water, not oil, from one state to another, State Sen. Schilz said.
Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, the outgoing committee chairman, said of water: “We're at the point now we can't take it for granted anymore.”
Contact the writer: