LINCOLN — An adage often repeated in the American West says “whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting.”
While no senators raised a glass on the legislative floor Thursday, discussion over a proposal to fund a long-term water policy in Nebraska sure was sounding like a money squabble.
After almost three hours of discussion, Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege persuaded his colleagues to advance a bill that would create a 20-year water sustainability plan for the state. But to secure the 36-0 vote, the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee had to promise some changes before it comes up for the second round of debate.
As written, Legislative Bill 517 proposes spending $3 million to create a water policy task force. The 28-member task force would be assigned to write a comprehensive plan to conserve water for the state's people, agriculture, wildlife and economy.
“Water is our most valuable natural resource,” Carlson said. “Water is life. The drought of 2012 helped us realize our water supply is not unlimited.”
But several senators immediately locked onto the $3 million price for a report, especially in light of past water studies that failed to produce meaningful change.
“It better not be a Cadillac report — it better be a Rolls-Royce,” Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha argued against paying for a study if lawmakers aren't committed to funding whatever priorities are identified. A panel of water experts that worked on the issue last year recommended the state invest at least $50 million a year on new water projects, management and research.
That kind of money could require tax increases, Lathrop said.
“It reminds me of doing an MRI on a terminal patient,” he said. “What are you going to do? If you're not going to do surgery, why are you doing an MRI?”
Carlson said $3 million is an estimate to cover the expenses associated with bringing together a broad range of water interests and professionals for multiple meetings so the report can be finished by early next year. It also would provide money to hire additional staff members at the State
Department of Natural Resources if they were needed to complete the report.
But Carlson said he hopes the task force will end up costing less than $3 million. Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said it will have to cost less.
“When we bring this back up, there will be a new bill with a more narrow scope and a reduced fiscal note,” Mello said.
The bill also proposes allowing Gov. Dave Heineman to appoint 10 members of the task force. Lathrop and Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha both objected to allowing the governor to influence the process with his appointments.
Chambers withdrew a floor amendment that sought to remove language relating to the governor's appointment ability after Carlson said he would work to address Chambers' concerns.
Other senators pointed out that water is critical to the agriculture sector, which accounts for one in three jobs in the state. And Nebraskans rely on streams and underground aquifers for their drinking water. Last summer's drought led to water restrictions in many communities.
While roughly one million acre-feet of water flows into the state each year, about eight million acre-feet flows out. Nebraska needs to figure out how to do more with less water, whether that involves sustaining agriculture or people.
“Do we have the political will — do we think this issue is important enough — that we're willing to invest our dollars?” said Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton.
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