LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A state task force will recommend $50 million a year for water-conservation efforts in Nebraska, but there's no commitment yet to specific projects.
The Water Funding Task Force said Nebraska will need to spend the money to ensure a sustainable water supply for drinking, crop irrigation, interstate water compacts and wildlife.
"We have to have some long-range planning for new structures," said state Sen. Tom Carlson, the task force chairman. "We're not prepared to say what they are, because that would take some additional study and research. But we have to start planning for it."
The task force will suggest at least six ways to pay for the water projects. The options include a tax on soft drinks, an excise tax on ethanol, a tax on agriculture and residential fertilizer, and a severance tax on sand, gravel, oil and gas mining. The task force also proposed removing a sales tax exemption on bottled water, or committing one-eighth of a cent of Nebraska's sales tax to water projects.
Carlson said the greatest need for water conservation was in the northern and western parts of Nebraska. The areas sit upstream of eastern Nebraska, which receives more average rainfall and has a larger population.
Carlson said the task force also agreed to recommend an overhaul of the state's Natural Resources Commission, which manages water conservation programs in Nebraska.
He said the current commission is heavily represented by groundwater interests, who are often at odds with surface-water users. The overhaul would add members to the current commission to give a greater voice to cities, manufacturers, irrigation districts and farmers who rely on surface water their crops.
The 34-member water task force began its work in July and has held 22 meetings throughout the state. It includes state lawmakers, members of the Natural Resources Commission and appointed members who represent cities, sportsmen, irrigation and power districts and farm and ranching interests.
The group was assigned to rank proposed projects based on which does the most to ensure water is used productively and benefits residents. It also was to discuss which proposals were most cost-effective, and whether the state should partner with the federal or local governments.
The report is due to the Legislature on Friday.
In July, the task force awarded a $389,000 contract to a Lincoln-based engineering firm to help develop a long-term plan for the state. Lawmakers budgeted $1 million for the task force when they created it earlier this year.
Carlson said the task force ruled out additional sales or income taxes because both ideas lacked support. But he said one suggestion would have lawmakers earmark a portion of the state's sales tax for water projects.
"You have potentially a number of different sources of funding, and I think this next session will be a trial balloon," he said.
Prioritizing projects will ultimately fall to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, while state senators will end up choosing the best funding source, said task force member Tim Luchsinger.
"What we've hopefully done is come up with criteria for the specific projects to be ranked," said Luchsinger, who works as Grand Island's utilities director.
Luchsinger said task force members agreed that any water project paid for with state money should benefit more than just one area. Projects that conserve quality drinking water would likely receive priority, he said.
Task force members also considered it important to control the farm-nitrate levels in rivers, said Joel Christensen, an administrator for Omaha's Metropolitan Utilities District. Christensen said the need was especially critical on the Platte River, which provides water to a large share of Nebraska's population.
Luchsinger said he went into the task force expecting clashes between farm advocates, recreationalists and other groups, but over time they realized they would all have to sacrifice.
"I think everyone came to understand that there was going to be some give and take on this," he said. "If you stuck absolutely to your position, there was no way this was going to succeed."
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