No easy answer to water issue

LINCOLN, Neb. —Nebraska lawmakers don't see any easy answers to a complicated mix of water problems in the Republican River basin.

Only 13 of the 34 lawmakers who responded to an annual, presession survey by the Associated Press said less irrigation, state general-fund tax dollars or a combination of both should be used.

Illustrating the complexity of the issue, a majority of lawmakers who responded to the survey said they were either unsure whether regulations or state dollars were the answer, or didn't answer the question.

"We have already utilized general-fund dollars, and we have already required irrigators to use less water," said Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, one of seven who didn't select an answer.

"Going forward, both local and state government will be part of the solution, and we should not structure our solution to depend on general-fund dollars continually."

Fourteen senators said they were unsure whether regulations or more state money should be used.

Legal challenges have restricted the ability of natural resources districts in the basin to raise money on their own for buying surface water and taking steps to keep Nebraska in compliance with the river compact that includes Kansas and Colorado.

Attempts by Kansas to collect millions in penalties from Nebraska for overusing water in recent years were rebuffed by an arbitrator this summer, but Nebraska was told to come up with a better plan to stay in compliance with the compact.

The districts are working on new rules that would significantly reduce irrigation during dry years, defined as when Harlan County Lake is less than about one-third full.

Irrigators and managers of the natural resources districts say public perceptions that there is unbridled irrigation in the basin are inaccurate and point to statistics showing that the amount of water used per acre is significantly less than it was a decade and more ago.