Carlson: Water sustainability key to state's future
ALMA — Nebraska needs to get its arms around the difficult issue of water sustainability statewide if it wants to secure the future of agriculture within its borders, a Tribland state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate told a crowd of farmers and natural resources district officials here this week.
State Sen. Tom Carlson, chairman of the Nebraska Legislature's Natural Resources Committee, made his remarks at Tuesday's meeting of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District board of directors.
Around 80 farmers and other interested patrons attended the meeting, where the NRD board was considering a modification to its "hard cap" irrigation pumping restriction for this year, given the drought pressure area farmers are experiencing.
In the Republican River Basin, special irrigation concerns have existed for a number of years because of interstate conflict and litigation over the waters of the Republican River. A multiyear drought in the early and mid-2000s, followed by dry weather in 2012 and again this year, have exacerbated the problem.
These days, many in the district are openly worrying about the possibility of irrigation wells in the basin being shut down permanently in the years to come.
Carlson, a retired insurance agent and financial adviser who lives in Holdrege, represents the 38th Legislative District, which includes Phelps, southwestern Buffalo, Kearney, Franklin, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. He was elected to the Legislature in 2006 and re-elected in 2010. He is a longtime Natural Resources Committee member and served as chairman of the Legislature's Agriculture Committee before being elected to lead the Natural Resources Committee in January.
On July 12, Carlson — who will have to leave the Legislature in January 2015 due to term limits — announced his bid for the 2014 Republican nomination for governor. As part of his campaign, he and his wife, Margo, have committed to visiting all 93 Nebraska counties by year's end.
In the meantime, however, the senator is embarking on several months of deliberative work related to the quest for water sustainability on a statewide basis.
Last spring, Carlson sponsored a successful bill for creation of the 34-member Nebraska Water Funding Task Force. The group is to issue its final report to the Legislature by year's end.
The panel had its first meeting Friday. Its work schedule will be aggressive, with a total of 28 daylong meetings scheduled between now and mid-December, Carlson said.
The senator said he is determined that the focus of the task force will be the large issue of bringing Nebraska's water supply and usage into long-term balance — not economic or compact compliance considerations. He acknowledged that the topic is a difficult one.
"The idea is to get a plan that's going to work and make us water-sustainable," he said. "I'm not there to make friends. I'm there because we need to do this."
Carlson underscored the importance of developing a process for sustainability and not just continuing to deplete Nebraska's water resources little by little. He compared the situation to a farmer consistently spending more money from his bank account than will be returned through deposits.
"You spend more than what you put in," he said. "Eventually, you're bankrupt."
"hard cap" of 10.5 inches per acre, with a severe penalty for overruns.
The Lower Republican restrictions are driven mainly by the challenges of complying with the interstate Republican River Compact. Carlson noted that in other NRDs and regions of the state, much less has been done to save water, or even to keep track of how much they are using.
"We have a lot of areas of the state that are not doing — and not trying to do — what you're doing," he said.
The Nebraska Water Funding Task Force will include all 16 members of the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission; six non-voting state senators, including Carlson; Brian Dunnigan, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, also non-voting; and 11 members appointed by Gov. Dave Heineman.
Commission members from south central Nebraska include Joe Hergott of Hebron, a member of the Little Blue Natural Resources District board of directors; and Mick Reynolds of Wood River and Dick Mercer of Kearney, both members of the Central Platte NRD board.
Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse is an at-large member of the commission representing municipal water users.
Kevin Fornoff of Hayes Center, a member of the Middle Republican NRD board, is the commissioner representing the Republican River Basin.
The members appointed by Heineman include Brian Barels of Columbus, representing public power interests; Joel Christensen of Omaha (Metropolitan Utilities District); John Heaston of Cozad (wildlife conservation); Tim Luchsinger of Grand Island (municipalities); D. Chandler Mazour of Gothenburg (agribusiness); Roric Paulman of Sutherland (agriculture); Rex Peterson of Gordon (livestock producers); Gerry Dale Sheets of Sargent (public power and irrigation districts); Scott Smathers of Lincoln (outdoor recreation users); Walter Dennis Strauch of Mitchell (irrigation districts); and Lennie Adams of Waterloo (manufacturing).
State senators serving alongside Carlson are Mark Christensen of Imperial, Al Davis of Hyannis, Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, Ken Schilz of Ogallala and Rick Kolowski of Omaha.
Members are tasked with making recommendations for a strategic plan of action, plus funding considerations and other related issues. The task force will dissolve once its mandate has been fulfilled.