When the board members and staff of Nebraska's natural resources districts get together, as they did in Lincoln in late January, the debates over water and irrigation issues are far from boring.
They arrive in Lincoln in late January each year to review bills introduced in the Unicameral. Delegates representing the state's 23 NRDs spend several hours in serious, sometimes heated debate, before their association takes positions on the measures.
Another wave of water-related bills was introduced early this session, including those seeking more state money for research and water projects to help resolve conflicts.
And water certainly brings out the conflicts. Nebraska vs. Kansas. Local vs. state vs. federal control. Surface water irrigator vs. groundwater pumper. Irrigation vs. municipal uses. Sometimes even NRD vs. NRD.
Water fights: It's an ages-old story in Nebraska, but one that emerges regularly in a state with some 8 million irrigated acres irrigated, and considering the vast aquifers under the state. Now, throw in a drought and more reliance on irrigation water, those issues become more intense.
It was Mark Twain, I believe, who said, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting." He must have been referring to Nebraska.
Groundwater levels are showing declines after 2012, in some cases steep ones.
Last year was the 40th anniversary of the NRD system in Nebraska. Before they came into being in 1972, there were more than 150 local units of government addressing soil and water conservation, watersheds and drainage. Today, the 23 districts are formed roughly along river basin boundaries. The boards are elected locally and have, among many responsibilities, authority to manage groundwater use.
And in spite of claims that board members, many of whom are irrigators themselves, are loathe to curb groundwater use, they've responded quite well in managing this resource in my view. I'm impressed with many of their actions, including at least six districts that allocate the amount of groundwater irrigators can pump each year.
One hundred percent local control of groundwater really doesn't exist, however. Through those 40 years of NRDs, the state has inserted itself more into NRD decision making. The NRDs have to work with the state—Nebraska Department of Natural Resources--in writing and carrying out management plans for groundwater use.
The state today decides whether a river basin's total water supply is in balance with water uses. Its process in making those determinations isn't always clear, or one favored by many of the districts. NRDs in state-designated fully or over-appropriated basins can't allow new groundwater wells, unless some offset water is found.
The feds through the heavy-handed endangered species law erodes local control, too. NRDs in much of the Platte River Basin must manage groundwater use to maintain or increase flows in the river. Many times that means incentive programs to retire irrigated acres.
In the past few years, NRDs that have integrated management plans with the state were given power to levy an occupation tax on irrigated acres. Three NRDs have done so in the Republican River Basin to help them develop projects to reduce irrigated acres or to get more water in the river.
The districts have many other functions, too. Their ability to levy property taxes funds conservation practices for landowners and helps build watershed structures. They offer cost-share to encourage tree planting and to help fund recreational trails.
To be sure, this unique system of natural resource management in Nebraska receives some criticism. But local decision makers know best the issues important within their NRD and how to address them.
Often they work with other agencies to accomplish their projects.
Sometimes NRDS find themselves short of candidates for board elections. That shouldn't be the case. If you want to be a part of helping manage your local natural resources, run for election in your district. Running for election and providing your input is more productive than complaining about NRD actions.
Considering the local control aspect, the districts' taxing authority and the partnerships NRDs carry out with other local, state and federal agencies, I'm always surprised to hear no other state has followed Nebraska's lead.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state's natural resource leaders and legislators knew what they were doing when they devised the NRD concept.