LINCOLN, Neb. -A new task force set to work Friday in identifying water conservation projects and funding sources to ensure Nebraska has a sustainable supply.
Members met for the first time to try to address the conflicting priorities for how water is used, from irrigation to city drinking supplies to fishing. Their recommendations - in the form of a list of water projects and funding sources - are due to the Legislature by the year's end.
State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, the task force chairman, said Nebraska needs to develop a new approach to avoid a situation in which the state consistently uses more than it receives. The former chairman of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee said residents in the past have overused water without regard for the long term.
"We thought the supply was unlimited, and we acted that way," he said. "I think most people understand that's not sustainable. We absolutely don't want to get into a bankruptcy situation as far as water is concerned, anywhere in the state."
Carlson said the he will likely push for a funding source beyond the money available in the state's general fund.
The 34-member task force was formed earlier this year. 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.
Sen. Rick Kolowski, of Omaha, said the water issue is just as critical for larger cities as for farmers and ranchers. He pointed to Lincoln, which imposed water restrictions last summer in response to the drought.
Just last week, more than 38 percent of Nebraska was classified as having as having "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions, the most severe classifications on a five-point scale, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report.
Nebraska is also trying to comply with the Republican River Compact, a 1943 agreement with Colorado and Kansas over water use in the river's basin.
The agreement allocates 49 percent of the Republican River's water to Nebraska, 40 percent to Kansas and 11 percent to Colorado. But Kansas has long accused Nebraska of violating the compact by allowing farmers to divert more than their legal share of the river's water for private use
The task force spent Friday hearing from five consultants who applied to help its members research the state's water needs.
The group's task is to rank the proposed projects based on which does the most to ensure water is used productively and benefits residents. It will also discuss which proposals are most cost-effective, and whether the state should partner with the federal or local governments.