“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting”

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

The quote is often credited to Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) however even this comes with some controversy as to whether the author ever penned or uttered the quote. Regardless of the origin, the statement does stress how water can sometimes be a point of contention.

Water is an important part of the economic well being of the panhandle through irrigation of crops for food and feed. School districts, counties, rural fire districts and other entities rely on a sustainable tax base that is buoyed by irrigated agriculture.

Water in some parts of the area is plentiful however not infinite. Water conflicts can arise and most recently have involved the supply - primarily too little water. The University of Nebraska’s latest report on state groundwater levels describes the declines, most notably the impacts of the extremely dry 2012. Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NRD) have been charged with protecting the groundwater resource from overuse and contamination.

Other parts of the state face a much different problem and the local NRDs are working to mitigate the impacts of too much water and are wisely investing in structures and practices to protect lives and property from floods. Too much water or too little water – both aspects bring challenges in management and over time have proved to be costly.

To address many of these issues on the state level a Task Force was formed and worked diligently through the summer and fall to analyze the problems and develop a process for resolving some of the issues. One of the primary outcomes of the process was the introduction of legislation to provide up to $100 million dollars of state funding to complete approved projects and initially fund new water projects. In the past, many of the local projects have been funded by property tax revenue collected by the NRDs along with approximately 3.3 million dollars of state funds. It should be noted many entities have planned projects that in time, costs may exceed one billion dollars.

In an era of cutting back and tightening belts, one would say the asking for $100 million dollars is a bold move.  Bold as it may be; the asking certainly does point to the importance of water management within the state and a sincere long term commitment by our state leaders.

At the same time some Senators are looking to fund water projects, other Senators have introduced legislation to shift control away from locally elected boards and to rework the existing groundwater management laws. Currently, groundwater and surface water in the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District (UNWNRD) are managed using an integrated management plan that was jointly developed by the UNWNRD and the Department of Natural Resources along with a long standing groundwater management plan. Local solutions for local problems have been the goal of Nebraska’s NRDs and we should all strive to maintain this. 

“The salvation of the state is the watchfulness of the citizens” is found on the walls of the state capitol. Citizens need to take this quote seriously and let your elected officials – namely the state senators know your thoughts on introduced legislation. Representing areas of the UNWNRD are Senator Al Davis, District 43 and Senator Ken Schilz, District 47.

Your local leaders are also addressing water challenges and preparing for the future. On February 11, the Upper Niobrara White NRD hosted two public meetings to lay out a five year plan for water management in Box Butte, Dawes, Sheridan and the northern two-thirds of Sioux county. The plan called for reductions in the amount of water pumped in the Box Butte County and Mirage Flats sub-areas to 65 inches over a five year period and the establishment of a 75 inch allocation for a five year period for the remainder of the district. The plan is part of the NRD’s long term goal of maintaining and protecting the longevity of the aquifer.

Allocation across the district is a bold move that may not be popular with some, so why even consider it? While not often seen at the local level, there is external pressure to take action when reports and news articles state “Groundwater Declines in Nebraska Unprecedented”. Granted the declines were amidst the unprecedented drought however when domestic wells are running dry and the Platte River is struggling to keep up with the urban demands, people – voters – begin to pay more attention. Local control of groundwater is a responsibility that is not always nor should be easy. Choices and decisions need to be made for the long term good of the resource and the economy.

The proposed rules and regulations are not final and the purpose of the information sessions was to spread the word about proposal. A public hearing on these changes will be held at 2:00 p.m. on March 3, 2014 at the Country Kitchen Meeting Room in Chadron where testimony can be presented on the proposed rules and regulations. The public is invited and encouraged to attend this hearing and provide input to the board.

In the end, all have concerns over water, too much, too little, too expensive or too many restrictions. One thing that is for certain amidst all of the controversy, protecting lives and property from excessive water and protection of the limited supply for future generations is a role each Nebraskan should take an interest in whether you live in town, on a farm, irrigate or recreate. 

Patrick O’Brien

General Manager 

Upper Niobrara White NRD

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