You can’t say it wasn’t expected.
A bill in the Nebraska Legislature this session sought to take money from the Water Sustainability Fund (WSF) for a purpose that was completely unrelated to the original intent and objectives of the WSF.
Thankfully, the bill did not pass, largely due to the efforts of a number of senators who opposed the measure. However, it reminds those who are responsible for managing the state’s water resources to remain vigilant about such future attempts.
First, a little background.
Former State Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege (Dist. 38) introduced a bill during the 2013 session that created the Water Funding Task Force. The task force consisted of 34 members concerned with ensuring sustainable use of Nebraska’s water resources. Original task force members represented virtually all of Nebraska’s water resources interests, from agriculture, utilities and municipalities to wildlife and recreation.
The task force’s objectives were ambitious in scope, but can be condensed into a few primary goals: make recommendations for developing water-funding legislation that would contribute to achieving sustainable use of water in Nebraska; identify potential sources of funding for programs, projects and activities; and develop a set of criteria by which potential projects would be evaluated and ranked according to how well they met the criteria.
The task force met more than 30 times between July and December 2013 at various sites across the state. The product of these meetings was the establishment of a Water Sustainability Fund intended to assist projects (with a 40-percent match from the sponsor) that increased the available water supply, reduced water use, increased stream flows, improved water quality, provided flood control enhancements, ensured adequate water for agricultural, municipal and industrial uses, addressed wildlife needs, and improved recreational benefits. The efforts culminated in the passage of LB1098 during the 2014 legislative session, which created the WSF and assigned its oversight to an expanded Natural Resources Commission.
The scoring criteria for the WSF developed by the task force was later refined by the Natural Resources Commission with focus on significant and expensive water issues that match the fund’s objectives.
The recent attempt in the Legislature was to reallocate funds from the WSF for use in establishing water supplies for community gardens. Certainly a commendable purpose, but it failed to fit with any of the objectives identified for water sustainability funding. Perhaps more importantly, passage of such a bill would have set a dangerous precedent, one that would have encouraged additional efforts to siphon funding from the WSF.
The WSF has seen in the past two years a reduction in its funding, as money is reallocated to help address the state’s budget shortfall. That’s understandable; almost all state cash funds have been reduced. Additional hands shaking the piggy bank in the future would diminish the state’s ability to achieve the WSF’s objectives.
Memories surface of how other state program funds have been tapped for purposes other than originally intended, based on the argument that “times have changed and so can funding appropriations.” That may be true in some cases, but not for the WSF; its task remains the same. Now entering its fourth grant cycle, the need to sustain and protect Nebraska’s water resources is as great as ever and it is the state as a whole that will benefit.
The next drought is always lurking around the corner. When it inevitably arrives, the water sustainability improvements made possible by the WSF will prove their worth. Nebraskans who value the original intent of the Water Sustainability Fund to fund programs and projects that help ensure the availability of water supplies for future generations should remain on guard and be thankful to those who worked so hard to establish a dedicated source of funding to enhance and protect Nebraska’s water resources.