As the arid West was settled, Mark Twain is attributed as saying, “Whiskey is for drinkin’ but water is for fightin’.” Reality is, more wars and legal disputes have been fought over ownership of land.

Thus you have a description of the fight Lincoln County is in over the NRD groundwater-to-river augmentation project, NCORPE, which sits on 19,500 acres (over 30 square miles) in the middle of the county. This fight is over water and land ownership, making the skirmish a little more intense.

Of the four NRDs involved in the project, the citizens in the Twin Platte and the Middle Republican natural resource districts have the most at stake; the land in the project lies in their districts. They have to be accountable to the state of Nebraska for the groundwater under the project, and their irrigated farmers have an additional tax burden to pay a share of the project’s cost.

The other two NRDs, the Lower Republican and Upper Republican, have only to pay their share of cost.

So you see the injustice, citizens of Lincoln County’s taxing entities lost the tax revenues on 15,800 irrigated acres and the local economy lost production inputs associated with those acres. Plus, the county’s two NRDs have to account for the groundwater consumed by the project. Meanwhile, the only burden the citizens in the URNRD and LRNRD have is the occupation tax paid by their irrigated farmers to cover a share of the project’s cost.

The injustice does not end there: The management of NCORPE, in order to expand the project, is pursuing buying more irrigated land to take off the tax rolls, and they are seeking contracts with wind and solar energy companies to install windmills on Lincoln County land against the will of the county’s residents.

If you weren’t already aware, you now know why I have passionately introduced legislation to address the issue.

In Lincoln County, we have broad shoulders and are willing to bail out the state of Nebraska and our neighbors with our groundwater, but we are a little irritated that the NRD’s statewide bureaucratic establishment has not worked with us to return control of our land to us. I must clarify that the MRNRD board and management has bravely bucked the bureaucratic pressure and has stood with us in this fight.

The legislation I plan to offer next year is simple: “If real property was acquired to develop and operate an augmentation project for streamflow enhancement, the owner or owners of such project may later sell such real property and continue to pump ground water, subject to the provisions of section 46-739, in the amount necessary for augmentation purposes without regard to land area or acres owned.”

Since this fight began five years ago, there have been two Nebraska Supreme Court cases that have helped clarify the land ownership issue. Adding those to existing court opinions and working within existing law, we crafted our legislation. We have vetted our language with state Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. They have both indicated that the language does no harm to the state’s interest in complying with the Republican and Platte River agreements.

The benefits of our legislation are manyfold.

Selling the land not directly over the wells and paying down the bonded indebtedness with the proceeds will greatly reduce the tax burden on our irrigated farmers.

It will protect the state of Nebraska’s interest and that of the augmentation project by decoupling the amount of groundwater used by the project from Nebraska common law’s tie to beneficial use on the overlying land.

It protects the local control of groundwater management by the MRNRD and TPNRD.

Plus, and most importantly, private ownership will lead to better land management and return the land’s future to local government control.

Over the last five years, we have refined the language of the bill; disproved the scare tactics of the opposition; and worked with the Attorney General’s Office, the DNR and members of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee to get it right. It’s time to fix the injustice in Lincoln County.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

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