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Search is on to pay for incentives to encourage farmers to stop irrigating crops

October 2005

U.S. Water News Online

KEARNEY, Neb. -- The state's water regulators are trying to come up with ways to provide millions of dollars in incentives to farmers to retire cropland from irrigation.

Providing incentives would help reduce water use in Nebraska and help the state comply with interstate compacts.

But it won't be easy to come up with the roughly $6 million needed annually to comply with the state's integrated water management law and Nebraska's compacts with other states, said Gene Clock, the chairman of the funding subcommittee of the Nebraska Water Policy Task Force.

Clock told the group's executive committee that the task force's state legislative and funding requests must focus on regulations.

"Our biggest water problems are in areas that have less ability to raise funds," said Glock, of Rising City.

He referred to the Republican Basin, a sparsely populated area that is struggling to meet interstate compact conditions, and the Platte Basin west of Elm Creek, which has been designated as overused.

The group agreed to follow through with two ways to pay for the incentives presented by Glock in Kearney, said Ann Bleed, acting director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

To come up with the $6 million, the task force proposed the districts should provide $4 million by using a restored 1-cent-per-$100,000 levy that had been removed from NRD authority several years ago. State general funds would provide $2 million. DNR would need $1.5 million more for operations and research related to those issues.

More work needs to be done on a third proposal to use part of the state sales tax on water conservation projects, Bleed said. Long-term incentive funding would also be used under the proposal.

Members of the subcommittee suggested having the Legislature put the sales tax issue on the ballot. Glock said the Legislature said it would not dedicate sales taxes to specific purposes.

Dave Sands, of the Nebraska Land Trust in Lincoln, said the group understood it would be difficult to get the approval in the Legislature. He said it is still not known how much money would be needed for state incentive programs.

"All we know is it will be a big number, with a capital B," Sands said.

The North Platte natural resources district has asked the state to help it match federal money for incentives in the Pumpkin Creek watershed in the southern Panhandle, but it's not clear if the state will help.

The federal money would come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, which would provide one-time payments to farmers who permanently retire crop acres from irrigation.

The program would pay $300 an acre, with the state and local entities matching half that, meaning farmers could get $450 per acre.

The North Platte NRD has set aside $187,500 for half of the local match and has asked the state to provide the other half.

State Sen. Ed Schrock said the state would not be able to pay to retire the acres. Schrock said he would probably agree to have one-time payments to permanently retire acres, but not annual payments.

He said some legislators may criticize any calls to match incentives.

"No doubt, some areas of the state are overdeveloped, and we're paying the price for it," Schrock said.

 
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