Grand Island Independent
September 30, 2005
Nebraska has several governing and advisory agencies, boards and councils in place to safeguard our natural resources and look out for our environmental best interests.
If you believe that, I have a couple mountain cabins in Blaine County to sell you real cheap.
A good part of the reason why Nebraska is only reluctantly entering the 21st century of conservation thinking is that the state has, as they say, too many foxes guarding the environmental henhouse.
Here are some of the realities:
· Nebraska's Environmental Quality Council, 17 members strong, includes representatives of the livestock industry, ag processing, crop production, power generation, chemical industry, petroleum industry, heavy industry, food products manufacturing, labor, engineering and government. It would be nearly a total whitewash if not for the recent appointment of Lawrence Bradley, a UNO teacher with a strong conservation bent.
· Nebraska's Water Policy Task Force, 49 members strong, includes 20 irrigators, although a few, admittedly, are conservation-oriented. There are more members from power interests (4) than environmental groups (3). The task force's three agricultural reps hail from the Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Corn Growers, three groups that consistently oppose common-sense environmental regulations. Its two legislative members have not distinguished themselves as conservation leaders in the Nebraska Unicameral.
· The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality -- because of a lack of resources and/or a lack of resolve -- is increasingly under fire for failing to protect the public's interests in water and air quality. Industrial-type farms are despoiling the state's waters, soil and air with near impunity.
· Last, but certainly not least, many of the state's 23 Natural Resource District boards are utterly dominated by irrigation interests.
According to the Web site of the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts, the mission of NRDs is to "conserve, sustain and improve our natural resources and environment ... for future prosperity."
Despite those words, it is ironic that some NRDs have campaigned against, and even removed, board members who proposed greater stewardship of those resources. There are a few NRD boards in western and southwest Nebraska that are dangerously close to being 100 percent in the hands of irrigation interests.
Just last week the Central Platte NRD board haggled over the naming of a new member because the panel is split between moderate interests and the interests of Nebraskans First, a pro-groundwater irrigation group whose views are increasingly considered extremist by a majority of Nebraskans.
Authors Jeffrey Ashley and Zachary Smith had the problem correctly pegged in their 1999 book, "Groundwater Management in the West":
"... Many feel that agriculture is very powerful (if not the most powerful) interest group (or, more accurately, collection of interests and groups) in the state and that NRDs are largely controlled by rural agricultural interests. This control is so strong that some have referred to NRDs as 'irrigator clubs.' "
So what about the "public trust"? The Public Trust Doctrine, which dates back 15 centuries and is covered in the Magna Carta, requires government to act in the citizens' best interests in the management of our natural resources.
The Center for Environmental Protection at Washington State University says the Public Trust Doctrine may become the most important mechanism to defend our rivers and other waters from overdevelopment.
"Its general premise," the center says, "is that a state's natural resources are held in the public trust and even senior, appropriated water users do not have the right to destroy the public's natural resources."
If Nebraska's agencies, boards and councils aren't more vigilant in looking out for the state's natural resources -- and that means fewer foxes guarding the henhouse and NRDs breaking the grip of "irrigator clubs" -- then we may indeed see the day when the public trust is invoked to do the job right.
Pete Letheby is associate editor at The Independent. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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