Ben Nelson and Mike Jess

Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, left, greets Mike Jess, who was Department of Natural Resources director during Nelson’s years as governor in the 1990s. Nelson spoke Tuesday in Kearney at the joint convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska State Water Resources associations.

KEARNEY — When Ben Nelson ran for governor in the 1990 election, he knew he needed to learn more about Nebraska’s complex, controversial water issues.

“One of the first things I wanted to do was talk to someone who knew these issues and knew who the players were,” he said.

One of the first people he contacted was Tim Anderson.

“He was always available to explain things to me and why there were differences,” Nelson said Tuesday at a joint convention of the Nebraska State Irrigation and Nebraska Water Resources associations in Kearney.

Anderson died Oct. 12, 2017, at age 68, at his home west of Johnson Lake.

The Holdrege native joined Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District in 1990 and served for more than 25 years as public relations manager and the district-registered lobbyist in Lincoln. Anderson previously was part of his family’s construction business and Holdrege Chamber of Commerce executive vice president.

NSIA leaders launched a fund drive Tuesday for the Tim Anderson Memorial Water Learning Project to recognize his contributions to water education and sustainability in Nebraska.

Project objectives include supporting the Nebraska Water Leaders Academy and hosting “think tank” sessions to create water resources partnerships.

Nelson’s name is at the bottom of a fund-raising letter. It says Anderson believed that if people got together to discuss water concerns and ideas, they might realize their common interests outweigh their differences.

“Today, his vision seems like common sense,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t always so.”

Water issues during his years as governor (1991-99) meant disputes between surface water and groundwater users, and between states in the Platte and Republican basins.

The U.S. Department of Interior was another big player in how the water was used.

Nelson recalled driving east of Grand Island at a time when many of Nebraska’s lakes were running dry and being surprised to see the Platte River “running full, bank high and as fast as it could run.”

When he asked why, he was told it was to meet federal requirements for wildlife habitat.

Although he appreciated the need for water to benefit wildlife, Nelson was concerned that the water’s economic value and the need for a sustainable resource were being overlooked. “I thought if the goal is to protect wildlife at any cost, they might be able to drain (the lakes),” Nelson said.

“I didn’t become an adversary of the federal government, but I probably liked it less than before,” he joked.

Meanwhile, there were debates among water interests within Nebraska and lawsuits filed and/or threatened within multi-state basins — Nebraska versus Wyoming in the North Platte Basin, and Kansas versus Nebraska in the Republican Basin.

Nelson sought information from Anderson and other experts about why the water disputes ran so deep.

Anderson went into “teacher mode,” Nelson said, but he didn’t take sides.

“He gave me a history of the Platte and things to read, a better understanding of the litigation and a better understanding of Lake McConaughy,” Nelson said, admitting that so much information about individual, local, state, basin and federal interests made his head spin.

He also thought there was a need to create a reserve body of water to ensure sustainability. “It’s one thing to spend the interest. It’s another thing to spend the capital,” he said.

Although there were different ideas about how to achieve that goal, Nelson said only few people disagreed with the concept.

The former governor described Anderson on Tuesday as a “quiet guardian of our water” and a “quiet preacher,” and said he became his friend during the years.

Nelson added that Anderson would help anyone who wanted to learn about Nebraska’s water resources, especially if it helped get people together to talk about the issues.

After his presentation, Nelson was asked if he could have imagined as governor a time when lawsuits were settled; surface water users, groundwater users and the state Department of Natural Resources were writing integrated water management plans for many basins; Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and the U.S. Department of Interior would be nearly 13 years into a Platte River recovery program; and Lake McConaughy would hold a pool of water designated for downstream wildlife habitat.

“I think they finally understood there was a relationship” between groundwater and surface water, Nelson said, which was a first step to understanding water issues and finding solutions.

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