Senators spent their last day in session before a four-day Easter break talking about the state's need for a long-range water plan -- and a task force to make recommendations.

If the country ever runs out of gas, oil or coal, they could be replaced with alternative sources, the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee Chairman Tom Carlson told the Legislature on Thursday. 

"We will survive," he said.

If it runs out of water, he said, "We will die."

With that bit of foreboding, Carlson kicked off the discussion of a bill (LB517) that would create a water funding task force.

The debate ended with advancement of the bill from first round on a 36-0 vote.

"I can't emphasize enough the importance of this discussion and what it means not only to what is happening in the here and now, but what will happen well into our future," said Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton.

The task force would identify water resources programs, projects and activities in need of funding in order to meet long-term goals of preserving the state's water supply.

Nebraska's water resources -- the Ogallala Aquifer and rain -- are like a money-producing mint, Carlson said.

"And we need to take care of them. We need to look at how we could better use them."

The state has 1 million acre feet of water (one acre foot equals 12 inches over an acre of land) coming in every year -- and 8 million acre feet of water leaving via rivers and streams.

"We need to look at how we can capture water in times of plenty ... in the northern part and in the western part of the state, so that we have that water available in times of need," Carlson said.

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft said Nebraska's economy needs water.

"Serving on the Natural Resources Committee, more than ever I realize that water does make money," Brasch said. "It puts money back where we take it."

The state Department of Natural Resources estimates $3 million would be needed to contract with experts to carry out the water study.

Appropriations Chairman Heath Mello said he has talked to Carlson about narrowing the scope of the study to reduce the costs. Carlson said he would work with Mello and Natural Resources to accomplish that before the bill comes back for a second round of debate.

The bill would:

* Create the Water Funding Task Force within the Department of Natural Resources.

* Authorize the task force to consult with and seek support from public entities, and to hire consultants.

* Require the task force to develop a report to the Legislature with recommendations on prioritized water projects in need of funding and legislation.

* Require the task force to identify and consult with all water use stakeholder groups in Nebraska and create a statewide map that identifies the location of recommended projects in need of funding.

The bill calls for 28 people to be on the task force, including some from the executive branch and 10 appointed by the governor.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop took exception to the make-up of the task force, saying no one from the executive branch should be on it. Rather, he said, it should be state senators bringing in experts from such resources as the University of Nebraska. 

Gov. Dave Heineman has the Department of Natural Resources at his disposal, Lathrop said, and if he wanted to lead on the issue he could put his own task force together and assign it to investigate, then lead with a solution. 

"That hasn't happened in eight years," he said.

Lathrop also said there's no point in doing a study unless the state is prepared to pay for whatever is recommended. If the study says the state needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 20 years, how will the state raise that money, he asked. Increase taxes? Cut other program, such as education?

Lathrop said he appreciates that agriculture is the reason the state weathered the last great recession and the reason Omaha did well.

"And agriculture does well because it has the water available to it to raise the crops that they sell and that fuel our economy," he said.

But the Legislature shouldn't put off the conversation about how to pay for the state's water needs, he said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.