Big Water Projects Proposed; Convention of States Advanced

Jan. 10, 2022, 5:56 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts wearing a black mask at a podium with 5 men and an American flag behind him and an easel with a poster with a diagram on it beside him.
Gov. Pete Ricketts introduces water projects as Nebraska officials look on. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Governor Pete Ricketts and Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers Monday proposed water projects costing at least $700 million, including a canal diverting water from the South Platte River in Colorado, and a 4,000-acre lake between Lincoln and Omaha.

Ricketts is proposing to divert water from the South Platte River near Ovid, Colorado into a canal that would carry it 24 miles to the Nebraska border, where it would be stored in a series of reservoirs. An interstate compact between the two states, approved by both states and Congress in the 1920s, specifies how much water Colorado must let flow into Nebraska during the irrigation season, from April 1 to October 15. Separate provisions in the compact govern the non-irrigation season. Ricketts said Colorado is violating those provisions, and he said projects on the drawing board there could make things worse.

“In the non-irrigation season, Colorado has not been providing us with the water that is called for under the compact. Their near-term goals show that…going down, and should all the long-term goals be effected, they would reduce the amount of water flows coming to the state of Nebraska by 90 percent,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said that would harm agriculture, power generation and drinking water supplies in Nebraska.

Actually, the compact does not guarantee Nebraska any amount of water in the river in the non-irrigation system. But it does say if Nebraska constructs a canal, it can divert up to 500 cubic feet per second during that time. That’s about 180,000 acre feet – enough to cover 180,000 acres with a foot of water. In recent dry years, the average daily flow of the river has averaged far below 500 cubic feet per second. The compact also gives Nebraska the right to use eminent domain to take land in Colorado if the owners are unwilling to sell it.

Attorney General Doug Peterson suggested that building a canal and reservoir system would strengthen Nebraska’s legal arguments for the water, given how Colorado is handling the issue now. “What they’re saying is, when they grant permits to projects in Colorado along the river, because the reservoir is not built, they seem to act as if that is not as important to comply with. And the argument would be ‘Well, you suffer no harm because the intended reservoir system was never developed.’ It needs to be developed, particularly in light of what they anticipate doing,” Peterson said.

A spokesman for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he had just learned of the proposal and was still trying to understand the detail, but added " Gov. Polis continues to oppose the diversion of precious water resources from Colorado.”

The project, first called the Perkins County Canal, was originally proposed in the 19th century. Construction on it actually began in 1894, but stopped the next year because promoters ran out of money. There were attempts to revive it again in the 1920s and 1980s, but those failed as well. However, Ricketts said the state now has the ability to build it.

Meanwhile, a committee chaired by Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers is proposing three other major projects in the state. The first is a marina, roadway improvements, and iconic entrance to Lake McConaughy near Ogallala. The second is a Niobrara River boat launch, an event center and lodge, and a vastly expanded marina at Lewis and Clark Lake in northern Nebraska’s Knox County. And the third is a 4,000-acre, seven-mile long lake near the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha. Hilgers said the committee would ask for a $200 million appropriation for the three projects.

In legislative floor action Monday, lawmakers gave first round approval to a resolution that would add Nebraska to the list of states calling for a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Among the amendments to be considered would be one imposing fiscal restraints, like a requiring a balanced federal budget. Sen. Steve Halloran, lead sponsor of the resolution, said the lack of such a requirement has led the country to accumulate a perilous $30 trillion in debt.

“Our nation’s debt is nearly 127 percent of our entire economy. Put another way, the debt is more than 7.7 times the total of all the revenues that comes into the federal government annually. Condensed to a personal scale, it would be like an individual making about $40,000 a year carrying $310,000 worth of unsecured credit card debt. They would be borrowing money just to pay their interest payments, and continuing to spend more each year than they actually earned,” Halloran said.

The resolution says the amendments to be considered, in addition to the fiscal restraints, would be limited to imposing term limits on federal officials, including Congress, and limiting the power of the federal government.

Opposing the resolution, Sen. Adam Morfeld said the section of the U.S. Constitution that allows such a convention does not limit what it could do.

“If you look at the language of Article V, it is incredibly broad. It does not state that states may limit the call to a constitutional convention. And in fact colleagues, the last time we had a constitutional convention, it was a runaway convention. It completely got rid of the Articles of Confederation. Now, I think they ended up with a better document in that case – a better Constitution – one that was stronger. But there were a lot of people very upset with how that convention went, and how it strengthened the centralized power of (the) federal government,” Morfeld said.

Senators voted 32-10 to give the proposal the first of three approvals it would need. Morfeld said afterwards that the vote was one short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster, which he said would happen at a future stage of debate.

Tweet received by Sen. Julie Slama (Nebraska Public Media News has deleted information identifying the sender of the tweet because an investigation is ongoing).
Tweet received by Sen. Julie Slama (Nebraska Public Media News has deleted information identifying the sender of the tweet because an investigation is ongoing).

And Sen. Julie Slama has passed along to the State Patrol some threatening and sexually explicit tweets she received after she introduced a bill to prohibit abortions after cardiac activity is detected during pregnancy, about six weeks in. Slama said the tweets are not typical of the reaction she’s received.

“It stands in contrast to what I’ve seen as the overwhelming response to the heartbeat bill, which has been overwhelmingly positive across the board. I’m just grateful to the hardworking men and women of the State Patrol who are looking into the comments that escalated to that point,” Slama said.