Legislature Advances Water Projects Despite Some Skepticism

March 9, 2022, midnight ·

Senator Mike Hilgers debates water projects Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Mike Hilgers debates water projects Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to four big water projects across Nebraska, despite skepticism about a couple of them.

The first three projects debated include a new marina at Lake McConaughy near Ogallala, a marina, lodge and events center at Niobrara State Park and Lewis and Clark Lake along the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska, and a new lake alongside the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha.

Sen. Mike Flood supported the proposal, saying it would attract tourists to the Niobrara-Missouri area:

Do you want to experience the majesty of the confluence of these two rivers? Do you want to see the most beautiful site in the state of Nebraska? You don’t have to own a million dollar piece of property or have a half million dollar cabin. You can experience it with your family. You can celebrate your anniversary. You can have a business meeting. And suddenly we’ve created a tourism opportunity in a county that needs it,” Flood said.

Sen. Dan Hughes praised the idea of a lake between Lincoln and Omaha, comparing it to an earlier big idea.

“Will it come to pass? I don’t know. But it’s not going to if we don’t try – if we don’t start down this path. There’s going to be obstacles, there’s no question about that. And it’s going to be a lot of money. And I haven’t found the figures yet of what it cost to build Kingsley Dam and Lake McConaughy. But 50 years later, it’s cheap. It’s really cheap,” Hughes said.

Sen. Megan Hunt opposed the idea, saying other things, like legalizing cannabis, ensuring reproductive rights, and requiring paid family leave were more important for attracting people to the state. Hunt said a friend who teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln talked about the difficulty of attracting women to teach in the state.

“They’ve just been turned down by all of these different women. And the reason they don’t want to be here, it comes down to, is the culture we have in this state. And a lake is not going to fix that, colleagues,” Hunt said.

The Appropriations Committee has recommended $100 million for the Lake McConaughy and Missouri River projects, $20 million for further study on the lake near the Platte, and another $80 million from the cash reserve to begin construction there.

Sen. Mike Hilgers, who chaired the committee that recommended these projects and is the lead sponsor of the proposal, said that building the lake would depend on what the study shows, including whether it would harm the water supplies of Lincoln and Omaha.

“The only way that that those cash reserve dollars would get appropriated is if a subsequent Legislature came back and said ‘Yes, we’ve looked at the plans, it’s a go,” Hilgers said.

After less than three hours of debate, senators voted 29-4 to give the bill first round approval.

Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature took up Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to build a canal to bring South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska, at a cost of at least $500 million. The bill in question would authorize the project, with the appropriation of money to come later in the session.

Sen. Mike Flood said Wednesday’s vote would show Colorado how serious Nebraska is about protecting its water.

“The state of Colorado has an $800 million plan to pump tens of thousands of acre feet each year 150 miles west to the Denver area. They’re going to take this water and they will move it to Denver,” Flood said.

Sen. Steve Lathrop said he’s skeptical about reviving a plan that’s allowed in an interstate compact with Colorado both states agreed to a century ago.

“This thing’s a hundred years old. All a sudden we have some urgency. We gotta do something today, by God, Colorado’s taking out water! It wasn’t important enough for us to do something about it over the last 99 years. But God darn it, we need to do something about it this year. I wondered why. Well, we’ve got a little extra money sitting around. So now, now we got a problem we need to solve immediately,” Lathrop said.

Sen. Bruce Bostelman responded.

“Why now? It’s because of the actions Colorado’s taking. They haven’t taken that action in the last hundred years. They’re taking it now. So if we don’t act, we won’t have the opportunity to act in the future,” Bostelman said.

Lathrop also questioned the $500 million cost estimate. Sen. Anna Wishart said she thinks the cost would top $1 billion with inflation over the 20 years it could take to build the canal and accompanying reservoirs, and lawsuit costs. Lathrop said it could cost $1.5 billion, and questioned what other projects senators might be willing to give up.

“If it means enough to you, let’s find out if it does. So we still have some revenue bills coming. We’re gonna need to start saving a lot of money for this. Do you want to pass on the tax cuts that are going to come up the rest of the session?” Lathrop asked.

While Ricketts asked for the full $500 million to be appropriated, the Appropriations Committee is recommending $53.5 million, for a study and for purchasing land options. Committee Chair Sen. John Stinner said he thinks even that’s too much, but he was outvoted in committee. But Stinner said it would be better to keep more money in the state’s rainy day fund for when tax revenues drop.

“And to stand up here and say, and the governor said ‘We can do all of this,’ that’s fiscally irresponsible. That’s not understanding where the economy is at, and where we have to be as a Legislature if we’re responsible to the taxpayers of the state of Nebraska,” Stinner said.

Nevertheless, after three hours of debate, senators voted 36-3 to give the bill first-round approval.