Ricketts Canal Proposal Questioned; Vaccine Bill Advances

Feb. 9, 2022, 6 p.m. ·

Governor Pete Ricketts testifies for his canal proposal Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)
Gov. Pete Ricketts testifies for his canal proposal Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)

Listen To This Story

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal for a $500 million canal to bring South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska ran into questions about its cost and practicality in a public hearing Wednesday. And senators advanced a bill aimed at making it easier to request a religious or medical exemption from an employer’s COVID vaccine mandate.

Promoting his canal proposal, Gov. Ricketts acknowledged some criticism of it.

“People say ‘Well, this is an expensive project.’ The cost of not doing this is way higher, because it’s going to be putting the future prosperity of our state at risk,” Ricketts said.

An interstate agreement with Colorado dating from the 1920s gives Nebraska the right to build the so-called Perkins County Canal. There was an attempt to build it prior to that, in the 1890s, but those trying to do so ran out of money.

Now, Ricketts wants to revive the project to capture the water. He says if that doesn’t happen, Colorado could build water projects to serve the rapidly growing Front Range that could reduce flows along the South Platte into Nebraska by 90 percent.

Director of Natural Resources Tom Riley listed some effects such a reduction could have.

“Today, our only feasible option is to replace those lost waters from storage in Lake McConaughy on the North Platte River system. This means lake levels will be lower. Hydropower production will decrease. Water supplies needed for irrigation for our farmers and municipal supplies for our cities would be jeopardized . And the millions of dollars that have already been invested by the state and the natural resources districts to address the basin’s over-appropriated water supplies would be for naught,” Riley said.

Riley said the project could take 18-36 months to design and 5-7 years to build.

Sen. Justin Wayne questioned the plan to take water out of the river in Colorado, only to eventually return it to the same river downstream in Nebraska.

“So we’re taking water out of the South Platte to put back into the South Platte. It just seems easier to negotiate a new compact to say, just keep the river flowing,” Wayne said.

Michael Drain of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District acknowledged that was theoretically possible.

“I’m not an attorney. I am an engineer. I suppose it is possible that if Nebraska is going to exercise this (right), maybe Colorado would be open to negotiating something different. But today, what Nebraska’s rights are is, you gotta build the canal to be able to get the water,” Drain said.

Don Batie, vice chair of the state’s Natural Resources Commission, said the canal would feed a series of reservoirs and help the state supply water at the right time for endangered species.

“We have to maintain certain flows in the river. And usually we’re short certain times of the year and long other times of the year. And by the building of a reservoir (it) will allow us to collect the water in high flow times, release the water in low-flow times, so that we have a better flow of water for endangered species that reside along the Platte River,” Batie said.

Al Davis, representing the Sierra Club, opposed the project as a threat to the delicate Platte River ecosystem.

“Further restricting the flows in the river, even with efforts to retime that water are interfering with the natural seasons and streamflow, converting an endangered river into an intermittent stream. Wildlife will pay the price for a frivolous, unnecessary project designed to produce more corn and more soybeans,” Davis said.

Some senators suggested the state could show Colorado it’s serious by appropriating less than $500 million. But Speaker Mike Hilgers, who introduced the proposal for Gov. Ricketts, said it was a real request for a real project, and predicted a senator would soon make the proposal a priority bill for this session.

Also Wednesday, senators advanced a proposal aimed at making it easier to request a religious or medical exemption to an employer’s vaccine mandate. The bill would have the state Department of Health and Human Services provide a form employees could fill out to request such an exemption. Employers would still have the right to refuse an exemption. Sen. John Arch quoted from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission policy.

“An employer should assume that a request for religious accommodation is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. However, if an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a LIMITED factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information,” Arch said.

Sen. Megan Hunt called the proposal a “nothing bill” that essentially just echoes federal law.

And she said employers should be able to require employees to be vaccinated or find another job:

“I don’t support the idea of government interfering between an employer and an employee relationship in a public health context,” Hunt said.

Senators voted 33-0 to give the bill first-round approval. It was introduced by and named a priority by Sen. Ben Hansen. Hansen was not there for the debate. He was on his way to a chiropractors’ convention in Las Vegas. Speaker Mike Hilgers said he scheduled the bill nevertheless because it needs to pass to coincide with federal vaccine requirements for health care workers, which take effect February 14.