Water Projects: Great Opportunity, but Bottlenecks to be Avoided

May 13, 2022, midnight ·

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A flood of money for Nebraska water projects represents a great opportunity, but could run into expensive bottlenecks if those projects aren’t timed right, says Tom Riley, director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources.

In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved more than $50 million to study and acquire land options for a canal from Colorado. There was $20 million for a study of a new lake between Lincoln and Omaha. And there’s millions more in state amd federal dollars for water infrastructure projects.

Riley says these projects are historic investments. “We’re excited about these new water initiatives and plan to work closely with the stakeholders involved in each of these efforts to achieve the best possible outcomes,” he says.

Director of Natural Resources Tom Riley (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Director of Natural Resources Tom Riley (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

That will require a balancing act. In ordinary times, Riley says, the Department of Natural Resources has an annual operating budget of $15-$20 million. Now, between appropriations from the Legislature and federal dollars, the department’s handling about $200 million worth of projects.

Riley says pursuing all those projects at once could create inflationary bottlenecks.

“Any time you see a competition for labor and resources, project costs could go up. In the water business, one of the processes is you need pipe. Some of that pipe’s driven by plastics and costs of the raw fuel, which is oil, in this case, and those costs we see going up. It will make it challenging,” Riley said.

But Riley said the process can be managed. He gives the example of surface water infrastructure projects, which the Legislature appropriated $50 million for this year.

“These projects are straightforward. People need to improve their canals and gates and those kind of operations. As long as you can get the materials, you can get it done. What you probably want to avoid is trying to do them all at the same time,” he said.