A bill seeking federal funds to help Lincoln secure a second source of water would benefit the region and state as a whole, Sen. Eliot Bostar told the Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.
Not only would such a system support the Capital City’s future growth, Bostar said, but it would also provide clean, reliable drinking water to other communities in Southeast Nebraska, and would ensure upstream users like farmers and ranchers were able to keep irrigating or watering their livestock.
“As residential demand for water grows in Southeast Nebraska,” Bostar told the budget-writing committee, “we will find ourselves in conflict with Nebraska’s agricultural community that uses Platte River water for their livelihoods.”
Lincoln, which has sourced its water from a wellfield on the Platte River near Ashland for nearly a century, would have senior rights over producers who also tap into the source of water from as far away as Nebraska’s Panhandle.
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According to Bostar, if drought or flooding put Lincoln’s drinking water in danger, it could place a “call” on the river and essentially shut off upstream users, potentially enacting catastrophic economic damage to those individuals and the state in the process.
But, he said, if Lincoln is able to move ahead in securing a second water source along the Missouri River between Omaha and Nebraska City – as a 27-member committee recommended to Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird in January – dramatic action like that could be avoided.
The estimated $1.39 billion project would also serve communities across the region, including Waverly, Hickman, and Greenwood, which have already signaled interest, Bostar added.
The Lincoln senator asked the committee to include his request (LB506) for $200 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds into the budget sent to the floor later this session.
Those federal funds would be used to acquire land and rights-of-way between Lincoln and the wellfield, as well as build new wellfields between Omaha and Nebraska City, a water treatment plant, a reservoir lake, and transmission pipes carrying treated water to the Capital City.
Also included in the bill is $20 million for grants to small and rural communities seeking reverse osmosis systems to manage high concentrations of nitrates in their drinking water.
“This legislation is about preserving the good life for both urban and rural communities alike,” Bostar said.
Liz Elliott, director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities, said the importance of securing a second water source to facilitate growth and serve as a redundancy was underscored by the 2019 flooding that took some of Lincoln’s wells on the Platte River offline.
“We were lucky that, although the damage was extensive, we were still able to provide water to Lincoln residents and businesses,” Elliott said. “If additional steps are not taken, we may not be so lucky next time.”
Following that historic weather event, Lincoln began taking steps to look for a second source, and in May 2022 convened an advisory council that earlier this year identified a potential wellfield site on the Missouri River over 14 alternatives that were also explored.
Connecting the region to a wellfield near that site would support Lincoln’s growing population for 100 years or more, boost economic development, create jobs and attract businesses, Elliott said, while also protecting farmers.
“Thousands of acres across the state need water from the Platte, Loup and Elkhorn rivers to irrigate their crops,” she said. “Having a second source of water lessens the chance that Lincoln would be forced to exercise its water rights during a water scarcity emergency.”
If appropriated, Elliott said Lincoln and its partner communities were prepared to invest the federal funds by 2026 – the deadline for doing so under ARPA.
Waverly City Administrator Stephanie Fischer told the committee rising nitrate levels in the town’s current wells have created “serious obstacles to clean drinking water” that could be solved through Bostar’s bill.
The eastern Lancaster County town has taken several steps to reduce nitrate concentrations in its wells, and could benefit from the funding for reverse osmosis systems, Fischer said, or from connecting directly to the new regional water system.
“If Lincoln is able to connect to a secondary water source, Waverly may be in a position to purchase drinking water directly from Lincoln in order to meet our needs,” she said.
The project was also supported by the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, Lincoln Independent Business Association, and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, as well as the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District.
Bruce Bohrer, executive vice president of the Lincoln Chamber, said the project presented several opportunities for the Capital City to partner with other communities on supplying basic needs as well as growth opportunities.
And former state Sen. Dave Landis, now the chair of the Lower Platte South NRD, called the proposed regional water system the “largest, and potentially most important project for Lincoln and Southeast Nebraska for generations to come.”
The committee did not take any action on Bostar’s bill on Tuesday.
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On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS