Gov. Pete Ricketts and other supporters of legislation to construct a canal and reservoir system to secure South Platte River water flowing into Nebraska from Colorado sounded alarm bells Wednesday as they urged the Legislature to launch the $500 million project now.
"Colorado is looking to take our water," Ricketts warned, pointing to what he said are $9.8 billion of water projects proposed or in the works in Colorado to capture that water for use in its rapidly developing front range before it crosses the border into Nebraska.
Nebraska is entitled to that river flow under a 1923 compact, but only if it builds a canal system.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who introduced a bill (LB1015) at the request of the governor to adopt what is described as the Perkins County Canal Project, said the proposal would exercise Nebraska's rights to access South Platte water under terms of the century-old compact between the two states.
"If Colorado develops (the projects that are being considered) and we don't act, the water is gone forever," Hilgers said.
"Every drop of Platte River water is critical for Nebraska," he said, "and we have the right to enforce those flows if we build the canal."
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, told the committee that this is "a catastrophe that we can prevent" with action now.
Act now, he said, or that water is "lost forever to new growth in Colorado."
At stake, supporters said, are irrigation for Nebraska agriculture, generation of electric power, support of wildlife and access to drinking water, with a direct impact specifically on water in Lake McConaughy at Ogallala and potentially affecting the water supply for Lincoln and Omaha.
Ricketts has proposed appropriating $100 million in federal pandemic recovery funding and $400 million from the state's cash reserve to fund the project. A legislative fiscal note accompanying the bill suggests that "it is likely that costs for the completion of the project will exceed this amount."
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, a member of the committee who is seeking $450 million in federal pandemic recovery funding for investment in developments in North Omaha, asked Hilgers to consider reducing his funding request to $250 million as "a sign of commitment" that Nebraska intends to exercise its water rights while it attempts to negotiate with Colorado.
That, in turn, would free up more funding for other projects, including the North Omaha project supported by Wayne and Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha.
"I think we have to protect the water," Wayne said, "but I represent a community that is looking for the same investment and is not being treated the same."
The Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the bill, and other nature groups raised some concerns.
"Wildlife will pay the price" if the South Platte flow is managed predominantly for irrigation, Sierra Club spokesman Al Davis said.
Representatives of Audubon Nebraska and the Nature Conservancy voiced similar concerns without testifying in opposition.
The governor unveiled an ambitious program of investments in Nebraska's future, including major development and protection of natural resources along with workforce development while targeting substantial additional tax relief.
Prosecutors are required to notify defense attorneys whenever an officer involved in a case has a confirmed record of lying in their official capacity. Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney wants to make those disclosures public.
Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln assures Lincoln and Omaha officials that proposed construction of a new lake between the two cities would not begin without assurance that the project would not threaten their water supply.
The tax plan is designed to foster economic growth while attracting individuals and businesses to move to Nebraska and retaining those who already are here, a number of speakers at a news briefing said.
The Legislature advanced a bill to reduce the top personal state income tax rate, but will "park" it at second-stage floor consideration while it awaits revenue projections and appropriations recommendations.
Sen. Anna Wishart's 27th District in Lincoln has flipped from majority Democratic to majority Republican, while Lincoln Sen. Eliot Bostar's 29th District turned from majority Republican into majority Democratic.
The action represented a big step forward for gun rights advocates and a huge victory for Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who shepherded the bill through a gauntlet of opposition mounted by senators from Lincoln and Omaha.