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Canal, lake bills get committee approval in Nebraska Legislature | Politics

A canal to bring in water from Colorado and a large lake between Omaha and Lincoln both inched one step closer to reality Friday, but both proposals remain awash in questions.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has backed the water-related initiatives. Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee voted to advance bills laying the groundwork for each of them on Friday, and the Appropriations Committee approved a fraction of the $500 million the governor requested to fund the canal project.

Legislative Bill 1015 would give the Department of Natural Resources the authority to build and maintain a canal and reservoir system to divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado for use in Nebraska. Under a compact that’s nearly a century old, the canal would allow the state to claim up to 500 cubic feet per second of water for irrigation between Oct. 15 and April 1.

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Six lawmakers on the Natural Resources Committee voted to advance the bill: State Sens. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, Tim Gragert of Creighton, Dan Hughes of Venango, Mike Jacobson of North Platte and Mike Moser of Columbus. Omaha Sens. John Cavanaugh and Justin Wayne abstained.

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Ahead of the vote, Cavanaugh cited “unanswered questions” as his reason for not voting to advance the bill. He’s not the only person with unanswered questions.

State officials, including Ricketts, have framed the canal as an urgent matter, crucial to protecting Nebraska’s water resources, and, in turn, protecting its economy as Colorado’s Front Range attracts more and more residents.

The project has support from agriculture groups, natural resources districts, the Nebraska Public Power District and others.

But Colorado officials have questioned Nebraska officials’ reasoning and the project’s viability. Gov. Jared Polis’ press secretary has called it a “canal to nowhere” and “boondoggle.” Water law experts have said it’s uncertain how much water the canal could actually yield.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ canal proposal sees wave of support at hearing

Other questions include: how and if it would truly affect drinking water in Lincoln and Omaha; whether Nebraska could actually exercise eminent domain in Colorado; how much the project would ultimately cost; and just how long the state could potentially spend in court fighting over it.

While LB 1015 doesn’t include funding, Ricketts proposed paying for it with a $400 million transfer from the state’s cash reserve fund and $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Appropriations Committee voted unanimously on Friday to allocate a much lower sum — $22.5 million — from the cash reserve.

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Appropriations Chair Sen. John Stinner of Gering initially suggested providing $2 million for a feasibility study.

“No businessperson spends 10{c0a26218f97d26338f369517a5968de682c18ee213925cbf5c6b09a3a974e07a} of total revenue without a robust process of study,” Stinner said.

But the committee ultimately approved the $22.5 million, enough for design work. The package would also require a report back to the Legislature on key issues.

“I think it’s important we do something to let Colorado know we’re coming,” Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said. But Erdman, whose district would potentially be affected by the project, also said he wasn’t “overly enthused” about setting aside $500 million.

Another bill Natural Resources advanced Friday, LB 1023, would lay the groundwork for building a 4,000-acre reservoir near the Platte River between Omaha and Lincoln, as well as other projects proposed by the Legislature’s Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resources Sustainability (STAR WARS) special committee.

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, speaker of the Legislature, testified earlier this month that the lake could require an investment of more than $1 billion, most of which would come from private investments.

Like the proposed canal, many details regarding the potential lake have yet to be shared publicly.

Proposed 4,000-acre lake between Omaha and Lincoln could cost over $1 billion

Other parts of LB 1023 enable marina construction projects at Lake McConaughy and the Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area and construction of an event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park.

Senators ultimately voted to advance the bill, with Cavanaugh, Moser and Wayne abstaining.

Cavanaugh said he had talked to Hilgers, who introduced the bill, and that Hilgers was open to his critiques of the lake proposal. Cavanaugh’s biggest concern, he said, is that there’s not yet “strong enough language” to ensure public access to the lake. He also said language around the potential board that would oversee the lake needs to be further tightened.

Wayne said that he’s also concerned about the public-private partnership and how it would be governed.

“Before we spend $200 million on a lake for millionaire private homes, we need to address some of the issues in North Omaha,” Wayne said.

Moser, too, voiced concern about ensuring access to the public and the lake’s potential location within a floodplain.

“I just don’t think the state should be building lakes,” Moser said.

While the bill includes flood control among reasons for the lake, Cavanaugh said, nobody at the hearing said it’s actually for flood control.

The governor’s proposed budget includes $200 million total for the STAR WARS projects — $150 million from the general fund and $50 million in ARPA funding. Stinner said the Appropriations Committee intends to fund the projects to that level in its current budget package, but that the $50 million from ARPA would instead come from the cash reserve.

Both LB 1015 and 1023 now head to the floor of the Legislature, where they’ll need to clear three rounds of debate to become law. Both bills have been designated as priorities, making them more likely to be debated this session, which is scheduled to end April 20.

World-Herald Staff Writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.