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Nebraska officials unveil $700 million plans for water resource development
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Nebraska officials unveil $700 million plans for water resource development

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LAKE: This rendering shows a potential 4,000-acre lake between Lincoln and Omaha. This project is among recommendations from the Legislature’s STAR WARS Committee and is being considered for possible state use of federal COVID-19 relief money. (Image provided by HDR)

LINCOLN – State officials unveiled proposals on Jan. 10 for $700 million in water resource development in Nebraska, pointing to the vital importance of water in securing the state’s agricultural and economic development future.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers of Lincoln unveiled recommendations from a legislative study committee for $200 million in water development projects, including creation of a 7-mile-long lake between Lincoln and Omaha. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts also announced that the state is notifying Colorado that Nebraska plans to proceed with a $500 million plan of developing a canal and reservoir system to capture water from the South Platte River, exercising its legal right to that water flow from Colorado under a 1923 compact between the states.

The directive comes in response to plans in Colorado to capture that water with as many as 300 projects before it is allowed to flow into Nebraska, the governor said. 

Other projects recommended by the Legislature’s so-called STAR WARS Committee would fund improvements at Lake McConaughy in Keith County, along the Lower Niobrara River in northern Knox County and along the Lower Platte River near Schuyler.

The proposed new lake between Lincoln and Omaha would be 4,000 acres in size. That compares to the 3,600 acres at Lake Okoboji in Iowa, a popular vacation and recreation destination for Nebraskans.

Hilgers stressed that the new lake, which would be 30-to-35-foot deep, would not dam the Platte River and would not impact Ashland, proactively answering any fears that the project would be akin to earlier proposals that would have had that impact.

Ricketts dodged a question as to whether he will support the committee’s recommendations with a suggestion to “stay tuned” for the budget proposals that he will present to the Legislature on Jan. 13.

Hilgers said the timeline for the proposed lake and other projects would depend on funding decisions.

The lake, along with the other projects, are viewed as opportunities for economic development, tourism, recreation, flood control and water resource sustainability.

The committee is seeking funding from a billion-dollar pot of federal pandemic recovery money allocated to Nebraska.

Projects proposed by a unanimous vote of the legislative committee include development of a new marina at Lake McConaughy along with roadway improvements and development of an iconic gateway entrance; development of an event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park along with marina expansion and retrofit and a landing boat launch; and flood mitigation jetty repairs and Wahoo Creek flood control along the Lower Platte River.

Those projects, along with creation of the proposed lake between Lincoln and Omaha, would generate an estimated $5.6 billion in regional economic impact during construction and more than $150 million in annual regional economic impact, the committee stated. 

Ricketts centered on the development of a canal and reservoir system along the South Platte River, pointing to the impact on irrigation, drinking water, the ability to generate electric power and its environmental impact.

Projects now in the planning stage in Colorado could result in a nearly 90 percent reduction in water flows coming into Nebraska, he said.

“They fired the first shot,” Attorney General Doug Peterson said, pointing to Colorado’s decision to attempt to capture the water before it entered Nebraska.

“We’re notifying Colorado that we’re moving forward with this process,” he said.

Ricketts launched the news conference, which included members of the legislative committee, with the statement: “After her people, water is Nebraska’s greatest resource.”

Today’s officeholders need to “assure access to water resources for generations to come,” he said.

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