ASHLAND – The words “dam” and “Ashland” go together like oil and water.
Ashland has a history of battling attempts to dam the nearby Platte River that date back to the late 1800s.
The issue has come up once again, but the will not be detrimental to Ashland, according to those who have backed the idea.
State Sen. Mike McDonnel of Omaha sat down with representatives from the City of Ashland and the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce last Thursday to discuss LR333, which would conduct an interim study to examine the idea of placing one or more reservoirs on the Platte River and its tributaries.
McDonnell introduced the resolution during the second session of the 106th Legislature. A meeting was held in December 2019 but local officials were not involved, although McDonnell said he did speak with Ashland Mayor Rick Grauerholz about the resolution.
Grauerholz was out of town on Thursday and could not attend the meeting.
Since last December, little has been done on the issue because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McDonnell said. The study was supposed to have been done by April 23, but the delay has changed the timeline, he added.
Chamber President Bradley Pfeiffer asked McDonnell to come to Ashland to discuss the proposed study and invited State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who represents Ashland in District 23, to also attend the meeting at Glacial Till Tasting Room and Cider House in downtown Ashland.
Pfeiffer told the senators that Ashland has faced the idea of damming the Platte to create a lake every 15 or 20 years for nearly as long as the community has been in existence. When the word “dam” comes up, it paints a gray picture for a city that is growing in terms of population and economic development, he said.
“Ashland is definitely moving up and anything we can do to take the gray cloud away with both of your help (is welcome),” he added.
The most recent proposal to dam the Platte River came in 2012 when then-State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha asked for a study to look at the idea. Former Omaha Mayor Hal Daub testified in favor of the dam. The bill was killed by the Appropriations Committee before reaching the floor of the Unicameral after compelling testimony from local leaders and representatives from Metropolitan Utilities District, which pumps much of Omaha’s drinking water from the Platte River.
Daub was also a major player in the 2006 push for a $3 million study of the dam idea. LB1121 introduced by Pam Brown of Omaha. At that time, Ashland rallied against the idea with a “Save Ashland” campaign that included busing residents to the state capitol to hold a protest during committee hearings. The bill was again voted down by the Appropriations Committee.
Daub was also behind a 1999 effort to put up a dam near the community.
Ashland also fought for almost a decade against a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam. The idea was introduced in the early 1960s and hung around until the early 1970s. The dam plan was also floated around in the 1930s and as early as 1896.
Each time, the plan would have included putting all or some of the Ashland area under water.
McDonnell assured Pfeiffer and the others that this time, the approach will be different.
“We’re not looking at disturbing this community or any other community,” he said.
The idea came about as a possible method of flood control in the wake of the devastating floods that took place in March 2019, McDonnell said.
Ashland City Council Member Chuck Niemeyer said 46% of the flood water on the Platte River in 2019 came from the Loup River and 32% from the Elkhorn River. He suggested they look at stopping the floodwaters upstream from the Platte rather than at Ashland.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he added.
Bostelman has been working on a bill to establish a statewide flood mitigation plan since the 2019 floods damaged many areas of his district.
Flood control needs to be addressed across all of Nebraska, not just in the eastern part, where this resolution is focused, Bostelman said.
“The entire state we have to look at,” he said.
Although Bostelman did not introduce LR333, he said he will keep an eye on the resolution.
“I’ll be involved as much as I need to be with that,” he said.
Members of the Ashland Chamber and the City Council also plan to stay involved. Pfeiffer said there are several Chamber members who have volunteered to attend future meetings about LR333. McDonnell said he would make sure Ashland stays informed.
“We’ll keep you up to speed,” he said.
McDonnell plans for the private and public sector to work together on the study without spending taxpayer dollars. He has proposed having Bing Chen, an engineering professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, take the lead on the study. Because Chen is employed by a state university, he would be doing the work while already being paid by the university. Chen also suggested using students to help with the study.
The senator has also suggested that John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, help with the study. Again, it would not cost the taxpayers extra money because Winkler is already employed by a government entity, McDonnell said.
Chamber Member Shirley Niemeyer said Chen and Winkler testified in favor of the 2006 study, suggesting they would not be impartial.
“I would encourage your senators to think about how to disburse that so you have people with an independent role do the study,” she said.
Helen Raikes, who is running against Bostelman for the District 23 seat in the November General Election, also attended the meeting.
She said the purpose of the study should be made public from the very beginning, using Lake Wanahoo near Wahoo as an example. Farmers in Saunders County were told that the Wanahoo project would be more about flood control, but it has turned into more of a recreational project, she added.
“It seems important to have all the purposes for the project on the table at the same time,” she said.
The purposes outlined in the text of LR333 state the study would consider the impact and placement of the dam or dams to provide flood control, hydroelectric energy, recreation, economic development and environmental stewardship.
McDonnell said there is no “hidden agenda” with LR333 and the proposal is still in the early stages.
“We’ve not taken the first step of a thousand steps,” he said.