The Nebraska Legislature has given 36-3 first-round approval to a bill allowing the state to build the Perkins County Canal, which would divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado to new reservoirs in southwest Nebraska.
Despite the overwhelming vote Wednesday afternoon, several senators made it clear they weren’t convinced the canal is a good idea or needed and that they could vote against it on 2nd round or final approval.
The canal is allowed under a 99-year old compact dividing up the water in the South Platte, but it was never built. Gov Pete Ricketts announced the plan in January, saying the project was needed to keep Colorado from taking part of Nebraska’s share.
One point of dispute in the legislature was the expected price tag. Ricketts wants $500-million dollars for the project, but several senators said the final cost when inflation and legal battles with Colorado are included will be a billion or a billion and half dollars.
The budget-writing Appropriations Committee has put just $53-million for design work in its 2-year spending plan. Chairman John Stinner of Gering didn’t want that much and says it would be fiscally irresponsible to spend $500-million without more study.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers gave 29-4 first-round approval to 3 other big water projects including a new marina at Lake McConaughy and a marina, lodge, and events center at Niobrara State Park and Lewis and Clark Lake.
The biggest is a new 4,000-acre sandpit lake between Omaha and Lincoln estimated to cost between $500-million and $1-billion dollars. The bill has $20-million for a feasibility study and $26-million set aside for eventual construction.
All 3 projects came from the STARWARS – Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability – Special Committee led by Speaker Mike Hilgers, who is one of the strongest supporters of the new lake.
Backers say the lake would help attract and retain young professionals who want nearby recreational activities, but opponents argue there are many other things that are more important for attracting people to the state.
There are also concerns about the level of public access to all parts of the lake, leading backers to say an amendment ensuring access is being drafted.