Big lake proposal hits choppy waters; one landowner says he’s not selling

Preferred site is in Sarpy County, north and south of Linoma Beach area

By: - February 10, 2022 9:00 pm
Big lake proposal

A possible 4,000-acre sandpit lake could be carved between Omaha and Lincoln. (Courtesy of

LINCOLN — A proposal to build a 4,000-acre sandpit lake between Omaha and Lincoln ran into some choppy waters Thursday, with one owner of land on the preferred site saying his property wasn’t for sale.

Dan Bundy, whose family has farmed west of Gretna for more than a century, also wondered whether the state would be utilizing eminent domain to take his farm ground for the sandpit lake, saying he’s had land condemned for less than it’s worth in the past.

“There is little doubt that this lake would be a huge windfall for the State of Nebraska … but what about those of us, like myself and my family, who would be under the lake?” Bundy asked.

Sen. Mike Hilgers
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln presents proposals Thursday to enhance state recreation and economic development. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The massive sandpit lake was one of several recommendations that grew out of a special legislative study last year on how to enhance recreation in the state and thus encourage economic development and keep more young people in the state.

Size similar to Lake Okoboji

The $200 million worth of suggestions include improvements at Lake McConaughy, Niobrara State Park and Lewis & Clark Lake. But the idea that has drawn the most conversation is building a 7-mile-long sandpit lake, comparable to the size of Iowa’s Lake Okoboji, between the state’s two largest cities. 

“It’s hard to state in economic terms what these projects will generate,” said State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln. “This is an opportunity to do a big swing for the State of Nebraska.”

While similar proposals in the past have failed because they involved damming the Platte, drawing opposition from citizens of Ashland and others, this one seems to have legs since it doesn’t involve a dam and because the state is flush with excess funds and federal stimulus money.

Hilgers led the legislative study, dubbed the STAR WARS committee, or the Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability, which recommended the big lake and the other recreation projects as “transformation” steps to grow population and economic activity. 

Several recommendations came out of the 2021 legislative study by the so-called STAR WARS committee. (Legislative Fiscal Office figures)

He said backers are seeking to form a public-private partnership, with the private partner financing 90% of the estimated $1 billion cost of the lake.

All the Star Wars proposals combined could generate $150 million in annual economic benefits, Hilgers said. 

At a legislative hearing on the proposals Thursday, it was revealed that the preferred site for the huge Nebraska lake is on the east side of the Platte River, north and south of the Linoma Beach area, in Sarpy County. U.S. Highway 6 runs through the proposed lake site, and presumably it would be raised to allow boats to access waters on either side.

Representatives of the Ogallala and Niobrara areas praised the improvements planned in their areas, and economic development officials lauded the plan as a much needed catalyst for growth in population and commerce.

Wiser investments?

But several questions were raised by groups including the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and Nebraska Farmers Union about building a brand-new lake. They questioned whether it might be wiser to spend the $46 million earmarked for initial steps for the big lake on smaller projects and improvements at existing parks and trails.

Others said the big lake would have no significant flood-control benefits and, because it would be built in a floodplain, it might silt in or sweep away “McMansions” planned on its banks.

“Are we just building this lake for millionaires to build homes around?”

– State Sen. Justin Wayne

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha questioned how much public access there would be to the lake and whether it would be managed by the state or some private interest.

“Are we just building this lake for millionaires to build homes around?” Wayne asked, outside the public hearing.

Hilgers, who is also Speaker of the Legislature, rejected that suggestion.

The senator, who is running for Nebraska attorney general, said that “a significant portion” of the lake would be set aside for public access and that the state would own the lake. He added, however, that private homes would also built along the shores of the lake, which would be just upstream of the Platte River bridge on Interstate 80.

Bundy, as well as Phil Young, a representative of the 29-lot Beacon View cabin development just north of Linoma Beach, questioned how building such a huge lake would impact their properties and possibly increase flood dangers.

“We need to take a deep dive into what consequences this reservoir could have,”

– Rick Kubat of MUD


Officials with the Lincoln Water System and Metropolitan Utilities District — which both have well fields near the proposed lake site to draw drinking water — also expressed concerns. They called for studies on the potential impact of the quality and quantity of groundwater that supplies more than half of the state’s population.  

“We need to take a deep dive into what consequences this reservoir could have,” said Rick Kubat of MUD.

Hilgers sought to assuage concerns. He said a planned $20 million study would address the issues raised by the water systems.

He also said the Sarpy County site hasn’t been “fully settled” as the location. Hilgers said sites on the west side of the Platte, presumably in Saunders County, had also been explored.

Willing sellers preferred

He said it is hoped that the lake site could be purchased from willing sellers. 

When asked if eminent domain — which involves getting a court order to take land for a public purpose — could be used for a project that’s mostly about recreation, Hilgers, who is a lawyer, said he’s hoping eminent domain would not have to be considered.

Eminent domain is mostly used for projects such as road construction, but its threatened use helped increase opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Bundy said he had a bad experience when a portion of his land was taken for the Nebraska National Guard camp near Ashland.

Hilgers said the big lake and other STAR WARS projects would proceed on two tracks. One is getting the $200 million appropriated for the projects. The other is ensuring that the project is feasible and that a private developer can be found to finance the bulk of the project.

The Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee took no action on the STAR WARS proposals, contained in Legislative Bill 1023, following a three-hour hearing. 

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.