Governor signs bills for big lake, park enhancements and Perkins Canal

‘We will build this canal,’ Ricketts said, of $500 million project

By: - April 18, 2022 5:26 pm
Big lake proposal

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

LINCOLN — To applause from advocates for water recreation and crop irrigation, Gov. Ricketts signed into law Monday two major bills dealing with water infrastructure.

During a bill signing ceremony at the State Capitol, officials stopped short of saying that eminent domain would not be used to accomplish one of the projects — a huge, sandpit lake for recreation located between Omaha and Lincoln.

Sen. Mike Hilgers
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“I never say never on almost everything,” said Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Mike Hilgers, a leading advocate for the proposed seven-mile-long lake.

 He repeated his assurances that “arm’s length transactions” — and not court orders — will be sought to acquire land for the lake, if a study deems it feasible.

‘Win, win, win’

“This is meant to be a win, win, win for the state of Nebraska,” Hilgers said. “That includes the people whose land might be part of this lake.”

One of the bills signed into law Monday was Legislative Bill 1023, which calls for about $200 million in enhancements to Nebraska lakes and parks. It also sets aside $20 million to study whether the big lake is feasible and earmarks another $26 million toward construction.

The big lake grew out of a legislative study last year led by Hilgers and a committee called “STARWARS,” or the Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability.

The idea, Hilgers said, was to envision “transformation” steps to help enhance the quality of life in Nebraska and to increase population and economic activity. 

Concerns about floods, eminent domain

But landowners living in the preferred location of the big lake, an expanse of flat farmland and sand pits in Sarpy County near Linoma Beach, have expressed concerns about whether such a massive sandpit and new development might worsen flooding risks for them and whether their property might be taken via eminent domain.

Kari McConkey, whose family owns a 61-acre plot along the Platte River with a lake and five homes, said the family still has a sour taste after about 250 acres of their land was taken via court order in the 1970s by the water system of the City of Lincoln. Lincoln has a well field on an island in the Platte River, and the land they took was for a road and bridge leading to the island.

McConkey said her family felt they didn’t get a fair price via the eminent domain action back in the ‘70s, and they worry history could repeat itself if the big lake proposal moves forward. 

Hilgers has said that removing existing homes is not the goal of the big lake project, which would fulfill a longtime need for water recreation near the state’s two largest cities. 

Platte River at Beacon View
The Platte River, just across from the Nebraska National Guard training camp. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

On Monday, he said that a feasibility study of the lake project, including the impact on Lincoln and Omaha drinking water well fields, will take two to three years but that an exact site should be known sooner.

Residents on the Sarpy County side of the Platte, north and south of Linoma Beach, have said property to the east of them is the preferred site for the lake. They said they’ve been told that U.S. Highway 6 would become a “causeway” through the middle of the lake, allowing boats to traverse under bridges to either side of the lake.

$1 billion investment

Hilgers has said a public-private partnership would build the lake, requiring up to $1 billion in investment. Drawings of the lake have shown hotels, condos and a marina lining the waterfront.

Two lawyers with experience in property law said the state likely could use eminent domain to obtain property for the big lake if necessary. A government entity must show that land taken via eminent domain is for a public use, such as a road or electric transmission line.

Brian Jorde, an Omaha attorney who has defended landowners against eminent domain actions related to the Keystone XL pipeline, said a city could condemn his front yard for a park because the “bar is so low” to show a public purpose.

Jessica Shoemaker, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, said there is precedence for taking land via eminent domain for public marinas, other water projects and recreational trails. 

Other projects

Several other projects are included in LB 1023, including new marinas at Lake McConaughy and Lewis & Clark Lake and a new conference center/lodge at Niobrara State Park.

Also signed into law Monday was LB 1015, which authorizes planning and construction of the Perkins County Canal, which would  divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado to storage reservoirs in Nebraska. The water would be used to enhance flows in the Platte River through Nebraska or for irrigation.

Ricketts and other officials have said the $500 million canal is the only way Nebraska can claim flows it was granted in a century-old compact with Colorado over rights to water from the South Platte, which flows from the Rocky Mountains to a confluence with the North Platte River in Nebraska.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said the compact clearly gives Nebraska the legal right to flows from the South Platte River during the non-irrigation months. Whether or not it would inspire lawsuits, which are common in water dispute, is hard to predict, Peterson said Monday.

Canal can assure water rights

Nebraska officials maintain Colorado is aggressively developing water projects that, if completed, would consume 90% of the river’s flow, depriving Nebraska of its share.

A spokesman for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has called the Perkins County Canal, which was abandoned nearly a century ago, a “canal to nowhere” and a “boondoggle” that will never be built. 

Said Ricketts on Monday: “We can only enforce our (water) rights if we have this canal. So we will build this canal.”

Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said it could take nine to 10 years before the canal could be built.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. 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.

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