Irrigators upset over proposed merger of central Nebraska irrigation/power districts

Water users maintain that they’ll lose clout over a precious resource: water

By: - October 24, 2022 4:30 am
ditch irrigation

Pipe irrigation using water provided by the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. (Courtesy of Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District)

LINCOLN — Water users in the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District plan a show of force Monday to oppose a proposed merger between Central and the Dawson Public Power District.

The governing boards of the two districts have scheduled a joint board meeting for 3 p.m. Monday at Elwood to vote on a merger that has been considered and studied since 2020.

A consultant hired by the districts has said a merger could result in savings in power supply costs via combining facilities.

Vote during harvest

But irrigators in the Central District see something else: a hasty vote during harvest season for farmers, a loss of clout on a merged board and concerns that electricity costs, instead of delivering water to irrigators, will become the top priority.

“Central is basically an irrigation company that generates some hydropower,” said Dave Dahlgren of Holdrege, president of the Central water users. “This fundamentally changes that.”

Former State Sen. Ed Schrock of Holdrege, one of those water users, said that currently there are nine slots on the 12-member Central board for representatives of the three major irrigation counties — Phelps, Gosper and Kearney, which are all on the south side of the Platte River.

‘Giving our voice away’

But under the proposed merger, only six of 14 board members on the merged board would be from those counties, thus lessening the influence of irrigators, said Schrock, who now serves on the Nebraska Public Power District Board.

“It seems to me we’re giving our voice away,” Schrock said. “There’s a lot of unhappy people out here.”

Alex Linden, a spokesman for Central, said exploration of a possible merger began two years ago and has progressed to the fourth phase, with each phase getting approval by the Central and Dawson boards.

In February, Wisconsin-based consultant Power Systems Engineering reported that a consolidation could save an estimated $11.7 million for the two districts over seven years.

A ‘long, long process’

Linden said the final vote is being held Monday so that if a merger is approved, it could be considered by the Nebraska Power Review Board at its December meeting, and the merged districts could begin working on a new power contract, which expires in 2024.

“It’s been a long, long process,” Linden said.

Both Dahlgren and Schrock said irrigators probably should have been more engaged earlier in the consideration of the merger. But they complained that recent open houses, and Monday’s meeting, are coming amid harvest season, when farmers are busy.

They are urging farmers to “shut down their combines” and come to Monday’s meeting in hopes that the decision could be postponed to allow more input from water users.

Like stealing the courthouse

I’m very disappointed in the way they’ve handled this,” Schrock said. “I equate it with trying to move the courthouse in the middle of the night.”

When asked if the decision could be postponed, Linden said he could not think of a reason why that could happen.

The meeting will be held at the Elwood Civic Center in Elwood.

Central, formed in 1933, delivers irrigation water to more than 109,000 acres on the south side of the Platte River between North Platte and Minden. The district also provides supplemental water from Lake McConaughy to more than 100,000 acres along the North Platte and Platte Rivers.

The district generates electricity at four hydropower plants, one at Kingsley Dam and three on Central’s supply canal.

The Dawson Public Power District, formed in 1937, serves more than 23,000 electric meters and maintains over 5,800 miles of power lines in south-central Nebraska on the north side of the Platte River.

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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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