Straight Talk From Steve: LB 818
May 11, 2023
Last week we began debating budget bills in the Nebraska State Legislature. One of those bills, LB 818, appropriates $574 million for construction of the Perkins County Canal Project. That canal would deliver 1000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) to Nebraska. Funding for the Perkins County Canal became the subject of a three-hour floor debate after Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh introduced an amendment to reduce the funding to $449 million. According to Sen. Cavanaugh Nebraska would be better served with a canal delivering 500 cfs of water which "gets the job done" and uses the extra $125 million on other worthwhile projects.
Today I would like to tell you why the State needs to spend the full amount of $574 million on the Perkins County Canal Project instead of building a less expensive smaller canal. The necessity for this project begins with understanding the South Platte River Compact which was negotiated with Colorado and signed in Lincoln on April 27, 1923 and approved by Congress later that same year.
The South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska to receive 120 cfs of water during the irrigation season and 500 cfs of water during the non-irrigation season. However, that allowance depends upon Nebraska constructing the Perkins County Canal. As a condition, Nebraska must have a specific use for the water in order to require Colorado to release that much water, and building the Perkins County Canal with reservoirs provides Nebraskans with that specific use.
By spending the full amount of $574 million, which Gov. Pillen recommended in his proposed budget for the State, Nebraska will be better positioned to save water for future use. The full amount of $574 million includes funding for reservoirs along the canal, which are permitted in the original compact.
Reservoirs are necessary for the conservation of water. The South Platte River is currently prone to flooding about once every seven years. By building a canal with a 1000 cfs flow of water we would be able to direct the surplus of water into reservoirs and save it for use during drought years.
Conserving surplus water in reservoirs would serve the State of Nebraska in several ways. The first pertains to irrigation. Farmers will be able to use these waters in future years to supplement their irrigation needs. That's important because agriculture is Nebraska's largest industry.
Reservoirs also create habitat for waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife who depend upon water to sustain life. Reservoirs along the South Platte River would enhance the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program which aims to preserve Nebraska's endangered species.
Reservoirs also create opportunities for recreation. Reservoirs create opportunities for recreational activities such as boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and waterskiing. These kinds of recreational activities help to bring commerce and revenue into the state. Since Lake McConaughy capped annual visitation to 2 million visitors, the need has arisen for additional reservoirs for recreational activities.
Hydropower would be another benefit of building the canal with reservoirs. Releases from Lake McConaughy and at other reservoirs downstream would enhance already existing hydropower plants providing power for local communities and help reduce the need for power generated by coal and oil.
Finally, building a canal with a 1000 cfs flow of water would help Nebraska's growing cities and industries. As demand for water in these areas grows, reservoirs along the Perkins County Canal would provide water for these communities and allow them to forego more expensive ways of getting water to where it is needed.
For these reasons, I believe the legislature needs to approve the full amount of $574 million. The time to build the Perkins County Canal the right way is now. If we build it right the first time, we won't have to rebuild it again at some future date.