KEARNEY — Several people in a standing-room-only group of more than 50 Nebraskans questioned Gov. Pete Ricketts Friday about why the state should spend $500 million in taxpayer money on a canal and reservoir system aimed at Colorado.
Kearney City Council member Tami Moore said she left the meeting convinced that Nebraska needs to work together on this water project before opportunities in Nebraska’s cities and rural areas dry up. She came to hear Ricketts talk water and taxes. Ricketts was scheduled to appear at similar town hall meetings later Friday in Norfolk and Nebraska City.
“The water issue, it really clarified what that was about,” said Moore, who teaches family science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “I’m a little uncomfortable that we’ve waited this long to do something about it.
“We are kind of behind the 8-ball on that one.”
On water, Ricketts echoed what he told the Legislature’s Appropriations and Natural Resources Committees: He said Nebraska risks watching its Platte River flows drop sharply if the state doesn’t assert a right it has had since 1923.
Nebraska, in that water compact, negotiated a senior water right with Colorado that promises Nebraska flows of 500 cubic feet per second from the South Platte River from mid-October through until April 1, outside of irrigation season.
But the compact says the only way Nebraska can claim that water is if the state builds the Perkins County Canal in Colorado and several storage reservoirs along the South Platte River, the governor and his water czar explained.
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said Nebraska has seen flows dropping at the Colorado-Nebraska border during and outside irrigation season, as more people move to cities on Colorado’s Front Range.
“Right now, Colorado is diverting that water into its own storage systems,” Riley said. “They have a junior right.”
Nebraska is racing the clock, he and Ricketts said. Colorado in 2016 and last year laid out plans to build $10 billion in water storage and retention projects that would allow only the minimum required amount of water to flow into Nebraska.
The main requirement active today is that Colorado provide Nebraska 120 cubic feet per second during irrigation season, from April 1 to Oct. 15. Beyond that, Colorado doesn’t have to provide any water — zero — without the proposed project.
With the canal and reservoirs in place, Ricketts and Riley said Nebraska would be able to keep off-season water flows about at the level they’ve been over the past decade. Riley said the state seeks to protect what it’s getting, not more.
“We use too much water,” he said. “Colorado uses too much water. And now they want to use more.”
Don Batie, a Lexington-area corn, soybean and wheat farmer who serves on the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, called the water project vital.
“Water availability in Nebraska not only drives ag, it drives economic development in communities along the Platte,” Batie said. “It’s hard to grow without water.”
On taxes, Ricketts invited three Kearney business owners to speak about the need, Yousef Ghamedi, owner of Cunningham’s Journal restaurant, Tom Henning of Cash-Wa and Megan Goeke, who co-owns Hello Beautiful Bridal & Formal Wear.
Goeke said any tax relief would help her businesses invest more into the community and state. She said the pandemic took a bite out of business, with people canceling or postponing weddings, proms and formal dances.
“We need to help our young people be able to make a good living, establish a household and raise a family,” she said.
Ghamedi shared the governor’s theme on taxes, that it’s vital to helping places like Kearney retain young talent.
“We employ a number of young people who leave right after they graduate from UNK,” Ghamedi said. “We don’t have beaches. Or mountains. We just have to keep those young people here before they hop on a plane and leave.”
Others have argued that amenities and investments that improve a community’s quality of life matter more. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert cited both when announcing investments in new downtown parks and, most recently, a streetcar system.
Moore said students rarely ask about taxes or tax rates when they decide where to live. But she said tax relief is important for economic development and attracting a workforce in general.
“I want to see Nebraskans start to work together again,” Moore said. “Both of these issues are things we can do together, and that gives me a lot of optimism.”
Henning, who serves on the state economic forecasting board that estimates how much revenue the state will pull in, says Nebraska needs to seize the moment for tax relief.
Dick Pierce, a retired Buffalo County board member on the Nebraska Cattlemen board, said that tax relief is always welcome but that structural, lasting reform of taxes would be better — especially of Nebraska’s property taxes.
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.