New Lake Nebraska proposal raises questions and concerns

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A proposal to dredge a major new lake along the Platte River between Omaha and Lincoln prompted a host of questions and no clear answers Thursday from cities, conservationists and government officials. a landowner who might be in the way of the project.

Some of the organizations said they did not oppose the idea outright, but expressed concerns about the lake’s potential impact on the river and surrounding areas. Conservationists said they were worried about the impact on wildlife and the environment, while water regulators in Omaha and Lincoln raised concerns about how which could affect their water supplies.

“Overall, there are simply too few details available about how the bill would alter the hydrology and ecology of the river,” said Melissa Mosier, Platte River manager for the group. Conservation Audubon Nebraska.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, the sponsor of the measure, acknowledged that more study is needed before the state moves forward. Hilgers said the package already included money to carry out these reviews and warned that many things could derail the project before it begins.

“We need answers before we do a project of this magnitude,” he said in testimony before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.

The Lake Omaha-Lincoln measure is part of a larger package, backed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, that is reportedly spending about $200 million on water projects across the state.

The proposal also includes a marina and roadway improvements at Lake McConaughy Recreation Area in western Nebraska, as well as a visitor lodge and other improvements at Niobrara State Park. Both of those proposals won strong public support at Thursday’s hearing, with one proponent calling the Niobrara plan a “slam dunk” for northeast Nebraska.

A special legislative committee approved the Lake Omaha-Lincoln idea in January as a way to boost the state’s economy and promote tourism.

State officials haven’t set an exact location, but the roughly 3,600-acre lake is likely near Mahoney State Park, a popular state campground, and reaches 30 feet depth. An artist’s rendering shows the lake between Gretna and Ashland, on the east side of the Platte River and north of Interstate 80.

Hilgers said the lake could rival West Okoboji Lake in western Iowa, one of the state’s biggest tourist destinations.

Lake Omaha-Lincoln would also require private investment, as state officials have said they will not commit taxpayer dollars to developing the area around it.

Rick Kubat, a lobbyist for Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District, said the city’s water supplier was concerned about the project’s potential impact on drinking water.

“It is our assertion that the first step, the very first thing we should do, is to dive deep into the consequences in terms of public water supply,” Kubat said.

Al Davis, a former state legislator and lobbyist for Nebraska’s Sierra Club, questioned the wisdom of the estimated $71.1 million project, saying it would likely benefit wealthier residents who could afford houses by the lake.

Davis said lamwakers “should really focus on preserving the natural environment” and said the lake would likely be flooded by the Platte River unless authorities built large levees along the river.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said his group supports development projects in western and northern Nebraska, but said Lake Lincoln-Omaha “looks much more environmentally suspect.”

The project also worried Dan Bundy, a landowner whose property might be on the way to the lake. Bundy said he and his neighbors quickly realized their properties would be overwhelmed if the artist’s rendering became a reality, and he feared the state would not compensate him fairly.

“There’s no question there could be a huge windfall for the state of Nebraska and the landowners who have properties around the lake,” he said. “But what about those of us, including me and my family, who would be under the lake?”

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