Water users file lawsuit and protest against proposed merger of power districts

Water users file lawsuit and protest against proposed merger of power districts
COURTESY/ Dawson Public Power District and Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District
December 9th, 2022 | Paul Hammel, Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — A group of central Nebraska irrigators, upset over the proposed merger of two public power and irrigation districts, have now taken legal steps to block it.

A lawsuit filed Friday by a group called “Citizens Opposed to the Merger” maintains that public meeting laws were violated when the governing boards of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and Dawson Public Power voted in October to move ahead with the merger.

The Citizens group, as well as two couples identified as Phelps County irrigators, filed a formal protest to the merger Monday with the Nebraska Power Review Board, which is scheduled to consider approving the merger at its Dec. 16 meeting.

Could save millions
Proponents of the merger have said it would save millions of dollars in electrical costs and makes sense because it would combine Central, which provides irrigation water and generates hydropower at Lake McConaughy and elsewhere, with Dawson, a major retail provider of power.

But Gary Robison of Bertrand, the chairman of the Citizens Opposed to the Merger, said that more and more concerns have arisen with his group of irrigators as more details of the merger have come out.

The protest, filed by the Omaha law firm Kutak Rock, spells out those concerns. The merger, it states:

Would “prejudice” rural water users of Central by diluting the membership from the major irrigation areas on the merged board.
Would “unfairly obligate” existing customers of Central to pay off debts of the Dawson district.
Was not valid because Central failed to fill a vacancy on its board, thus nullifying the board’s October vote to move forward.
Fails to reduce duplication and “serve the public convenience and welfare,” as required in state law.
Robison said the irrigators are worried that the merged district might sell off some of its water, which would hurt existing water users, or cease to use funds generated by production of electricity to offset costs of delivering water through Central’s system of canals.

“In our opinion, it looks like ‘sign this agreement and trust us,’ ” he said. “No. We want a better agreement or leave like it like it is.”

Jeff Buettner, a spokesman for Central Nebraska, said Wednesday that he could not comment on pending litigation. A consultant has previously said $12 million in electric purchases could be saved over seven years via the merger.

The lawsuit was filed by an attorney with the Lincoln law firm of former Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Hearing might be held in January
Tim Texel of the Nebraska Power Review Board said the Citizens group, as well as Greg and Linda Heiden and Richard and Susan Waller, signed the protest filed Monday.

He said the board, which oversees the state’s public power districts, must first consider whether the Citizens group and the two couples have “standing” to protest the merger. If they do, Texel said it’s possible a public hearing on the protest of the proposed merger could be delayed until the Power Review Board’s Jan. 27 meeting.

Central, based in Holdrege, serves 900 irrigators on the south side of the Platte River via its canal system. It also operates Kingsley Dam on Lake McConaughy. Dawson, based in Lexington, is one of the state’s largest rural electric providers.

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