This Week's Editorial
Decision time PDF E-mail

The Keystone XL Pipeline project took a significant step forward this week with an environmental impact statement that reduces if not removes some of the concerns regarding environmental safety.

Nebraskans have watched this process unfold with a vested interest for nearly five years now. It’s been an emotional debate, but at this point it’s becoming clear that there are far more pros than cons regarding the proposed $7 billion project.

Though the State Department report stopped short of endorsing the pipeline, it downplayed the environmental risks and stated that oil sands extraction will likely proceed at the same rate with or without the project.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists on both sides of the issue are citing points in the report which they claim make their arguments stronger. Bold Nebraska and other environmental groups will oppose this project on principle, regardless of what new facts or information are presented. That’s not going to change.

As we have said in the past, protecting the Ogallala Aquifer should be the trump card in this debate, as far as Nebraska is concerned. As many benefits as there are regarding job creation and a move toward energy independence, the thought of a spill polluting our precious underground water supply is simply unimaginable.

For that reason, we opposed the project’s initial path, and applauded lawmakers in 2011 when they were successful in convincing TransCanada to move the route further east. That was a game-changer.

Since that time, the political bantering has continued to rage in what has become a symbol of political debate over climate change. This week’s report focused specifically on the TransCanada pipeline, and after a detailed review concluded that it is not a major environmental risk.

It’s time now for a decision. This week’s report will be followed by a 30-day comment period, but it is possible that a final decision could come by early summer. President Obama claims this is not a political issue, but those words will ring hollow now if he doesn’t do his job and push for a go or no-go decision.

Based on what we learned this week in the State Department report, the Keystone XL Pipeline should proceed as planned.

Kurt Johnson

Emotional issue PDF E-mail

Life-giving water is a priceless resource in our state, second only perhaps to Nebraska’s hard-working people. It is simply impossible to calculate the value of our underground water supply, though it is possible, and quite necessary, to measure its depth.

Especially in a land where agriculture is king and the annual bounty from local fields ripples far and wide throughout the economy, having access to a reliable, sustainable underground water supply is a game changer. Hamilton County is so incredibly blessed in that regard, which translated to record ag profits during the 2012 drought.

The thought of having restricted access to that priceless underground Ogallala Aquifer is understandably ruffling some feathers these days. It’s not a new concept in Nebraska by any means, as farmers out in the southwest corner of the state began dealing with water allocations way back in 1978. It is, however, a harsh new potential reality around here.

Emotions flared at a November public hearing in York when the Upper Big Blue Natural Resource District Board discussed Rule 5 changes which could go into effect if the groundwater table goes down another three feet. The Upper Big Blue District, which includes Hamilton County, has not yet hit the trigger level of decline, but it likely will, NRD officials predict, with another dry year or two.

If and when that trigger level is hit, area producers would be allocated 30 acre inches of groundwater over a three-year period, an average of 10 inches per year (see related front page story). The following five years, the allocation would be 45 inches, dropping the average to nine inches per year.

In a “normal” precipitation year, if there is such a thing, those allocation levels would be sufficient for area producers to basically continue doing  business as usual. We don’t have to look back far, however, to know what a dramatic impact a 10-inch limit would have had in 2012.

As bitter a pill as this could be to swallow, especially for producers who recently paid top dollar to buy irrigated farmland, the NRD’s big-picture goal is a worthy one. That goal is to sustain the groundwater at 1978 levels or better, in effect managing a complex water regulation business in dry times so the aquifer can recharge itself in good times.

Education is a critical piece of this process, and on that note Rule 5 changes should be required reading for any and all who share a vested interest in the local water supply, as well as the area economy. That would include virtually everyone.

History, and NRD records, have proven that the groundwater will recover if given a chance. As serious as these allocations would be, if implemented, they are part of a logical approach to sustain this invaluable resource for future generations.

Kurt Johnson

Spokes in the wheel PDF E-mail

Looking back over 10 years worth of building permits, a pattern emerges which is worth noting as we start a new year.

Despite some serious ups and downs in the national economy, Aurora citizens, businesses and organizations continue to invest huge sums of money, adding to and strengthening what some have termed the community’s “spokes in the wheel.” That wheel represents progress, and it’s encouraging to see that Aurora continues to move forward each and every year.

2013 was not a record year by any means, in terms of construction, but it was a solid year. The final tally of the 105 building permits issued at City Hall added up to $8.9 million (See related story in this week’s edition). That’s down $5 million from a year ago, but still a significant sum no matter how you slice or dice it.

One of the reasons that number is what it is each year is a constant, sometimes unnoticed, effort to prime the pump. Aurora has not one but two housing development groups, for example, which is not at all common for rural Nebraska communities. Realizing that available housing is one of the key ingredients a community must have in order to grow, these two boards were formed years ago and work all year long to encourage and promote housing projects.

Those efforts have paid off over time, with 351 new homes or duplexes built over the past 23 years. Local foundations have played a key role as well, purchasing adjacent land, creating new subdivisions and in effect opening the door for new housing growth.

The “spokes in the wheel” philosophy refers to a complete community, which is reflected in many of the construction projects initiated each year. In the past few years, for example, Aurora has seen several new businesses go up or expand, providing new jobs; built a community-based day care facility so that those new employees could find a place to care for their children; and enhanced Aurora’s quality of  life with investments in a swimming pool, ball fields, competition gymnasium and field turf projects.

This is an ag-based community, and that too is reflected in the list of building permits. Agriculture always has been and always will be one of the community’s strongest spokes in that wheel. Millions of dollars have been spent over the past decade on ag-related projects, money that ripples through the rest of the economy again and again and again.

There are so many variables regarding construction projects that it’s hard to predict what a new year will bring, especially with $4 corn raising questions in the ag sector. The one constant in Aurora, however, is the behind-the scenes effort to foster, encourage and create new opportunities, all designed to keep the wheel strong and rolling.

Kurt Johnson

Turning the page PDF E-mail

It’s been an emotional year in Hamilton County.
Retracing the ups, the downs, the good news and challenging developments of the past 12 months as we typically do for our annual Top 10 Stories of the year poll, it struck us that we’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster in 2013.
We asked approximately 50 people -- teachers, farmers, business men and women, youth, retirees and public officials -- what headlines stood out in the busy year that ends Tuesday at midnight. Their responses confirmed what we already knew. We’ve taken some hits as a community this year.
Unlike previous years, when the progressive nature and positive thinkers in our midst dominated the local headlines with stories of growth and innovation, this year we had more than our fair share of tragedy and challenges. In fact, half of the top 10 local stories had a negative connotation, which fortunately is the exception, not the norm.
The No. 1 story involved some angst along the way, but by the time the decision was made to go forward with building a new swimming pool it had to be considered a good news event. That facility will soon be a drawing card for young families and energetic, health-conscious folks looking for some fun and/or heat relief. The pool project had been talked about for as much as a decade, some recall, so the time had come to take the plunge.
The loss of any business is tough to take for a small-town economy, but when one of those closing its doors is one of two locally owned grocery store it really stings. We’re pleased to see how Mike and Pat Gibilisco and the staff at Super Foods moved forward in a merger with the Aurora Mall, but we can’t help but notice the changing retail/shopping landscape and its impact on rural communities.
You simply can’t put into words the sorrow and sense of loss the community felt with the death of two spirited individuals. Police Chief Godfrey Brokenrope and elementary teacher Lauren Akerson were taken before their time in tragic vehicle accidents and our prayers continue for their families, especially during what has to be a difficult holiday season. Sometimes there just are no answers as to why.
Many of the other top stories involved economic trends which will likely carry over to the new year. We’re blessed that ag-based growth continues to drive our economy, though we’re also befuddled as to how to stop Hamilton Manor’s financial drain on limited county resources.
Here’s hoping we put tragedy in our rear view mirror, focus on working together to help our community grow and have a happy, prosperous new year.
Kurt Johnson

Merry Christmas PDF E-mail

Happy holidays, Hamilton County.

This week’s edition wouldn’t fit well in an envelope, but it is in many ways a giant Christmas card from the community, to the community, full of well wishes from your neighbors and friends. These are the kind of genuine, sentimental messages that make this time of year so special. We hope you’ll take some extra time, grab a cup of coffee or hot cocoa, sit down in your favorite chair and enjoy.

This is a magical time of year, after all, especially in the eyes of children. The letters from local kids sharing their favorite thoughts about Christmas bring a chuckle and a smile, reminding all of us how simple life may seem to the youngsters in our midst.

Our hope this holiday season is that everyone can slow down for a while, think like a child again, focus on the things that really matter and celebrate all the blessings in our lives. That would be a gift in and of itself.

That’s also a challenge these days, to be sure. All the high-tech gadgets and fingertip access to real-time information are designed to make our lives simpler, we thought, though somehow they also tend to speed up the treadmill. I’ve heard lots of folks say they would like to hit the pause button once in a while, and there is no time like the present to get off the grid and do just that.

The greatest gift of all, of course, is the one we received so very long ago with the birth of the Christ child. We celebrate that gift of life and hope with a heartfelt prayer.

Whatever your stage in life, make the time this week to truly cherish the people and blessings in your world. Whether that involves some extra quality time with your spouse and immediate family, an overdue phone call to a childhood friend, or a genuine chat with a neighbor, make it a priority this year. Conversation over a quiet walk in the snow (if there is any) can be pretty spectacular as well. The older we get, the more precious that quiet time and sense of connection becomes, especially at Christmas.

May you all feel happy and blessed this holiday season.

Kurt Johnson

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