Come Hell or high water: Nebraska commits to a canal

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. vccx

If Colorado keeps up its pace of use of the South Platte River, Nebraskans might have to drink whiskey instead.

Ok, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but issues are brewing over water rights between the two states.

Brief geography and history lessons are in order, to understand what’s brought the situation to this point.

The South Platte River is a trickle, due in part to drought and to Colorado’s use of the river before it gets to Nebraska. Ruth Nicolaus for Tri-State Livestock News

The South Platte River begins in the Rockies of Colorado and travels east/north-east, heading through northeastern Colorado into Nebraska, parallel to Interstate 76. It enters the Cornhusker State southwest of Ogallala then joins with the North Platte River near the city of North Platte. The Platte River, with the North and South branches joined, meanders across the state, emptying into the Missouri River south of Omaha at Plattsmouth.

In 1891, during years of drought, farmers in Perkins County, Neb. began digging a South Platte River canal in Colorado. After digging sixteen miles by hand, funding ran out and the project was abandoned.

Then a lawsuit in 1916 between an irrigation district in Nebraska and irrigation districts and water commissioners in Colorado led to negotiations between the two states for respective rights for use of the South Platte River.

In 1923, both states signed the South Platte River Compact, stipulating that Colorado would pass 120 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water to Nebraska through the South Platte during the irrigation season for the Western Irrigation District, and 500 cfs in the non-irrigation season, if Nebraska constructed a canal from near Ovid, Colo., into the state.

The compact, approved by both state legislatures and ratified by Congress, explicitly stated that the State of Nebraska would have the right to construct and operate the Perkins County Canal, to be built where the 1891 canal had been started, near Ovid.

But Nebraska didn’t build the canal, and at the time, water wasn’t as sought after as it is today.

Now, 100 years later, both states are in need of the water more than ever.

Several issues have increased the demand for water.

Portions of previous canal construction efforts which began in 1891 remain visible along Interstate I-76 near Julesburg. Kent Miller, Twin Platte NRD | Courtesy photo

Irrigation has expanded in both states, with more acres being irrigated and newer irrigation technologies like pivots and groundwater irrigation reducing the return flow (the water that runs off the land, into rivers.)

And Colorado’s population has surged. In 2008, the state had 3.5 million people. It’s estimated to grow to 10 million by 2050, with ninety percent of them living on the Front Range.

And as Colorado needs more water for a larger population, drought has hit the Colorado River Basin for the past two decades, forcing municipalities to turn elsewhere for their water.

Their sights turned to the South Platte. In 2016, the Colorado House passed Bill 16-1256, the South Platte Water Storage study, which determined the amount of water that was delivered to Nebraska. It also included a list of locations identified as possible sites for the construction of or enlargement of reservoirs.

Municipalities and other organizations across Colorado have nearly 300 projects on the docket, intending use for South Platte River water, says Kent Miller, general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resource District.

Miller, whose office is in North Platte, has been a studying the South Platte and its water usage for the past thirty years.

One of those Colorado projects he likes to point out is for Parker. Located on the southeast edge of Denver, it’s a high-end community with residential developments. To provide water for new housing projects, the city is planning to build reservoirs near Sterling, Colo., and pipe South Platte River water 150 miles back to town, at the cost of $600 million.

In response to Colorado’s ramped up use of the South Platte River water, Nebraska Governor Pete Rickets in January of 2022 announced that legislation would be introduced to build the Perkins County Canal.

If the abandoned 1891 Perkins County Canal should be revived, it would start in or near this area in Sedgwick County, Colo. Todd von Kampen, North Platte Telegraph | Courtesy photo

Nebraska LB1015, the Perkins County Canal Project Act, was introduced, to develop, construct, manage and operate the project. Senators gave final approval to the bill by a 24-4-3 vote in April of 2022, with Governor Ricketts approving the bill.

The bill proposes to build a canal that would divert South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska, under the 1923 South Platte River Compact. The Legislature allocated $53.5 million from the cash reserve to begin design and engineering studies and buy option on land where the canal would be located. The project is managed by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.

Section IV of the Compact states, “…the State of Nebraska (has) the right to construct and operate the Perkins County Canal and provides Nebraska an appropriation in Colorado to fill the Canal.”

The canal, by Compact stipulations, must be built near Ovid, west of Julesburg, where the first canal was started in 1891, for Nebraska to have the right to the 500 cfs of water during the non-irrigation season. The compact states that Colorado must provide the land, at Nebraska’s expense, and the canal must be paid for by Nebraska.

Colorado has threatened its own action, with rumors of lawsuits swirling and Governor Jared Polis calling Nebraska’s action “a political stunt.”

“I think Colorado was thoroughly convinced after 100 years that Nebraska wasn’t going to do anything about it,” Miller said.

Miller, who is the TPNRD general manager and a licensed professional engineer, thinks that Nebraska’s case is “water-tight” and will hold up under any lawsuits brought against the Compact.

“It’s a compact that was approved by the Colorado Legislature, the Nebraska Legislature, and ratified by the U.S. Congress. In my mind, there’s nothing legally to fight. To me, you can’t get much more etched in stone than two state legislatures and Congress.”

The current estimated cost for the canal is $567 million. Governor Jim Pillen, who took office this month after Governor Ricketts was term-limited out, has promised to continue planning for the canal, and is expected to provide funding in his budget for construction in this year’s legislative session.

Miller believes that, when the canal is built, water will be piped from the South Platte near Ovid to two reservoirs in southern Keith County, Neb. The allotted 500 cfs over a five and a half month period, the non-irrigation season from Oct. 15 to April 1, would be 170,000 acre feet of water annually.

The Compact stipulates that Colorado must provide to Nebraska the waters that flow into the South Platte below Fort Morgan. In theory, Colorado could dry up the river at Ft. Morgan, but Miller believes there will still be water in the river when it enters Nebraska. “There will continue to be 500 cfs when the river enters Nebraska, from return flows and other activities in the South Platte Basin, if Nebraska builds the canal.”

The South Platte has been nearly dry the last few winters and is nothing but a trickle in the summers, due to drought. Miller said the Western Irrigation District in Nebraska last summer received 20-25 cfs instead of its allotted 120 cfs, due to drought.

And it’s more than farmers who are dependent on the South Platte and Platte River. It is estimated that seven percent of Lincoln’s drinking water comes from the South Platte, as does some of Omaha’s. The water flow in the Platte in Nebraska protects endangered species, and provides water for recreation and hydropower.

Protecting the existing flows of the South Platte in Nebraska does not mean more irrigation, however. The TPNRD has not allocated new irrigated acres for the last fifteen years, Miller said, and the upper Platte is already “over-appropriated. We have to get the river back to fully appropriated, and that requires protecting the flows in the South Platte River that Nebraska has been receiving.”

“If we don’t build a canal, we’ll see a dry river,” Miller said.

“It’s the only protection Nebraska has,” he said. “The only protection Nebraska has with Colorado (for use of the South Platte River) is the South Platte River Compact,” Miller said.

3Public meetings will commence this year, with environmental clearance, engineering design and land acquisition to follow. Construction is scheduled to be completed by 2033.

Miller notes that the project’s name, the Perkins County Canal, is a misnomer; the canal will not go through Perkins County (in far southwest Nebraska) nor does the South Platte pass through the county.  The canal will not replenish waters in the Republican River basin. The name came from the group of farmers in 1891 who began digging the canal, which never came to fruition.

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