Nebraska Digs Out Canal Plan in Compact

Fearing Colorado Water Projects, Nebraska Governor Counters, Using Old Abandoned Canal

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The blue line shows the remains of the dug-out portions of what was called the Perkins County Canal just north of Interstate 76 between Ovid and Julesburg, Colorado, on the northeast edge of the state. The canal was started and abandoned in the 1890s by Nebraska farmers but included in a water compact between Nebraska and Colorado. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, pointing to water projects in Colorado, is invoking the water compact for his plans to restart the canal project. (DTN image from Google Earth)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Kent Miller, a water district manager in western Nebraska, felt a little vindicated last month when Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts introduced a plan to explore a nearly 100-year-old clause in a water compact with Colorado to dig out an old canal project near Julesburg to protect Nebraska's water rights.

Miller, general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District out of North Platte, Nebraska, said he's been urging Nebraska leaders for the last 25 years to invoke the clause in the South Platte River Compact.

"My concern is, with the development along the front range and limited access to future water for folks on the front range, that we're going to start potentially seeing a dried-up South Platte River at the Nebraska border in the very near future," Miller said, acknowledging he's had that view for a quarter-century. "And my observation is, this year, we are getting lower amounts of water. Have I studied that? No, but I'm also very aware of all of the people moving into the front range, and people take water."

On the opposite side of the state line, Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, told his district committee when he initially heard about the plan that "the water world was rocked" by Ricketts' proposals.

The Perkins County Canal project goes back to drought in the 1890s when desperate western Nebraska farm families started digging out a canal from the South Platte River in Colorado with plans to irrigate their thirsty crops. The canal needed to go about 65 miles, but the project was scrapped in 1895 after about 16 miles were dug out, according to a historical article on the project in the North Platte Telegraph. In 1923, though, Nebraska leaders made sure to insert a clause in their water compact with Colorado to keep open the option for a canal.

Ricketts proposes to spend $500 million to build the canal project. Making his case, he pointed to the Colorado Water Plan, which includes 282 various water projects, estimated at about $10 billion, to manage water resources in Colorado. At least some of those proposed projects would divert water from the South Platte River. Ricketts pointed to the need for Nebraska to protect its water supplies.

"Colorado's plans to siphon off water from the South Platte River would decrease agricultural water supplies and raise pumping costs for our residents," Ricketts said.

While it's more than 300 miles from Julesburg, Colorado, to Lincoln, Nebraska, Ricketts said the Colorado projects "would jeopardize the municipal water supplies for Lincoln, Omaha and other Platte River communities."

He added, "Constructing the canal is the primary means for Nebraska to exercise our legal rights to water flows from the South Platte River."

A bill in Nebraska's Legislature, LB 1015, is set for a committee hearing Feb. 9 to discuss funding and need for the Perkins County Canal. Two weeks ago, the Nebraska Association of Natural Resource Districts, representing 23 different water districts, voted unanimously to support the bill that would authorize the project. Ricketts proposes to use $400 million from cash reserves, along with another $100 million for pandemic relief under the American Rescue Plan.

"That's just an estimate of what it's going to cost," Miller said. "It's probably going to cost more than that."

At an appropriations hearing in late January, two Nebraska state senators questioned the costs and "how such a pricey, long-forgotten project suddenly became a big priority," according to the Nebraska Examiner. Tom Riley, head of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, countered that Colorado is spending "20 times that amount," and Colorado is looking to accelerate its own water projects.

Other than a small sliver of the South Platte River hitting another county, nearly all of the South Platte River in Nebraska runs through the Twin Platte NRD before it merges with the North Platte River just east of North Platte, Nebraska. Miller, who has served as general manager of the natural resources district for nearly 49 years, said he was excited about the prospects when he got a call that Ricketts was going to announce the project. The water compact between the two states requires Colorado to ensure at least 120 cubic feet of water flows in the river from April to mid-October. Nearly every year, at some point, the water flows dip below that level, Miller said.

"What I have been promoting and what the governor is proposing is we want to protect what we have been getting," Miller said. He added, "So we're working to return the river to a fully appropriated condition. We certainly don't want to see any additional stress put on the river because, if we're not successful, we will have to put groundwater regulations on our irrigators, which is something our board does not want to do."


Colorado's water plan is constantly updated to assess changing water conditions. The plan notes that 80% of the state's water falls west of the mountains, while 90% of the state's population lives east of the divide, or essentially on the front range of the Rockies.

Colorado in the past has often diverted mountain water to satisfy front-range cities, but that process has become more complex, especially given the demands in other Western states for water from the Colorado River.

Last August, construction began on the Chimney Hollow Reservoir, a $650 million project near Loveland, Colorado, that will store water moved from another reservoir, the Windy Gap Reservoir, during wet years. The Chimney Hollow project took nearly two decades of planning and litigation to come to fruition, but it will help satisfy the growing water needs of cities such as Greeley, Longmont and Loveland. The Chimney Hollow project, its size, cost and complexity in water diversion reflects some of the challenges to help satisfy the growing water needs of the booming front-range populations north of Denver.

As front-range communities face more opposition to Colorado River diversions, Nebraskans see water-thirsty communities eyeing the South Platte River.

"Colorado has been moving trans-mountain water over, but I think those days are ending because of the shortage on the Colorado River," Miller said.

As part of that, each basin district came up with its own list of potential projects that are ranked along different criteria, Frank said. The projects include a wide range of plans beyond water diversion.

"There are different kinds of projects here, and not all of them are water supply projects," Franks said. "About 132 of these projects are environmental or recreation projects that are things like stream restoration and habitat improvements, so they aren't even projects that would capture water off the river." He added, "It's not a complete list of things that are going to take water off the river."

Still, Frank acknowledged at least some projects are designed to capture water off the South Platte River as well.


In dueling op-ed pieces in the Omaha World-Herald, Ricketts and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis each offered their takes on Colorado's water projects and Nebraska's canal plans. Ricketts pointed to analysis from the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources that if all the Colorado water projects were implemented, they "will cause a nearly 90% reduction in flows coming into Nebraska from Colorado."

Polis said his state has been in full compliance with the existing water compact for 99 years, but his state "will continue to protect and aggressively assert Colorado's rights." Polis said Ricketts' comments on Colorado water plans "seem to reflect a misunderstanding of Colorado's locally driven water planning process." Polis added, "However, any actual proposed project by Nebraska in Colorado would receive rigorous review to ensure it is in compliance with the compact, private property rights, Colorado water law, and state and federal environmental obligations, as endangered species issues, among others, are of critical concern on the South Platte River."


Endangered species issues stumped Nebraska once before. The prospect of building the Perkins County Canal last came up as a potential project in 1985. Some of the reasons Nebraska did not pursue the project included endangered species and the impacts it would have on those animals, including the interior least tern, pallid sturgeon, piping plover and whooping cranes. Since then, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming have created the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program specifically to address the Endangered Species Act challenges along the Platte River.

"So, Nebraska would still have to comply with that, and any new water project in the basin has to comply with that program, the Endangered Species Program," Frank said.

While it's still early, Frank said he has fielded a few calls from landowners who are worried their land would be condemned through eminent domain for a project.

"I think the initial reaction was kind of a shock, but I think more than anything now, we're just trying to find out the details," Frank said. "But people need to realize, if they do go through with this, this isn't going to impact the front range of Colorado. This is going impact the extreme lower section of the river in Colorado, which is agricultural producers, that are really the same type of producers as in Nebraska. The northeastern corner of Colorado is similar to western Nebraska."

Frank said a water advisory committee for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program heard a presentation this past week from Nebraska officials but learned there were few specific details on their plans so far.

"They haven't really studied out a lot of this yet, the hydrology, the costs, or specifics on what this project and the permitting would be like," Frank said. "So, people are recognizing there is a long timeline in front of them right now."

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Chris Clayton