A 19th-Century Plan for a Colorado-Nebraska Canal Lacks Key Details, Causing Nebraskans to Ask: 'Is this Worth the Cost?'

Jan. 21, 2022, 6 a.m. ·

Old photo of wagons and plows with horses and men standing on a dry, dirt ground
Work begins in the 1890s on the initial plan of the Perkins County Canal. (Photo courtesy of Perkins County Historical Society)

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This is the second story in our reporting on Governor Ricketts' proposal to construct a canal off the South Platte River in Colorado. Click here to see our previous reporting.

In 1889, the stretch of the South Platte River in Perkins County, Nebraska was a threadbare nothing.

In an old newspaper clipping from the Grant-Tribune Sentinel, the county’s elected surveyor Mark Burke described what he saw once he arrived in Grant, Nebraska in the 1880s.

“After the ‘June Rise,’ the water disappeared entirely and the river channel became a waste of dry river sands without islands or vegetation,” Burke wrote.

He was the original mind behind the South Divide Canal, now known as the Perkins County Canal.

“No trees were growing along the river and I well remember that while making the survey along the Divide, the channel of the South Platte River was but a waste of river sand, reflecting the light of the summer sun and resembling a stretch of desert as far upstream as the eye could see.”

Burke made a guess in 1889 that the South Platte River would eventually flow year-round into Nebraska. And he was right.

River with brown grass and barren trees on the banks. Some traces of snow can be seen on the bank.
The South Platte River looking upstream just south of Ovid, Colorado. (Photo by Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News)

In the 1923 South Platte River Compact, Nebraska is guaranteed water during the irrigation season. Burke wanted to bank on water coming in during the off-season too.

According to the original compact, Colorado and Nebraska agreed the canal, if constructed under a handful of conditions, would begin near Ovid, Colorado – just a few miles south of Nebraska’s panhandle border.

The canal’s history runs deep through the roots of its namesake: Perkins County. But also in Ovid's Sedgwick County.

Gray metal Ovid water tank with a blue sky in the background.
Ovid, Colorado water tank. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

With the proposed revival of the canal, there's a return of concerns that first sprouted with the idea back in the 1890s.

Capability and feasibility are a few of the bigger questions from some water experts, such as Joel Schkneekloth, a water specialist at Colorado State University.

“It was something I had never heard of. A few people here have in Colorado. They know of it. They hear it once in awhile get popped back up,” Schneekloth said.

Prairie with a lone windmill in the background.
Prairie south of Interstate 80 and east of US385 in Colorado. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Burrowing through sandy southwestern Nebraska soil, the canal may need to be lined, which makes for a costly water project.

"Through talking and discussing with other people… they were going to have to cross a fairly sandy stretch to get out of the South Platte River. Sand and water would make for very low conveyance," Schneekloth said.

"The sand would act like a sponge."

Then there are legal implications. The compact gives Nebraska the right of eminent domain in Nebraska and in Colorado. It's an old stipulation that Colorado may fight. Talk of the canal in Colorado ground already stirred concern within surrounding communities.

Other issues include the Endangered Species Act, which killed the project in the 1980s, and the question of if there's enough water to make this canal worth the potential fight in court.

Then there’s the million-dollar question – or in this case, 500-million-dollar question: What will Nebraska end up paying at the end of this project?

Financial fumbling led to first failure

Brenda Styskal is well-versed in Perkins County History. She oversees historical artifacts at the Perkins County Historical Society in Grant, Nebraska.

Styskal said the same questions that are surfacing today aren't new.

“From the geography and topography of the ground, it’s doable but, you know, the costs that would be involved and the resources that it would take to achieve this, is that doable?" Styskal questioned.

Back in the 1890s, many felt in Perkins County that they needed to take that gamble.

“We’ve had quite a few times of drought. When this canal project was brought up, Perkins County was in the grip of severe drought," Styskal said.

"We lost a lot of our population that we never got back, because they moved to other areas [where] farming was a lot easier and they got regular rains and they had regular water sources that, in Perkins County, we did not have."

But it was going to be pricey for Perkins County. Digging a canal system through that patch of soil added up to be around $180,000 in 1891.

Old photo of wagons with teams of horses and men nearby going down a dusty road.
Work begins in the 1890s on the initial Perkins County canal project. (Photo courtesy of Perkins County Historical Society)

In one of the last-ditch efforts, Burke and his financial partners pitched the canal as a mixture of third-party investments and a $90,000 bond issue footed by Perkins County residents.

In return, Perkins County residents were hired to construct and operate the system.

It gave a fresh boost to those who wanted to see the project through during a desperate time for water.

"The positive to that first start, it gave a lot of farmers and people in Perkins County a way to earn money during a time when crops failed and money was scarce as hen’s teeth," Styskal said.

Prairie grass with mounds of dirt and a few patches of snow. A wire fence is in the foreground.
What's believed to be the abandoned site of the original Perkins County Canal between Ovid and Julesburg, Colorado. (Photo by Jeff Rice, Journal-Advocate)

The project got enough cash to launch. Hundreds of workers traveled from Perkins County to Sedgwick County, Colorado to dig into the ground.

The Nebraskans used their railroad knowledge to plow the canal’s way, even camping out at the site when the sun set.

But hope started to set as well when the lingering financial issue rose again. Fumbled transactions between the state treasurer and business partners caused the canal project to collapse.

Newspaper with a headline "Failure Described as "State Calamity." Paper is sitting on a wooden table.
A newspaper clipping from the Grant-Tribune Sentinel at the Perkins County Historical Society. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

"When it says, ‘canal failure described as state calamity,' at that time, it was, because they did not have the irrigation systems, much less the wells that were needed to water large swaths of acreage of farm ground. The capability wasn’t there," Styskal said.

Workers left the canal construction. People left town. And Perkins County was left with the bill.

What's next

Almost 100 years later, Nebraska believes it can finally complete this Hail Mary pass, despite the financial, construction, and legal issues that, once again, remain.

The state’s attorney general believes the state makes a good case for why it can construct the canal. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Tom Riley, the director of Natural Resources, believe it will be beneficial for keeping more water in the state, instead of funneling money to other water conservation projects.

The plan remains only a proposal in Ricketts’ budget. State senators may weigh the decision after legislative hearings, one of which will take place Monday.

Fred Knapp contributed to this reporting.