After 100 years, Nebraska revives plans to build a canal, stirring controversy with Colorado

Oct. 2, 2023, midnight ·

The South Platte River flows peacefully from Julesburg, Colorado toward Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
The South Platte River flows peacefully from Julesburg, Colorado toward Nebraska (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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This is the first of four articles. It's part of our series: Perkins County Canal: Boon or Boondoggle?

On an early September afternoon in Julesburg, Colorado, the sounds the South Platte River flowing gently toward Nebraska, a few miles downstream, create a picture of tranquility.

But despite this peaceful scene, questions about this water – including how much of it will cross the state line from Colorado to Nebraska in the future – are roiling policymakers and water users in both states.

That controversy burst into public view at the beginning of last year. Speaking to the Nebraska Legislature, then-Gov. Pete Ricketts outlined a plan.

“To secure Nebraska's water supply I am recommending $500 million to construct a canal and water reservoir system from the South Platte River. Access to this water enables our farmers and ranchers to produce. It provides for quality drinking water, and keeps electric generation costs manageable,” Ricketts said.

That $500 million proposal has now grown to $628 million. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly twice the cost of the new prison Nebraska is planning to build.

In a news conference, Ricketts claimed Colorado was violating an interstate compact with Nebraska.

“During the non-irrigation season, Colorado has not been providing us the water that is called for under the Compact. Their near-term goals show that going down, and should all the long-term goals be effected, they would reduce the amount of water flows coming to the state of Nebraska by 90 percent,” he said.

Responding to Ricketts, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis insisted that state is fulfilling its obligations to Nebraska. Speaking to members of the Colorado General Assembly, he struck a defiant note, as reported by CBS News Colorado.

“Know this: We will continue to protect and aggressively assert Colorado’s water rights under all existing water compacts,” Polis said.

A Polis spokesman described the Perkins proposal as a “canal to nowhere” and a “boondoggle.”

Whether the canal is a good idea or not, it’s one that’s been around for a long time. Perkins County farmers actually started digging an irrigation canal in Colorado in 1894, but gave up within a year after promoters ran out of money.

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)

But the idea stayed alive, and permission for Nebraska to build the canal was included in an interstate compact with Colorado signed in 1923.

That South Platte River Compact (see Articles IV and VI) specifies the minimum amount of water that Colorado must send across the state line to Nebraska during the irrigation season, which lasts from April 1 to Oct. 15 every year. It also entitles Nebraska to divert more water the rest of the year, between Oct. 15 and April 1. But that right exists only if Nebraska builds the canal.

Supporters of the project say if Nebraska doesn’t build the canal, Colorado could divert almost all the water out of the river before it gets to Nebraska, using it to supply the fast-growing Denver area.

Colorado officials say Nebraska’s fears are exaggerated. They argue it would be impractical to try and capture all the water. And they say even capturing part of it is just one idea among hundreds being considered.

Some Nebraska skeptics, including then-state senator Steve Lathrop, questioned the timing of Ricketts’ reviving the canal proposal:

“This thing's 100 years old. All of a sudden we have some urgency. We got to do something today, by God! Colorado's takin’ our water!” Lathrop said. “I wondered why. Well, we got a little extra money sitting around. So now we got a problem we need to solve, immediately.”

Despite that skepticism, Nebraska lawmakers approved money for a feasibility study. In December, Gwyn Mohr-Tully of the consulting firm Zanjero announced four conclusions.

“Number one, Colorado plans to take Nebraska's water without this canal. Number two, water in the South Platte is available for Nebraska's current and future use. By constructing the project — number three — Nebraska will secure its water supply. And number four, the benefits of constructing the project outweigh the costs,” Mohr-Tully said.

This year, fueled by federal stimulus spending, that “little extra money” Lathrop talked about had grown into a huge state budget surplus. Lawmakers have now set aside a total of $628 million for the project.

The state has hired HDR Engineering for $24 million to design the canal and reservoir system. Jesse Bradley, assistant director of the Department of Natural Resources, said the project is moving ahead.

“We've got our design team on board, we've got the authority, we've got the funding. So I think we're certainly seeing it as it’s a go,” Bradley said.

Bradley said the design team is focused on identifying the location for the canal and associated reservoirs by the end of the year, and will then move to begin buying land for the project.

Part Two in this series will look at how water officials in Colorado are viewing the proposal, and how it fits with water management issues in that state.

Map of the South Platte River basin (Nebraska Public Media graphic)
Map of the South Platte River basin (Nebraska Public Media graphic)