Colorado Governor Spokesperson: Nebraska’s "Canal to Nowhere” a “Boondoggle”

Feb. 14, 2022, 4 p.m. ·

Gray metal Ovid water tank with a blue sky in the background.
Ovid, Colorado water tank. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Colorado Governor Jared Polis in a suit and tie in front of microphones with an American flag visible in the background.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis. (Courtesy photo)

Colorado leaders are responding to Governor Pete Ricketts' testimony last week on his $500 million plan to revive a canal proposal. The plan, which has a troubled history, includes a canal and reservoir system that would bring South Platte River water from near Ovid, Colorado into Nebraska.

Colin Cahill, a spokesperson for Colorado Governor Jared Polis, criticized Ricketts' testimony and project proposal in a statement to Nebraska Public Media News.

“This canal to nowhere would clearly be a huge waste of Nebraska taxpayer money and is unlikely to ever be built," the spokesperson wrote. "There remains time for thoughtful Nebraskans to avoid this boondoggle and focus on meaningful water policy working with partners like Colorado."

Ricketts’ office had no immediate response to the Colorado governor spokeperson’s comments.

Gov. Pete Ricketts wearing a black mask at a podium with 5 men and an American flag behind him and an easel with a poster with a diagram on it beside him.
Gov. Pete Ricketts introduces water projects as Nebraska officials look on. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Meanwhile, a Colorado state senator is calling for the two states to work together. Colorado State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg represents the area of northeast Colorado where the canal would begin. After Ricketts unveiled his proposal, Sonnenberg introduced legislation to have that state prioritize building water storage along the South Platte before it reaches Nebraska.

Ricketts referred to this legislation in a hearing last week and referenced Colorado's jump in water priority projects.

"Colorado dropped a bill that said they are prioritizing all their South Platte River reservoir projects," Ricketts told the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee. "They are trying to take our water."

Sonnenberg acknowledged his bill could cut the amount of water crossing the state line.

"If Colorado decided to do additional storage to make sure agriculture had its water in Colorado, it could easily reduce the amount of water that goes across the state line into Nebraska," Sonnenberg said.

The state senator said that would amount to an average of 350,000 acre-feet per year more than Nebraska is entitled to.

Sonnenberg said the Perkins County Canal proposed by Ricketts could bring some water into Nebraska, but he said the way the interstate compact between the two states is written, any storage projects in Colorado upstream from that state’s Washington-Morgan County line would take priority.

"The Perkins County ditch may be able to divert some water, but basically it gets what’s left over above stream at [the] Washington County line," Sonnenberg said.

River looking upstream with barren trees on either bank.
The South Platte River near Roscoe, Nebraska looking upstream. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Sonnenberg has long advocated for increasing the chances for reservoir construction in Colorado. The state senator said Ricketts boosted that recognition of the need.

"Obviously Gov. Ricketts has heightened the awareness in Colorado of the need for water storage. So in some degree this is just another one of my water storage bills. But the timing is such where he has helped me with this," Sonnenberg said.

Sonnenberg suggested officials from the two states should talk.

"If Nebraska wanted to work together and have a conversation, we could do something together and share our funds to build either the Perkins County Canal or some other storage facility, so that Nebraska could be assured that they would have some of that water," Sonnenberg said.

"We’d figure out what that agreement is. That’s a conversation that I think needs to happen that would benefit both the agriculture communities in both Colorado and Nebraska," he said.

Ricketts' spokesperson Alex Reuss said the senator’s legislation underscores Nebraska’s need to approve building the canal.

“Conversations between Nebraska and Colorado are welcomed, but cannot be pursued in place of building the Perkins County Canal," Reuss said.

"Colorado is not waiting for Nebraska to act. They’re acting now. If Nebraska does not do the same, we are risking access to roughly 300,000 acre feet of water that we get from the South Platte River,” Reuss said. “The only way to ensure we receive the full allocation is to build the canal."