Colorado says proposed canal to Nebraska won't stop Front Range demands for water

Oct. 3, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

Houses under construction in fast-growing Parker, Colorado (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Houses under construction in fast-growing Parker, Colorado (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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

A white and orange Bobcat bounces along a construction site in Parker Colorado, scooping dirt from what will be the front yards of a newly-built row of houses in this booming Denver suburb. When Parker was incorporated in 1981, fewer than 300 people lived here. Today, it’s more than 60,000. And over the next 20 or 30 years, it’s projected to double, according to Rebecca Tejada, director of engineering for the Parker Water and Sanitation District.

All those people will need water, which Tejada said poses a challenge for Parker’s current supply.

“Right now, we are very reliant on the Denver Basin aquifer. And so that's a groundwater source, which means that it's non renewable... And that's a(n) obstacle that we have to face: as the we use the aquifer, it declines,” she said.

Rebecca Tejada stands near Parker, Colorado's Rueter-Hess Reservoir
Rebecca Tejada stands near Parker, Colorado's Rueter-Hess Reservoir

But Parker has a plan to get another source of water, which Tejada described in a promotional video, saying “We’ll be capturing, storing, and conveying excess water off the South Platte that would otherwise be leaving the state of Colorado.”

Currently, that water flows into Nebraska. But before it gets there, Parker wants to pump it 125 miles through a pipeline back to its reservoir southeast of Denver.

And Parker’s is hardly the only big water project under consideration. One plan lists nearly 300 potential water projects along the South Platte, including a multibillion dollar Denver regional project with the appropriately amphibious-sounding acronym SPROWG – short for the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group, which proposed the project.

Colorado officials say such projects are needed to serve the growing Front Range population from Denver to Greeley, and beyond. Overall, Colorado’s Front Range population is expected to grow from 3.8 million now to 6 million by mid-century.

That’s a lot more thirsty people to serve than when Nebraska and Colorado signed an agreement over the South Platte River in 1923. That agreement requires Colorado cut its water use if there’s not enough in the river, so Nebraska gets a certain amount.

But Nebraska’s right to force Colorado to reduce water use extends only about 80 miles from the state line into Colorado -- to the Washington-Morgan county line about 20 miles east of Fort Morgan.

That’s where the compact divides the river into an Upper Section, including Denver and the Front Range, and a predominantly agricultural Lower Section.

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

And that makes a big difference, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Dave Aiken, a water and agricultural law specialist.

“What the Denver regional project would do, as it’s been proposed, is divert as much water as they can from the river just above the dividing line between the upper reach (section) and the lower reach,” Aiken said.

If Colorado projects take water from the upper reach, there’s nothing Nebraska can do about them – a point stressed by Kelly Romero-Heaney, Assistant Director for Water in Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources.

“We can’t state it enough, that the canal is not a mechanism to stop water development in the urban Front Range,” Heaney said.

But Romero-Heaney said another group could be affected by the canal. “It could be a mechanism to impact farmers and ranchers in northeast Colorado.”

That impact could see Colorado farmers losing water if Nebraska builds the Perkins County Canal. We’ll look at that in the third of four stories in our series, Perkins County Canal, Boon or Boondoggle?