Confusion Reigns on Both Sides of Proposed Nebraska-Colorado Canal

Feb. 8, 2022, 3 p.m. ·

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)

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Nebraska Public Media's Jackie Ourada spoke with NPR member station KUNC reporter Alex Hager about what people in Colorado are saying on Nebraska's proposed canal. For our previous reporting on the Perkins County Canal Project, click here. You can read Hager's previous reporting here.

The Nebraska Legislature's Natural Resources Committee will discuss the proposed canal Wednesday afternoon. You can watch the hearing here. Governor Pete Ricketts said he will testify in support of the bill.

Jackie Ourada, Nebraska Public Media News: On Monday, Governor Pete Ricketts said he has recently talked to Colorado Governor Jared Polis.

"Governor Polis came up to me a couple of times when we were at the National Governors Association meetings in D.C. last week just to talk about, 'Hey, you know, how do we move forward some conversations after we get started with our appropriation here to start the canal project?' They're definitely interested in having more conversations about it as well," Ricketts said.

Ahead of the hearing, we have Alex Hager, with NPR member station KUNC in Colorado, with us to talk about what he's hearing on his side of the state border.

Alex Hager, KUNC: Well the people who are the closest to this situation are saying they really do not know a whole lot about it. I talked to Colorado's state engineer, and he said between his office and the state attorney general's office, they know as much as we do. Historically, this kind of thing gets sorted out without a ton of fanfare between two state engineers trying to get on the same page at a pretty early stage in the process, but this one is not a typical case. Colorado said they really just want to hear more details and they're waiting to get more of those details from their counterparts in Nebraska. That said, it definitely has not gone without acknowledgement from Colorado's leaders. Governor Jared Polis put out a statement saying he will protect and aggressively assert Colorado's water rights. That kind of feeds into this idea that a water dispute between the two states could play out in court. But at the same time, he also said he's not sure Nebraska's Governor Ricketts knows how Colorado uses the river and he hopes there's mutual respect going forward. Some folks I talked to said there's still a chance that Nebraska puts out a clearer outline of this plan and they can solve this collaboratively rather than taking it to court. But we really won't know, and Colorado's water officials won't know, until Nebraska puts out more details.

Jackie Ourada: In your article on this, there's conversation about this canal project being handled differently than in previous water plans. Can you talk a little more on why this is so surprising to Colorado?

Alex Hager: Yeah, the big issue here is that it's hard to tell how serious Nebraska is about the water diversions. The fact that it came as a public announcement without a whole lot of detail — that led some people to believe that it was just a political shot across the bow, like it's a way to remind Colorado that Nebraska is watching its water use closely and they better stay on their toes. It's worth remembering that this type of plan is not entirely unprecedented. It's actually pretty common in the West for one state to cross over a border and put in some water infrastructure and it usually does not cause much controversy. But there are a lot of people who know a lot about this river and a lot about the water in the region, and they told me that it just does not seem that possible. I talked to Jim Yahn. He used to be the South Platte director for Colorado's top water board, and he still manages reservoirs in the northeast part of Colorado. He says he needs to see more details, but it's just not going to be easy for Nebraska to put this together, and it kind of sounded like Governor Ricketts just doesn't know a lot of specifics about the river. First of all, he said Colorado simply does not have the capacity to take 90% of the water heading across the border — just does not have the physical infrastructure to do that. And he said we're talking about an agreement from before the Great Depression. The amount of water that Nebraska wants to redirect might not even be there anymore.

Jackie Ourada: Now, Tom Riley, Nebraska's Natural Resources Director, keeps pointing to proposed water projects on the South Platte in Colorado as a reason for why Nebraska needs this project. The South Platte, of course, is very important in Colorado. Can you tell us more about these proposed projects?

Alex Hager: Well, even amid all this confusion and lack of details, there is one thing that's pretty much certain: Colorado has been growing a lot. And it's on track to keep growing, and it needs a lot of water to do that. There's a report from the state that population is expected to pretty much double, maybe more, within Colorado's side of the South Platte River basin, and of course with climate change making things hotter and drier, there's really only going to be less water going forward. So, along the South Platte alone, there are 282 new projects on the Colorado side of the border. That's about $10 billion worth of work. Look, there has been concerted energy in Colorado to turn attention to the water in the South Platte. For a long time, projects to use water from that river in Colorado were deemed too expensive, but now it's looking more feasible as other water also gets more expensive. And it's pretty likely that the pace of growth and the long list of developments — is what drove Nebraska to come out strong in defense of the water in the South Platte, but there are still so many details that have yet to be discussed before we see what happens next.