Perkins County Canal plans spark enthusiasm, skepticism in Ogallala

Dec. 21, 2023, 5 p.m. ·

Tyler Most stands on family farmground near Roscoe, Nebraska that could be impacted by the proposed Perkins County Canal (photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Tyler Most stands on family farmground near Roscoe, Nebraska that could be impacted by the proposed Perkins County Canal (photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Plans are being drawn for a canal to bring South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska. Those plans generated some enthusiasm, but also some skepticism, at a meeting this week in Ogallala.

A crowd of people milled around the Keith County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall in Ogallala, chatting and studying posters describing the Perkins County Canal project. A video talking about the project ran on one wall of the exhibit hall.

“With the new canal and reservoir system in place, Nebraska would protect itself from upstream Colorado water uses, and ensure that flows cross the state line into Nebraska,” the narrator intoned.

That protection is based on a century-old interstate compact between the states which allows Nebraska to take 500 cubic feet per second of water from the river during the non-irrigation season, from October 15 to April 1 every year, but only if Nebraska builds the canal.

Mingling in the crowd with about 10 of his neighbors from Colorado, Jim Yahn, manager of that state’s North Sterling Irrigation District, expressed skepticism Nebraska would get that much water when snow and ice block the way.

“I noticed from the video that that’s one of their reasons – it’s their protection for the wintertime flows… I don’t think that the message of how hard it is to run water in the wintertime is being portrayed, Yahn said.

The idea for the project, with a current price tag of $628 million, got a much more positive reception from Ogallala-area farmer and lawyer Neil Williams.

“I basically think the quicker they get it done the better, and I’m hoping they don’t take any shortcuts. And I know that they’re going to have an impact on some local farmers and the farms, etc. But if we wait 20 years from now and look back, I can’t think of anything more valuable than water – including gold,” Williams said.

The canal idea got a mixed reaction from Chris Goertz, who grew up on his family farm in the area and after a career away from Nebraska, came back to manage the place.

“In general if you ask me, I’m probably not in favor of it, but -- I understand the water rights. I just don’t know about how they’re going about it – whether it’s in the best interest right now,” Goertz said.

How the state and its consultant, HDR Engineering, will go about the project is also a concern for Tyler Most. Most’s family has farmed and ranched south of nearby Roscoe for generations, on land identified in a 1982 study as a possible location for the canal and a reservoir. He says the canal could be a benefit, but depending on where it and the associated reservoirs are located, they could also could cut up or flood productive land.

“You’re looking at a major impact to Keith County as far as obstructing their ability to produce agricultural products,” Most said.

Most compares the disruptive effect to a project from a previous generation.

“Just like if you talk to people who were here before the interstate came through, now you drive seven miles to get to the same land you used to drive a quarter mile to get to,” he said.

Officials say they’re trying to keep those kinds of disruptions to a minimum. Jesse Bradley, deputy director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, says HDR is still identifying the route for the canal.

“We’re trying to minimize impacts (to)things like roads, utilities, homesteads, irrigation systems. Trying to make sure that those alignments take those things into account,” he said.

But Bradley said the project is moving ahead.

“We’re on schedule, moving forward. We’re going to start engaging landowners here this spring, both Colorado and Nebraska,” he said.

Most wishes they would do things in a different order.

“Before they start buying up our land, I’d like to make sure that we’re actually going to get this deal done with Colorado, so it’s not the state buys this ground and kind of starts doing some stuff and then the whole deal falls through,” he said.

Colorado officials have promised to defend that state’s water rights vigorously. So far, they have not filed a lawsuit over Nebraska’s plans for the canal. But Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, agrees that it would be good for the two states to agree on how to proceed.

“Such an agreement would be appropriate. Seeking eminent domain in another state is an untested legal concept and the attorney general would have grave reservations about Nebraska proceeding without an agreed upon approach,” Pacheco said.

The compact does give Nebraska the right to use eminent domain to acquire land in Colorado. But Nebraska officials say they are prioritizing making purchases on a willing buyer-willing seller basis.

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You can find more on the history of the Perkins County Canal proposal here.

For a story about the interaction between the proposal and growth on Colorado’s fast-growing Front Range communities, click here.

For perspectives on the canal’s possible effects on Colorado agriculture, click here.

And for discussion of where the proposal might go from here, click here.