Why Nebraska is Igniting a Western Water War with Colorado

Jan. 13, 2022, 6 a.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 may spar over water again with Colorado.  

On Monday, Governor Pete Ricketts said recent projects proposed in the neighboring state would dramatically cut South Platte River water flow into Nebraska. Attorney General Doug Peterson said that was the "first shot" in the potential water battle between the states. Gov. Ricketts' team pointed to these proposed projects as plans that, it believes, could cut the river's flow in Nebraska by 90 percent.

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)

In a statement Wednesday, Colorado Governor Jared Polis said the state "has not and is not" withholding water from Nebraska. Gov. Polis said the list pointed to by Gov. Ricketts is a group of recommendations from collaborative basin roundtables.

Nebraska’s response to those proposals won’t necessarily be a lawsuit yet, but a revival of a canal that has a checkered past in Nebraska’s history.  

It’s a waterway costing at least $500 million that would begin near the northeastern Colorado town of Ovid and push into Nebraska. When asked about the cost, Gov. Ricketts said the state was sitting in a good spot financially, especially with the cash reserve, to pay for a project like this. In his budget recommendation to the legislature Thursday, Ricketts proposed pulling $400 million out of the state's cash reserve for the project. $100 million would come from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Gray metal Ovid water tank with a blue sky in the background.
Ovid, Colorado water tank. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

Initially proposed as far back as 1889, the canal is written into the South Platte River Compact, an interstate agreement signed by both Colorado and Nebraska in 1923. Congress approved it in 1926.  

A financial failure led to the project's first collapse in the 1890s. In another revival attempt in the 1980s, it was struck down in accordance with the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.

The South Platte River Compact, which has the force of federal law, gives Nebraska the ability to construct a canal beginning in Colorado, even using eminent domain within that neighboring state, to bring water through Nebraska’s Perkins County. Colorado's governor said any proposed plan by Nebraska on Colorado ground would undergo "rigorous review" to make sure it complied with the compact, water law, private property rights and endangered species issues.

In 1923, the two states agreed Nebraska could take up to 500 cubic feet per second of water between October 15 and April 1, if the Perkins County canal was built.

Joel Schneekloth, a water resource specialist at Colorado State University, said the compact allows Nebraska to take water from the river by this canal only after Colorado received its share of water noted in the compact.

“Colorado has developed quite a bit of that in augmentation systems – where we’re taking water off the river, during that time period and putting it into groundwater further away from the river, trying to retime it back for irrigation season [to help comply with the compact],” Schneekloth said. 

river with sandy brown pieces of land with weeds in the middle of it and brown trees and a field behind it.
The South Platte River near Roscoe, Nebraska looking downstream. (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News).

That’s a main driver for the canal project, according to Nebraska Department of Resources Director Tom Riley. 

“It’s really about timing of the water, in that the water they do offset with the depletion from a summer month, they then use to offset a winter month, and the winter months are exactly when we would be taking this water out of the canal system,” Riley said. 

Schneekloth said looking at it from his perspective, there may be multiple legal implications as to why this couldn’t hold up today. He said there may also not be enough water right now for Nebraska to take the full amount envisioned in the 1920s.  

“The original decree said it could take up to 500 CFS, but when you look at historical flows of the South Platte at that time period about where that diversion would be at – 500 CFS is not accomplished very often during those winter months,” Schneekloth said.

Old photo of wagons and plows with horses and men standing on a dry, dirt ground
Work begins in the 1890s on the initial plan of the Perkins County Canal. (Photo courtesy of Perkins County Historical Society)

Perkins County landowner Robert Richter also questioned how realistic the old compact language is. 

“The South Platte now is a threadbare nothing, and it’s like, you’re going to squeeze more water out of that thing?” 

Richter helped document Perkins County history in the book, ‘Plainscape: A Portrait of Perkins County,’ with Larry Gauthier.  

Here’s where the proposed reservoirs would possibly play a crucial part. 

The southwest Nebraska county can be one of the driest in the state – until a storm passes through.

Then, when it rains, it pours in Perkins.  

“So much of this land was shortgrass prairie, and so you get big thunderstorms and you get lots of runoff off the shortgrass prairie,” Richters said. 

Rain isn’t a sure thing out in these drought-ridden counties. Annual records of rainfall could look average, but are sometimes misleading. 

“You may have gotten all of that rain in one or two huge deluges that did you a damn’s worth of good,” Richters said.

Reservoirs spiraling off the canal system could better help regulate the water in land that's tremendously tapped its groundwater.

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)

Brenda Styskal of the Perkins County Historical Society says the original canal proposed in the nineteenth century promised to transform the dry landscape. 

“Perkins County is the only county in the state that has zero bridges. It went from a source of water in a land that’s just as dry as could be, to possibly being a big draw. Think Lake McConaughy. Think Enders. It changed the trajectory of their county.” 

Except, it never happened. Back in 1889, the idea of irrigating the land not only excited local farmers, it attracted financial assistance from both local farmers and eastern financiers.  

But that stream of money quickly dried up, leading to the abandonment of the canal project. Now, with more funds available, Nebraskans will see if the project can be revived – again.