From The Omaha World-Herald editorial board:
Momentum is building in Colorado to create new reservoirs to draw more water from the South Platte River, reducing the flow into Nebraska. Nebraska officials should monitor this situation closely, now and in coming years, to make sure the water volume continues to meet the requirements under a 1923 South Platte River agreement between the two states.
Maintaining a proper flow in the Platte River — formed by the confluence of the South Platte and North Platte Rivers in western Nebraska — is crucial to our state’s agriculture, hydropower and long-term metropolitan water sources for Omaha and Lincoln.
Colorado apparently has considerable room at present to make further diversions and still remain in compliance. “In many years, more water is passing that gauging station at the state line than needs to” under the agreement, Colorado State Engineer Kevin Rein says.
The proposed reservoirs, to serve Front Range urban residents, would keep about 150,000 acre-feet of water in Colorado, the Denver Post reports. That’s about half of the estimated amount that Colorado lawmakers claim their state can legally divert on average each year under the 1923 agreement. For comparison: When full, Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy has a capacity of 1.74 million acre-feet.
A 1993 study of Nebraska water history by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stated, “Some Nebraskans may still bemoan that the state gave away too much water to Colorado in the South Platte Compact of 1923, but it was a voluntary agreement.”
The tremendous metro growth in Colorado’s Front Range is spurring the call for new reservoirs. Urban groundwater levels are declining in the face of dramatically increased demand. Meanwhile, agricultural producers in Colorado’s South Platte River basin support reservoir creation as a way to safeguard their own groundwater from urban diversion. Officials in western Colorado are in favor, saying the South Platte water could reduce the current allocation of western Colorado water to the Front Range via tunnels. Supportive, too, are Colorado water-policy officials, who included the South Platte reservoir concept in their 2015 State Water Plan.
In short, a wide-ranging set of powerful urban and rural interests in Colorado have come together to press for more South Platte water. “We owe it to our state, to our water users and our farmers to capture as much water as we can” out of the South Platte, said Joe Frank, manager of Colorado’s Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.
Nebraskans can take heart that strong legal protections are in place to safeguard the significant water volume the state receives via the North Platte River, a vital irrigation source. The river supplies Lake McConaughy, for example, with its wide-ranging irrigation and groundwater recharge role for more than half a million acres in the Platte River valley, plus hydropower generation and recreation.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree in 1945 setting out a legal framework for interstate water allocation along the North Platte. In 2001, Nebraska and Wyoming reached a settlement on sharing North Platte water after 15 years of legal wrangling. The agreement essentially froze Wyoming’s water use at the 2001 level and stipulated that groundwater hydrologically connected to the North Platte be included. The settlement created a committee — of federal, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado officials — to work out future disagreements.
“In contrast to the meager and seasonal administrative execution of provisions contained in the South Platte Compact,” a 2006 UNL analysis stated, “administrative actions in the North Platte River watershed are extensive and occur year-round.”
Nebraska may have future legal leverage regarding the South Platte if any Colorado diversions raise environmental concerns, such as negative effects on protected animal species. Two examples: sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, which congregate in great numbers annually in central Nebraska.
The proposed South Platte reservoirs are “one of those rare solutions that really is good for both rural Colorado and folks who live in the Denver metro area,” a Colorado state senator stated. Evidently so, but on this side of the border, Nebraskans need to remain watchful and assertive to ensure our state’s rights are recognized and safeguarded to the full extent of applicable law.