Canal proposal seeks to preserve #Nebraska #water rights under #SouthPlatteRiver compact with #Colorado — Unicameral Update

The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte, Nebraska by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte Rivers, which both arise from snowmelt in the eastern Rockies east of the Continental Divide. Map via Wikimedia.

From The Unicameral Update (Mike Hilgers):

A canal would divert South Platte River flows from Colorado to Nebraska under a bill heard Feb. 9 by the Natural Resources Committee.

LB1015, introduced by Speaker Mike Hilgers of Lincoln at the request of Gov. Pete Ricketts, would authorize the state Department of Natural Resources to develop, construct, manage and operate the canal and its associated storage facilities, called the Perkins County Canal Project, under the terms of the South Platte River Compact.

The bill also would authorize the department to use eminent domain to acquire land and resolve any legal disputes that arise as a result of the project.

The 1923 compact between Nebraska and Colorado apportions flows of the South Platte River between the states.

Nebraska Senator Mike Hilgers at Natural Resources Committee hearing February 9, 2022. Photo credit: Unicameral Update

Hilgers said the agreement entitles Nebraska to 120 cubic feet of water per second from the river during the summer. It also allows Nebraska to divert 500 cubic feet of water per second during the non-irrigation season if the state builds a canal, he said.

If Nebraska does not act to preserve its rights under the compact, Hilgers said, development along Colorado’s Front Range could “capture” those winter flows.

“This will certainly jeopardize our existing water uses and force us to seek more expensive and less certain water supplies,” he said.

Ricketts testified in support of LB1015, saying reduced South Platte River flows would affect irrigated agriculture, hydroelectric generation, endangered species protection and drinking water supplies for communities along the Platte River, including Lincoln and Omaha.

Compared to the economic cost of losing that water, he said, the $500 million canal and reservoir system would be a “bargain.”

Tom Riley, director of the state Department of Natural Resources, also testified in support. If Colorado follows through on proposed water management projects, he said, 90 percent of the South Platte River flows that Nebraska receives would be lost.

Building the canal would secure Nebraska’s right to the South Platte River’s winter flows “in perpetuity,” Riley said. If the Legislature authorizes the canal, he said, construction could begin as early as 2025, and it could be in use within a decade.

“In my 35 years as a water resources engineer practicing in the field, I have never seen a more important water project for Nebraska,” Riley said.

Testifying in opposition to the bill was Al Davis of the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club. He said further changes to the Platte River’s flow would affect the many species of birds, fish and mammals that rely on the river.

Davis questioned whether the project is viable and said it could be delayed by lawsuits. He said the proposed funding could be put to better use by retiring irrigated acres in overappropriated river basins and giving grants to farmers to help them reduce the amount of water they use.

“There are far too many unanswered questions to tie up $500 million for decades when that money could be used for an immediate benefit of Nebraskans,” Davis said.

Katie Torpy gave neutral testimony on behalf of the Nature Conservancy. She said colleagues in Colorado told her its list of proposed water management projects is a “brain dump” and that Colorado does not intend to pursue them all.

Torpy questioned whether Nebraska has exhausted all avenues to secure its rights under the compact. She said understanding how the proposed canal and reservoir system would affect the Platte River’s natural flow is “paramount” before moving forward.

The committee took no immediate action on LB1015.

Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit:

From the Associated Press (Ariel Pokett) via

Leaders from Nebraska’s irrigation and natural resources districts cast the plan as a crucial step to preserve as much of the state’s water supply as possible.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts identified it as a top priority, arguing that not moving forward would eventually cost Nebraska billions as farms, cities and other water users struggle with shortages.

Colorado officials say they don’t fully understand Nebraska’s concerns, noting that they’ve always complied with the compact.

People work on the Perkins County Canal in the 1890s. The project eventually was abandoned due to financial troubles. But remnants are still visible near Julesburg.
Perkins County Historical Society

From The Fort Morgan Times (Jeff Rice):

“It’s now or never!”

That was the refrain being sung before the Nebraska Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee Wednesday as state officials tried to persuade the senators to approve building the Perkins County Canal…

Proponents all told the committee that the Perkins Canal must be built as soon as possible, or Nebraska will never be able to claim the water it has a right to. Riley told the committee the canal is “central to water security in Nebraska. I’ve never seen a more important project. To fail to build this project now would be catastrophic.”

The now-or-never urgency of the canal is predicated on the assumption that Colorado water storage projects will soak up all but the absolute minimum flow required by the compact. Colorado officials estimate that even in a dry year, 10,000 acre feet of water escapes into Nebraska, beyond that which is required by the compact. Between 1996 and 2015, Colorado delivered to Nebraska nearly 8 million acre feet of river water, for an average of more than 400,000 acre feet per year.

Nebraska officials were quick to point out Wednesday that that’s water Nebraska counts on for irrigation, recreation and even municipal use. Ricketts told the committee that Colorado’s plans for water development and storage threaten to choke off that water supply.

“They’ve listed 283 projects, at a cost of $90 billion, and that includes projects already approved and underway,” Ricketts said. “That would eliminate 90 percent of the (winter time) stream flow coming into Nebraska. It would devastate our economy.”

Riley said he’s talked personally with Coloradans who vow they’ll “not let one drop beyond the Compact (rights) come into Nebraska.”

Asked if the canal project would increase Nebraska’s water supply, Riley said it won’t, but it will protect the water Nebraska gets now. And, because there’s no minimum specified for the non-irrigation season — essentially October to April — it would be possible for Colorado to dry up the South Platte River.

Kent Miller, manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District in North Platte, told the committee that’s the intent of Colorado’s water community…

Committee members grilled the witnesses on the absolute necessity of the canal and were clearly concerned about the $500 million price tag attached to it. When Riley testified that Nebraska needed to prove to Colorado that they were going to build the canal, he was asked whether perhaps $200 million would be convincing enough, at least to begin with. Riley said the funds need to be secured immediately because costs will escalate as time goes on.

Only one person spoke in opposition to the bill. Al Davis, legislative director for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said the project would interfere with the timing and flow of the river, and would have a negative impact on habitat. He suggested that, instead, the $500 million be spent on things like child care and infrastructure.

Platte River Recovery Implementation Program target species (L to R), Piping plover, Least tern, Whooping crane, Pallid sturgeon

Melissa Mosier, vice chair of the Land Advisory Committee for the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, testified in a neutral position on the bill, but expressed concern that the canal project could disrupt the work done by the PRRIP board, of which Tom Riley is a member…

Katie Torpy, climate and energy policy lead for Nature Conservancy of Nebraska, also testifying in a neutral position, told the committee that her Colorado contacts led her to believe that Colorado has no intention of pursuing all of the 283 projects to which the bill proponents kept referring.

Governor Clarence J. Morley signing Colorado River compact and South Platte River compact bills, Delph Carpenter standing center. Unidentified photographer. Date 1925. Print from Denver Post. From the CSU Water Archives

From The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District:


The Platte River, including the South Platte River tributary, runs about 400 miles through the heart of Nebraska from its western border with Colorado to the Missouri River. In Nebraska, the basin supports a population of well over one million people, including Lincoln and portions of Omaha. The river provides water for more than a million acres of irrigated agriculture, produces up to 140 megawatts of hydropower, provides cooling water for Gerald Gentleman Station – Nebraska’s largest power plant, sustains multiple threatened and endangered species, and generates countless recreational opportunities. It is arguably Nebraska’s most precious natural resource. Now, it faces an imminent threat.

Colorado’s South Platte River basin population is expected to
increase from 3.8 to as much as 6.5 million by 2050 (more than three times the population of our state today). Seventy thousand people move to the Front Range region every year. To support this explosive growth, Colorado’s legislature commissioned a study in 2016 to identify every drop of water “in excess of that required” to be delivered to Nebraska under the 1923 South Platte River Compact. Today, Colorado has nearly 300 projects in various phases of completion, planning, and assessment, all with the singular aim of preventing this “excess” water from reaching the state line.

Every drop of South Platte water that fails to reach Nebraska’s state line will need to be made up from storage in Lake McConaughy on the North Platte River. This means lake levels will be lower, carbon-free hydropower production will decrease, and storage supplies needed to mitigate drought within the Platte River Basin will be less reliable.

This growing threat led the editorial boards of the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World Herald, in the summer of 2019, to call upon State officials to protect Nebraska’s South Platte rights, echoing what we in the basin already knew – Colorado was coming for our water. But what could be done? To address that question, the Nebraska Legislature appropriated $350,000 in 2020 to study Colorado’s upstream development and its potential impact on Nebraska. The proposed Perkins County Canal Project is, in part, the culmination of that and other efforts by basin stakeholders to ensure Nebraska gets what it’s owed on the South Platte.

Most in the basin understand the 1923 Compact provides for a flow of 120 cubic feet per second (cfs) during the irrigation season. Many people have just recently learned the Compact also allows Nebraska to divert 500 cfs in the non-irrigation season. This right can only be enforced in priority, however, if Nebraska constructs a diversion near Ovid, Colorado to transport the water to Nebraska, as authorized by the Compact. For over 100 years building this diversion has been deferred, and as a result, Colorado has been taking the water Nebraska is not demanding. The proposed canal will allow Nebraska to fully exercise its Compact rights for the first time since the Compact was signed.

Beneficiaries of this multi-purpose project will include water users across the entire Platte River Basin. This includes those reliant on the Platte River to irrigate crops and those who rely on hydropower to light their homes and businesses. It also includes small and large municipalities that draw water from the Platte River but need more reliable water supplies to attract new industries and promote Nebraska’s future growth and development.

Some have claimed that even if constructed, such a project would yield too little water to justify itself. This is contrary to the available hydrologic data. Colorado itself has stated that over 300,000 acre-feet of “excess” flow enters Nebraska annually – water the new canal would help to protect for Nebraska. Critically, if the project is not built, Colorado can simply cut off this supply. To safeguard against this, Nebraska’s proposed project would capture the bulk of this water, deliver it to a series of reservoirs for temporary storage, and return it to the river.

Some say the project is too complicated and fraught with legal challenges. However, Nebraska’s entitlement to this water is cast in law by the two state legislatures and by Congress. Rarely is a legal right so clear and compelling. Moreover, for a century, we have been able to work cooperatively with Colorado in administering the Compact during the irrigation season. There is every reason to believe our State officials will continue to do so. Ultimately, if litigation became necessary, what alternative do we have? If Colorado develops as projected, it will reduce flow in the South Platte by 90%, forcing Nebraska to search out more expensive and less certain alternative supplies. We can’t simply abandon our water rights.

Some fear such a project could harm key species by reducing flows to the river. The opposite is true. If Nebraska fails to assert its rights on the South Platte, less water will cross the State line. By protecting our non-irrigation season rights, Nebraska will ensure South Platte flows are maintained in the key stretches of the river that support these species and their habitats. Indeed, the project would aid in species recovery by offering water managers greater flexibility to deliver water at times and locations needed to maximize wildlife benefits. This makes it easier for Nebraska users to remain in compliance with their obligations under the Endangered Species Act and the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program.

South Platte River Storage Study Area. Illustration shows water availability, in blue circles, compared with demand at various places along the South Platte River. The yellow area is the study area. (Illustration by Stantec).

Finally, some argue the price tag is too high. Certainly a $500 million investment must be carefully assessed and evaluated. But, to put that figure in context, our neighbors are planning to spend approximately twenty times that amount ($10 billion) to access the same water we would divert through the project. One of the projects Colorado has identified as most critical would cost $800 million alone, piping tens of thousands of acre-feet of South Platte water every year about 150 miles uphill to the Parker area near Denver. Colorado understands the value of what’s at stake; we can’t afford to be pennywise and pound foolish while our water is diverted away from the river and from future generations of Nebraskans. The time to act is now. The South Divide Canal is our last best chance to protect and preserve the South Platte River in Nebraska.

Western Irrigation District
Twin Platte Natural Resources District
South Platte Natural Resources District
Central Platte Natural Resources District
Nebraska Public Power District
Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District

Ovid, entering from the east on U.S. Route 138. By Jeffrey Beall – Own work, CC BY 4.0,

From Nebraska Public Media (Jackie Ourada):

In 1889, the stretch of the South Platte River in Perkins County, Nebraska was a threadbare nothing.

In an old newspaper clipping from the Grant-Tribune Sentinel, the county’s elected surveyor Mark Burke described what he saw once he arrived in Grant, Nebraska in the 1880s.

“After the ‘June Rise,’ the water disappeared entirely and the river channel became a waste of dry river sands without islands or vegetation,” Burke wrote.

He was the original mind behind the South Divide Canal, now known as the Perkins County Canal…

In the 1923 South Platte River Compact, Nebraska is guaranteed water during the irrigation season. Burke wanted to bank on water coming in during the off-season too…

Capability and feasibility are a few of the bigger questions from some water experts, such as Joel Schkneekloth, a water specialist at Colorado State University.

“It was something I had never heard of. A few people here have in Colorado. They know of it. They hear it once in awhile get popped back up,” Schneekloth said…

Burrowing through sandy southwestern Nebraska soil, the canal may need to be lined, which makes for a costly water project.
“Through talking and discussing with other people… they were going to have to cross a fairly sandy stretch to get out of the South Platte River. Sand and water would make for very low conveyance,” Schneekloth said.

“The sand would act like a sponge.”

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