Nebraska is moving quickly to build a major canal that will take water from the drought-strapped South Platte River on Colorado’s northeastern plains, and deliver it to new storage reservoirs in western Nebraska.
But after a tumultuous project announcement last year, with both states angrily declaring their thirst and concerns, the conflict has quieted, and talk of lawsuits, at least for now, has stopped. Water watchers liken this apparently calm work period with a similar period 100 years ago when early threats of legal battles gave way to an era of study and negotiation that preceded the signing by both states of the South Platte River Compact.
“In my mind, it’s ‘what is there to fight over,’” said Jim Yahn, a fourth-generation rancher, and former member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who runs the North Sterling Irrigation Company. “Under the 1923 South Platte River Compact, it is Colorado’s obligation to deliver. So now we’re going to start suing and fighting over it? We agreed to do this. I don’t think it’s worth losing sleep over.”
With $628 million in cash from its state legislature, Nebraska has begun early design work and is holding public meetings outlining potential routes for the canal and reservoirs, according to Jesse Bradley, assistant director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. At least one Colorado land purchase has been made.
Nebraska intends to complete design and start construction bidding in three years, and finish the project seven to nine years later, Bradley said.
“We’re just trying to make sure we can protect the water we have under the compact,” Bradley said. “We don’t want to be any more intrusive than we need to be … and we believe there are opportunities for some win-wins,” he said, including stabilizing levels in the popular Lake McConaughy and ensuring there will always be enough water in the river to protect one of the nation’s most successful endangered species programs, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.
Engineering studies indicate the project could deliver 78,000 to 115,000 acre-feet of water annually, and perhaps just 30% of that in drought years, Bradley said. But that is still big water. If the top estimates hold, that’s enough water to irrigate more than 115,000 acres of corn, or supply water to more than 230,000 urban homes for one year.
At the state line, a difficult river
On the high prairie around Sterling and Julesberg, the solitude and silence mask a complicated water arena, with cities such as Parker and Castle Rock planning major projects themselves, and large- and small-scale cattle and corn producers watching every drop that flows.
“There is a lot going on up there,” said Ron Redd, Parker Water and Sanitation District’s general manager. “I think that there is a fear that the way [Nebraska] has it laid out is going to be difficult. But the tone has changed because people understand it better. When we look at the numbers, we think it’s not the end of the world.”
Colorado has a history of working with Nebraska on other water issues, including the successful negotiation of the South Platte River Compact and the settlement of a lawsuit involving the Republican River and Kansas.
Still, Colorado water regulators say they will carefully monitor the project and plan to meet regularly with Nebraska’s team.
“There are issues,” said Kevin Rein, the former director of Colorado’s Division of Water Resources who retired in December. “The canal’s location and the route it would follow is important. But more substantively, we want to ensure that the placement of the headgate [diversion structure] and the canal don’t create a burden on Colorado and its water users.”
Water projects inside Colorado are subject to in-depth reviews in special water courts, but the Perkins Canal Project, as it is known, is governed by the federal compact, and won’t necessarily be subject to that process, officials said.
Colorado growers with junior water rights on the Lower South Platte, who are only allowed to divert during the winter, will likely be the most affected, according to Mike Brownell, a Logan County commissioner and dryland farmer. Under the compact, Nebraska too has a winter diversion right. The success of the deal will likely come down to how well both states and their diverters manage the water that is flowing, often in difficult icy conditions, officials said.
Local meetings in Sedgwick and Logan counties have been ongoing. Brownell said some people in those meetings estimate that vulnerable growers could lose half the water they are typically able to divert.
“If that would come to pass, it would be pretty catastrophic,” Brownell said. “We’re really not certain yet, but if we go from having thousands of irrigated acres, to having thousands of dryland acres, it’s going to severely impact the property tax base in Logan and Sedgwick counties.”
Also of concern is the health of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. Funded and overseen by Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and the federal government, the nearly 17-year-old program helps keep more water in the central Platte River and has dramatically boosted at-risk bird populations, including piping plovers and whooping cranes, and expanded their habitat. It has also allowed dozens of water projects in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and continue operating.
But that hard-won agreement took 10 years to negotiate. Don Ament, a Sterling-area rancher and former Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture who helped negotiate the deal, said he’s worried that political strife over the canal and any additional strain on the river’s supplies, could endanger the recovery program.
Still, with few details on canal location and actual water diversions available yet, it’s difficult to say what impact the Perkins Canal will have, according to Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the recovery program.
“We could see more water in the river, we could see less. We just don’t know yet,” he said.
Nebraska’s Bradley said he believes the recovery initiative will actually benefit from the canal, as his state seeks to gain control over its new winter water supply and deliver it to the main stem of the river, where it will benefit birds and fish.
“Though the recovery program is not the primary objective of the canal, we think we are aligned with its goals because we are trying to maintain the flows we have today without seeing them erode,” Bradley said.
The South Platte, like other Western rivers, is seeing flows shrink, thanks to climate change and growth farther west along Colorado’s Interstate 25 corridor.
Good water years, such as 2023 and 2013, still can dramatically boost flows on the Colorado/Nebraska state line. Water managers in Colorado believe careful management of the lower river and perhaps increased storage, could allow all the water users to coexist.
“There is a potential impact to (water) rights in the river, whether it’s for storage or for the recovery program. So what do we do about that? We administer according to the compact,” Rein said. “It sounds a little like we’re giving up, but the water users are pretty smart. They know how to legally, and in good form, develop strategies to mitigate the impacts.
“The current perspective of Colorado,” he added, “is that we need to recognize that there is an interstate compact that has been approved by the United States and we place a high regard on the need to comply with that compact.”