Nebraska wants to redirect water out of Colorado, but that may be easier said than done
When Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced a plan to divert water out of Colorado and into his state, it came as a surprise to many – even those who manage the water. His proposal would redirect hundreds of cubic feet per second through a new “canal and reservoir system” and use $500 million to seize access land and build the infrastructure.
But particulars about the plan are scarce, leaving agencies involved with the river hungry for more details, and some experts confused as to how Nebraska would pull it off.
“When we heard the announcement, we really just were looking for more information,” said Kevin Rein, Colorado state engineer, “so we could truly understand the announcement and what Nebraska's proposal, if there was any proposal, actually entailed.”
Speaking to KUNC, Rein said, “We know about as much as you know.”
The proposal appears to hinge on one article in a 99-year-old compact between Colorado and Nebraska. Under the 1923 South Platte River Compact, Nebraska is entitled to 120 cubic feet per second during the irrigation season, and 500 cubic feet per second during the non-irrigation season.
Ricketts framed the diversion as a defense against new development in Colorado and a way to protect Nebraska’s future water supply. He said the state could expect to lose 90% of the water that currently comes from Colorado, calling the losses a “devastating impact” for agriculture, cities and hydropower generation. The proposal is expected to trigger lawsuits between the states.
As Colorado and other interested parties wait for details, at least one expert questioned the very feasibility of Nebraska’s proposal. Jim Yahn is the former Colorado Water Conservation Board director for the South Platte basin, and currently manages the North Sterling and Pruitt reservoirs in northeastern Colorado.
“It felt more like a shot across the bow,” Yahn said. “But I was trying to understand why they would do a shot across the bow. (Ricketts) made a couple of comments in his announcement, that I was wondering whether he fully understood the river in our area.”
Yahn took issue with the claim that Colorado could take 90% of the water headed for Nebraska.
“We can’t capture that,” he said. “There’s just no way.”
Yahn, who has managed water in the area for more than three decades, said diverting the proposed amount of water could present a formidable set of logistical hurdles, and Nebraska might find that “even though they have the right to 500 cubic feet per second from October 15th to April 1st, that water is not there under the 1921 water right that they had.”
“I would hope that Nebraska would, before they would spend a lot of money on a project like this, look at it with the scrutiny that we look at all of our projects,” he said. “Which is, what will it actually yield? How much water is there really for us if we did build this project?”
The area’s geology also presents a potential challenge to building a canal. As reported by Nebraska Public Media, sandy terrain could act like a sponge, which may require concrete lining, driving up construction costs.
"What will it actually yield? How much water is there really for us if we did build this project?"
A spokeswoman for Gov. Ricketts reiterated that Nebraska’s proposal is a serious one, rejecting the idea that it was a means of sending a political message.
“It's definitely not just taking an abstract stand,” said Alex Reuss, director of strategic communications for the governor. “We're interested in pursuing these projects.”
Reuss said the governor’s office did not have any further information on the particulars of the plan, and its current priority is to secure funding for the project through the approval of the governor’s proposed state budget.
That quest for funding came up in a legislative hearing on the budget. Tom Riley, director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, appeared in front of lawmakers, lobbying for the budget’s passage by explaining the importance of developing the new canals and reservoirs. Some senators expressed hesitation about the cost of the project, and one asked why the $500 million sum was needed so urgently.
“Colorado is investing a large amount of money to use these flows right now,” Riley responded. “The longer we wait each year, that's more water that passes through Nebraska. With the pressure of development in the Front Range, those projects are going to keep advancing.”
While the murky details and questionable viability of Nebraska’s plan may be raising some eyebrows, the very nature of the proposal is not outside the realm of normal.
“I think it's a relatively common provision among interstate compacts that a downstream state can go into an upstream state and build infrastructure to divert water for the benefit of the downstream state,” said Eric Kuhn, retired manager of the Colorado River District.
Kuhn cited the San Juan-Chama project — between Colorado and New Mexico — as an example of one state employing water diversion infrastructure across state lines. That project and others, he said, are typically carried out without much controversy between states.
Going forward, Kuhn agreed that more details are needed to deal with the proposal squarely.
“I think the next step probably ought to be for the people in Nebraska to reach out to Colorado and say, ‘This is what we have, this is what we're planning and need on a technical level,’” he said. “So at least Colorado knows what the hell they have in mind.”
Colorado appears ready to defend its water use. Gov. Jared Polis has said the state would “protect and aggressively assert” its rights. But he acknowledged that Colorado and its lawyers have had trouble making sense of Nebraska’s concerns and goals.
Historically, the relationship between Nebraska and Colorado in the water space has generally been amiable. Dick Wolfe, former Colorado state engineer, cited a collaborative relationship between the two states going back to the 1920s.
“I fully expect the two states to sit down and engage as we do with all of our compacts,” Wolfe said. “If they saw there was a means to go forward and reduce the amount of conflict that could erupt, I think Colorado and Nebraska would try to try to avoid as much conflict as they could to move forward on this project.”
Wolfe suspects that the proposal was a politically driven move by legislators, as water talks between the states normally start as conversations between two state engineers and involve little public fanfare.
While the absence of details has hamstrung state agencies concerned with the legality and feasibility of the proposal, it has also clouded attempts to gauge the ecological impacts of new canals. Portions of the Platte River are considered globally important habitat for migrating birds – including some endangered and threatened species such as the whooping crane and piping plover.
“When you modify the hydrology of any river system, there can be larger impacts on a regional scale and different ecological impacts,” said Melissa Mosier, Platte River program manager at the Audubon Society, “But at this point, we just don't know enough yet about how this project will be designed again and managed to really assess what those might be.”
She said a multi-state agreement to protect the river was borne out of decades of sacrifice and negotiation, and hopes Colorado and Nebraska can seize on that spirit of collaboration again to find a solution.
KUNC’s Adam Rayes contributed to this report.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.