The South Platte River flows from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains through Colorado and into Nebraska. Sharing the river, Nebraska and Colorado entered into the 1923 South Platte River Compact. It was one of the first interstate agreements allocating stream flow between states. Lately, however, more water than agreed upon has been flowing out of Colorado and into Nebraska. Because of this, now is a great time for Colorado to build storage along the South Platte.
The South Platte River Compact states Colorado must allow 120 cubic feet of water per second to flow into Nebraska from April to October. Summer is when the flow is the greatest, thanks to snow melt from the Rockies. The compact gives Nebraska the right to build a canal to collect water during the winter season, when less water flows. According to the Compact, Nebraska may build a canal that takes up to 500 cubic feet per second, or 1,000-acre-feet a day from October to April. The reservoir connected to the canal would be roughly one and a half times the size of the Dillon Reservoir.
The Compact also gives Colorado a superior right to divert and store 35,000-acre-feet of water from the South Platte during the winter season. Nebraska cannot interfere with Colorado’s right to that water.
Seeing plans from Colorado to expand the budget for water projects, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts incorrectly assumed Colorado will soon take 90% of Nebraska’s water. Fearing that Colorado was planning to cut the flow of water, Ricketts signed bills to build a 3,600-acre lake and connected canal. The Compact gives Nebraska the right to use eminent domain to seize land for construction. The new Nebraska laws would resume construction on the Perkins Canal, located in Perkins County, Nebraska and into the northeast region of Colorado near Ovid and Julesburg. The Nebraska legislature has appropriated 500 million dollars to the construction of the canal.
In response, Colorado lawmakers proposed the bipartisan Senate Bill 22-126. This bill was to designate funds for a storage system along the South Platte. During a committee hearing, the bill sponsors, Senators Jerry Sonnenberg (R, Sterling) and Kerry Donovan (D, Vail), and Representative Richard Holtorf (R, Akron), made note of all the excess water Nebraska is already getting from the river. They also mentioned that Colorado still has the authority to build a reservoir for its own water preservation. The bill was ultimately killed, but the sentiment is right: Colorado should start putting its own needs first.
Ricketts shouldn’t have to worry about losing water. It is likely the Perkins canal will not bring any extra water to Nebraska. In the past 20 years, Colorado has given Nebraska up to 8-million-acre-feet above the Compact minimum.
Nebraska’s real concern is not that Colorado will take Nebraska’s water next year. Rather, Colorado’s population growth makes Nebraska nervous. The population of Colorado has grown over 19% in the past ten years and is expected to continue expanding. The population along the South Platte Basin alone is expected to increase 42%-70% by the year 2050.
However, Colorado population growth may not have the effect Nebraska assumes. Most of the development is expected to be urban, with farmland transitioning into suburban neighborhoods, which will result in less irrigation and a likely net reduction in water use.
Colorado should ensure no water above the Compact amount flows out of our state. The South Platte Basin is the second most populated basin in the state and the highest producing basin in terms of agricultural value. Currently, 4.5 million Coloradans rely on water from the South Platte for drinking, recreation, agriculture, energy, and more. The state can use all the water it can get and shouldn’t allow any excess water to flow out with no charge.
Jordan Ready, a summer intern at the Independence Institute, is a graduate of the University of Cinncinati and is attending law school at the University of Denver. Her areas of interest include natural resources and property law.
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