Nebraska and Colorado are fighting over water rights. This could be the new normal as rivers dry up

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Not wanting to leave things to chance, Nebraska took action by invoking the fine print of a century-old water pact between the two states — and sparking new tension in the process.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed legislation in April that, as part of the pact, would allow Nebraska to build a canal in Colorado to siphon water from the South Platte River.

In response, Colorado Governor Jared Polis described the plan as a “costly and misguided political stunt.”

But it’s a conflict that climate scientists say could happen more often as drought spreads across the western and central United States, depleting water supplies and exacerbating tensions between growing urban and agriculture.

“We go through droughts every 20 years or so, but nothing of this magnitude,” said Tom Cech, former co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “We’re in a wave of water rights battles across the West. It’s the driest in 1,200 years.”

Who has the right ?

The South Platte River extends from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to Denver and runs northeast along I-76 toward Nebraska. Along the way, the city gives way to miles of farms and ranches on both sides of the Colorado-Nebraska border.

But much of that land is now brown.

Concerns about the amount of water — or reduced amount — flowing into the South Platte led Ricketts to announce the $500 million plan to build a canal on Colorado lands to funnel water into a system of Nebraska Reservoir during non-irrigation months in the fall. and winter.

“Without this pact and our ability to enforce our rights, we will see the dramatic impact on our state,” Ricketts said at a press conference in April, pointing to Colorado’s ever-growing population and its estimate of nearly $10 billion for 282 new projects along the South Platte. “If all long-term goals were affected, they would reduce the amount of water coming into the state of Nebraska by 90 percent.”

This rationale has raised eyebrows in Colorado.

“The fact is, a lot of these projects won’t necessarily come to fruition,” Kevin Rein, a Colorado state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, told CNN, noting that the state is reducing the use according to the age of water rights. to ensure that Nebraska always receives the water it is entitled to.

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“Over the 99-year history of the pact, we have abided by these provisions of the pact,” Rein said. “They get what they agreed.”

Despite population growth in Denver, Rein said, the amount of water used has declined due to conservation efforts. However, the state recognizes that future expansion could impact supply.

“Development along the South Platte River may begin to decrease flows as they flow down the river to the lower river and eventually Nebraska,” Rein said.

At the same time, building a canal would impact Colorado’s water rights, Rein said. But overall, he thinks the compact is good for Colorado.

“It’s really two states that get along,” he explained. “What we have is good for farmers in Colorado and good for farmers in Nebraska in this area who are part of a community and working together. And they are the ones who could be affected.”

Kevin Rein, Colorado State Engineer and Director of Colorado's Water Resources Division, near the South Platte River in the Denver metro area.

The South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska 500 cubic feet of water per second — under certain conditions — in the fall and winter between Oct. 15 and April 1.

However, during the spring and summer irrigation season, April 1 through October 15, Nebraska’s allotment drops to 120 cubic feet per second.

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Importantly, the pact allows Nebraska to build a canal on Colorado lands to divert water from the South Platte “for the irrigation of Nebraska lands” and “grants Nebraska and its citizens the right to acquire by purchase, prescription or exercise of eminent domain” any land necessary for the construction and maintenance of the canal.

So far, the Nebraska Legislature has approved $53.5 million for the Perkins County Canal Project Fund for “design, engineering, permits, and land purchase options.” The state said it also hired an independent consulting firm to conduct a cost and time analysis. The study is expected to be presented to the Nebraska Legislature before the end of the year.

Caught in the middle of this political tussle are the farmers, ranchers and their communities built around the South Platte in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska – many of whom were surprised to learn of Nebraska’s plans. for the channel.

“No one wants to lose any of their possessions”

The story can be found all around Julesburg, Colorado. There’s the Pony Express Trail and Fort Sedgwick, which was immortalized in the 1990 film “Dances with Wolves.”

For Jay Goddard, a fifth-generation banker and rancher in this corner of Colorado, the story literally spans his land.

Goddard’s ranch bears a two-and-a-half-mile scar from when Nebraska began — but never finished — digging a Perkins County canal more than a century ago.

“Well obviously nobody wants to lose any part of their property,” Goddard told CNN as he walked along the rest of the ditch, with the Interstate and Nebraska visible in the distance. The soil on his ranch is dry and brittle. “There’s usually water in some of these lagoons and they’re completely dry right now.”

Jay Goddard stands on his drought-stricken land, which bears the scars of Nebraska's previous attempt to build a canal system in Colorado more than 100 years ago.

He is also concerned about the canal’s impacts on the overall health of the river.

“Hopefully it won’t reduce the flow during the winter. We have a lot of hunters coming to this area. We have a lot of wildlife – be it geese, turkeys, deer and ducks – that go through a migration and so I’m concerned that it will dry up the river at the wrong time,” Goddard said.

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Not only would this harm Julesburg’s tourism and economy, but it would also impact the businesses of its neighbors. Goddard explained that the border is porous, with many — like him — having operations in both states.

“I want to make sure that my [agriculture] producers and the people who rely on our [agriculture] lender side are well supported on both sides of the line,” Goddard said.

Just across the way, in Nebraska, farmer Darrel Armstrong sees the issue less as Nebraska vs. Colorado and more as an “agricultural vs. urban” battle.

“We think that in a lot of the agreements that have been made, [rural areas are] short,” Armstrong told CNN. “People who keep the deals have nothing to do with making the deals.”

According to Cech, population expansion in the High Plains was made possible by the agricultural industry.

The city of Julesburg.
Corn growing in Nebraska near the Colorado border.  Irrigation with river water is essential for agriculture in this part of the country, which is naturally dry.

“If you don’t have irrigation in Colorado — in the West — all you’re going to grow is probably prickly pear and sagebrush,” Cech said. “Water is key to this economic growth, not just in Colorado or western Nebraska, but in California and the West in general.”

The longer the drought persists, which Armstrong calls “very devastating,” the more difficult the conditions for his business. “We are looking at potentially zero production on our waterless dryland crops,” he said.

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He agrees with Goddard that the South Platte must be protected.

“The South Platte is basically the cornerstone of our surficial aquifer, so we kind of have to keep the South Platte going,” Armstrong said. “We are seeing less and less coming down the river compared to what we had in the past.”

Lawsuits could delay Nebraska from moving forward with its canal project. But for now, on these farms and ranches, there are more questions than answers.

“What can they do to ensure that this does not disrupt my production, but also my other producers in this area?” wondered the breeder Goddard.

This is just the start of a new era of water wars in a time of unprecedented climate change as rivers dry up and desperation flows.

“Human nature is our biggest obstacle, I believe, in trying to manage water in the West,” Cech said.

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