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Drought prompts Nebraska to divert water from river it shares with Colorado

Nebraska lawmakers said they would exercise the state's right to build a canal on the South Platte River to ensure its share of the water supply.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks during a news conference, Sept. 30, 2020, in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, in 2020.  Nati Harnik / AP file

DENVER — With many Western states in severe drought and vying for their share of a diminishing amount of water, Nebraska is taking a new tack by trying to divert water from a river it shares with Colorado.

The Nebraska Legislature this week approved construction of a $53 million canal in Colorado that would solidify its share of water from the South Platte River that flows through both states.

As climate change makes the West hotter and drier, cities and states will intensify efforts to find and secure water, and Nebraska's pre-emptive move could be a precursor to how Western states react as competition for the natural resource grows, experts said.

The Nebraska law gives the state authority to draw water from the Platte in a move state officials said would secure its portion of the river’s water supply and help protect communities, businesses, agriculture and the environment across the state of 2 million people.

Both states have the right to draw from the river under a 1923 compact. Nebraska officials said they decided to exercise their right to build the canal to circumvent any big water projects Colorado may have planned for the river.

“Colorado was going to start doing some water projects that would take up a bunch of water that Nebraska would have otherwise been entitled to,” said Denny Vaggalis, legal counsel for Nebraska state Sen. Mike Hilgers, a Republican who introduced the legislation.

“We’re going to move forward to construct the canal to make sure we’re going to get that water.”

The proposed canal is not expected to drastically reduce Colorado's aquatic resources because the water that would be diverted flows in an easterly direction, water experts said. (Nebraska is northeast of Colorado.)

Colorado also receives water from the Colorado River, which supplies water to six other states and is listed as the most endangered in the nation, according to a new study by American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group.

But the state's population is growing, and so is consumption. Colorado had 5.8 million residents last year, 800,000 more than in 2010, according to the U.S. census.

The South Platte River
The South Platte River in Denver on Mar. 3, 2021.Hyoung Chang / MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images file

Over the last two decades, the West has been the driest in 1,200 years, according to a February report by the journal Nature Climate Change.

Water levels at the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead on the Colorado River along the Arizona-Nevada border, have hit their lowest ever, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“We don’t have a lot of water to give right now while we’re in this drought cycle,” said Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist at Colorado State University.

Nebraska’s state Legislature passed the canal law in a 42-4 vote, and it was signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, on Monday.

“Nebraska is kind of in a reactionary mode,” said Anthony Schutz, an associate law professor and water expert at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “I don’t know if the state would have done it had it not seen Colorado really investing in its water resources and in the South Platte basin.”

He estimated the canal project would ultimately cost $750 million to $1 billion.

“It’s like building a highway,” he said.

Kevin Rein, Colorado state engineer and director of the division of water resources, said that he was not sure what water projects Nebraska officials were referring to, but that it could stem from a group of unfunded water projects developed in 2015.

He said Colorado would not stand in the way of construction.

“We’re not going to obstruct Nebraska from taking water they’re legally entitled to,” Rein said, adding that Colorado has always complied with the agreement and has a good rapport with Nebraska. “It’s not my objective to try and stop it.”

But the Colorado governor's office said it is not thrilled with Nebraska’s plans.

“This is still a canal to nowhere, a political stunt, and a waste of taxpayers dollars,” Conor Cahill, spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said in a statement. “This misguided decision continues to threaten the private land of hardworking farmers and ranchers without being able to get any more water for Nebraska or Colorado. Total waste.”