August 14, 2022



Unwilling to give things a chance, Nebraska has taken action by applying the fine print of a century-old water compact between the two states and creating new tension in the process.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed legislation in April that, within the terms of the compact, would allow Nebraska to build a canal to divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado.

In response, Colorado Governor Jared Polis called the plan a “costly and misleading political stunt”.

But it’s a struggle, climate experts say, as droughts spread across West and Central America, dwindling water supplies and increasing tensions between urban development and agriculture.

“We go through droughts every 20 years, but nothing of this magnitude,” said Tom Seich, former co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University in Denver. “We are in for a wave of water rights fighting through the West. This is the driest in 1,200 years.”

Whose right?

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

But most of that land has now turned brown.

Concerns about how much water — or how little — is flowing down the South Platte, Ricketts raised $500 million to build a canal on Colorado land to funnel water into the Nebraska reservoir system during the non-irrigation months in the fall. announced plans. and winter.

The South Plateau Metro runs through Denver.

“Without this compact and our ability to enforce our rights, we will see a dramatic impact on our state,” Ricketts said in an April press conference, estimating nearly $10 billion for Colorado’s growing population and 282 new projects. . South plateau. “Should all of the long-term goals be hit, they would reduce the amount of water flow into the state of Nebraska by 90%.”

That argument raised eyebrows in Colorado.

“The fact is, many of those projects aren’t necessary,” Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Water Resources Department, told CNN. To make sure Nebraska still gets the water it’s entitled to.

two very rare floods in the same week;  A forest fire generates its own season.  Here's how it's connectedtwo very rare floods in the same week;  A forest fire generates its own season.  Here's how it's connected

“Throughout the 99-year history of the Compact, we have followed those provisions of the Compact,” Rein said. “They are getting what they agreed for.”

Despite population growth in Denver, Rein said, conservation efforts have resulted in a reduction in the amount of water used. However, the state acknowledges that future expansion could affect supply.

“Development flows along the South Plateau River may begin to reduce as they travel down the river and eventually down the river toward Nebraska,” Rein said.

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

“It’s really happening with two states,” he explained. “We have good for farmers in Colorado and good for farmers in Nebraska in that region who are part of a community and work together. And they are the ones who can be affected.”

Kevin Rein, Colorado's state engineer and director of the Colorado Department of Water Resources by the South Platte River in the Denver metro area.Kevin Rein, Colorado's state engineer and director of the Colorado Department of Water Resources by the South Platte River in the Denver metro area.

The South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska up to 500 cubic feet of water per second – with certain conditions – in the fall and winter between October 15 and April 1.

However, during the spring and summer irrigation seasons, beginning April 1 and October 15, Nebraska’s allocation decreases to 120 cubic feet per second.

'something's Gotta Give.'  Persistent heat and worsening drought conditions devastate Texas ranchers'something's Gotta Give.'  Persistent heat and worsening drought conditions devastate Texas ranchers

Crucially, however, the compact allows Nebraska to build a canal on Colorado land to drain water from the South Plateau “to irrigate land in Nebraska” and “acquire Nebraska and its citizens by purchase, prescription, or exercise”. “Eminent domain” any land necessary for the construction and maintenance of the canal.

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

Caught in the middle of this political tug-of-war are farmers, ranchers and their communities built around the South Plateau in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska—many of whom were surprised to hear of Nebraska’s plans for the canal.

‘No one wants to lose their wealth’

History can be found all around Julesburg, Colorado. There is the Pony Express Trail and Fort Sedgwick, which was immortalized in the 1990 film “Dance with Wolves”.

For Jay Goddard, a banker and fifth-generation rancher in this corner of Colorado, history literally extends to his land.

Goddard’s farm has a two-and-a-half-mile trail from when Nebraska began — but never ended — the excavation of the Perkins County Canal more than a century ago.

“Well, obviously, nobody wants to lose any of their assets,” Goddard told CNN as he walked along the rest of the ditch, the Interstate Highway and Nebraska visible in the distance. The land on his farm is dry and brittle. “Some of these lagoons usually have standing water and they have just dried up completely.”

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

“I hope it doesn’t reduce the flow during the winter. We have a lot of hunters coming to this area. We have a lot of great wildlife – whether geese, turkeys, deer and ducks – that migrate and so I worry it will dry up the river at the wrong time,” Goddard said.

Calamity upon disaster: wildfires contaminating the West's dwindling waters with ash sludgeCalamity upon disaster: wildfires contaminating the West's dwindling waters with ash sludge

Not only would this hurt Julesburg’s tourism and economy, but it would also affect the businesses of its neighbours. Goddard explained that the border is porous, with many like him – operating in both states.

“I want to make sure that my [agriculture] Manufacturers and the people who bank on us [agriculture] The lending side is well taken care of on both sides of the line,” Goddard said.

In Nebraska, on the other hand, farmer Darrell Armstrong sees the issue as less about Nebraska versus Colorado and more as a fight for “agriculture against the urban.”

“We think what has been done in a lot of agreements [rural areas are] Less is coming,” Armstrong told CNN. “The people who upheld the agreements had nothing to do with making the agreement.”

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

City of Julesburg.City of Julesburg.
Corn growing in Nebraska near the Colorado border.  Irrigation from river water is important for agriculture in this part of the country, which is naturally dry.Corn growing in Nebraska near the Colorado border.  Irrigation from river water is important for agriculture in this part of the country, which is naturally dry.

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

As soon as the drought struck, which Armstrong called “very disastrous”, the difficult conditions for his business. “We are seeing potentially zero production on our dry land crops without water,” he said.

US farmers under pressure amid rising prices and on the front lines of food inflationUS farmers under pressure amid rising prices and on the front lines of food inflation

He agrees with Goddard that the South Plateau needs to be preserved.

“The Southern Plateau is basically the lifeblood of our surface aquifer and so we need to keep the South Plateau running somehow,” Armstrong said. “We are seeing less and less coming into the river than what we had in the past.”

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

“What can they do for me to make sure it’s not disrupting my production, but also my other producers in the region?” Rancher Goddard thought.

It marks the beginning of a new era of water wars in an era 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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