Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts testifies in front of the Natural Resources Committee during a hearing on LB1015 at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. (Lily Smith/Omaha World-Herald via AP)

By Grant Schulte, The Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska water regulators rallied Wednesday behind a proposal to build a $500 million canal in neighboring Colorado to divert water out of the South Platte River, a project steeped in fears that the fast-growing Denver area will consume most of the river’s water.

Leaders from Nebraska’s irrigation and natural resources districts cast the plan as a crucial step to preserve as much of the state’s water supply as possible. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts identified it as a top priority, arguing that not moving forward would eventually cost Nebraska billions as farms, cities and other water users struggle with shortages.

“In my opinion, it’s a bargain,” Ricketts said in testimony before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.

Ricketts announced a plan last month to invoke Nebraska’s right to build a canal in Colorado under the South Platte River Compact, a 99-year-old water-sharing agreement between the states. Building the canal would let Nebraska draw water out of the river in late fall, winter and early spring and store it for use in drier times.

Some Nebraska water regulators said they’re convinced that Colorado intends to scale up its water usage to meet the needs of a Denver-area population that’s expected to more than double by 2050.

Colorado officials have said they don’t fully understand Nebraska’s concerns and goals, noting that they’ve always complied with the compact’s requirements. Last week, a northeast Colorado lawmaker introduced a bill that would require regulators to prioritize South Platte River water storage projects.

“This is the right time, and Nebraska cannot wait any longer,” said Kent Miller, executive director of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District in North Platte, Nebraska.

Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said cutbacks on the river would force water regulators to release more water from Lake McConaughy, a major reservoir of the North Platte River, which converges with the South Platte River to form the Platte River.

Riley said the reduced flows would also affect power generation in the state, force farmers to retire productive farmland and hurt municipal water supplies within the river basin. Nebraska also relies on the river at some of its public power stations, including a coal-powered facility that uses water for cooling.

“In my 35 years as a water resources engineer, I’ve never seen a more important water project for Nebraska,” Riley said, calling the situation “a catastrophe that we can prevent.”

Elizabeth Elliott, director of Lincoln’s Transportation and Utilities agency, said Lincoln relies on the Platte River to supplement the water it draws from wells. She said water from the South Platte River provides about 7% of the city’s water.

Elliott pointed to the 2012 drought that triggered a wave of residential water restrictions, in which police issued citations to homeowners who were caught watering their lawns.

John Winkler, general manager of the Omaha-based Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, said reducing the river flows would cut into the water supply in his area, which is a part the Platte River basin. Winkler said construction costs will rise quickly with inflation the longer the state waits to approve the project.

“We need to be progressive and look not just at what’s happening today, but what’s happening 50 or 100 years in the future,” he said.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Some Nebraska lawmakers questioned the project’s cost and asked why Nebraska doesn’t first try to negotiate a new compact with Colorado. Under the compact, Nebraska must build the canal to claim 500 cubic feet per second from the river’s lower section that runs through northeast Colorado, and they can only do so during the non-irrigation season.

“It just seems easier to negotiate another compact,” said state Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, who introduced the bill on the governor’s behalf, said forging ahead with the canal could help Nebraska “put the strongest foot forward” in any negotiations. But he said the canal proposal wasn’t intended as a bargaining chip and argued the state ought to move forward with the project.

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