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Water

Nebraska wants to build a $500 million canal over the border. Can Colorado stop it?

Remnants of the last time the Huskers tried this, in 1894, pock the landscape of far northeastern Colorado. Experts say there’s a difference between water rights and what’s right.

Interstate 76 and U.S. 385 intersect near the South Platte River in Sedgwick County. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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JULESBURG — If Nebraska does indeed try to dig a $500 million canal across its border and take water from the South Platte River on the Colorado side, it will have to be over the dead bodies in this town’s cemetery. 

Or perhaps under them. 

At the very least, extremely close. 

That includes the great-great-grandparents of Jay Goddard, whose big white Suburban is fishtailing around the edges of the cemetery and through the muddy remnants of the last canal Nebraska tried to dig in Colorado. Goddard, a fifth-generation farmer, points out century-old footprints of the canal Nebraska wants to revive. Goddard’s ancestors likely got a kick out of watching 600 Nebraskans with shovels, struggling to sculpt the rolling hills into a waterway before they finally gave up and went home in 1894. 

The old canal with cow paths on Jay Goddard’s property in Julesburg on March 18. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Julesburg Cemetery in Sedgwick County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Nebraskans are Goddard’s friends and neighbors, and employ his wife as a schoolteacher a few miles away in Big Springs. Nebraska may even have a legal right to buy up Julesburg land and send the bulldozers over, he admits.

But water is gold on the increasingly dry high plains. And a water war among friends is still a water war. 

Nebraska’s rich fields need water as much as Colorado does, Goddard said. But as a regional bank president, he sees prosperous Sedgwick County farmers expanding, developers buying land, and Fort Collins and Greeley to the west growing relentlessly. 

Colorado’s 6 million people could be 12 million before the canal fight is settled. 

“These guys were trying to do the same thing back in the 1890s. And here we are 100 years later,” Goddard said, his arm sweeping across the cottonwoods lining the South Platte River through Julesburg and on to the Nebraska border a mile beyond. “We’ve got to figure out how to make it work for the next 100 years.”

An overhead view of the South Platte as it meanders across northeastern Colorado on March 16, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Why is Nebraska lining up bulldozers? 

Eroded berms and meandering, overgrown ditches from Nebraska’s 1890s canal effort are familiar marks on the landscape along 24 miles on the south flats of the South Platte River, from Ovid to Julesburg, and then east from the cemetery toward the state border 12 miles away. 

Nebraska water officials say a healthy 7% of the supply in the agriculture-heavy state comes from the South Platte, before it joins its northern branch at North Platte. A 1923 compact settlement with Colorado guarantees Nebraska a flow of 120 cubic feet per second from April 1 to Oct. 15 where the South Platte leaves Colorado just northeast of Julesburg.

Path of old Platte canal, which was never finished. The headgate for a Nebraska canal would come off the river just southwest of Ovid.

For the other half of the year, the compact allows Nebraska 500 cubic feet per second, but only through a canal that would leave the South Platte near Ovid and crawl east. Absent a canal, Colorado from Oct. 16 through March can use South Platte water without worrying how much gets to Nebraska, though in recent years records show it has usually sent significant winter water to its neighbor. 

But Nebraska leaders say they no longer trust Colorado to deliver the water without a Nebraska-dug canal. Gov. Pete Ricketts, flush with federal stimulus cash, suddenly announced in January he would seek legislative approval for reviving the canal, at a price of at least $500 million. 

The legislature is serious about appropriating the first $50 million this year to start engineering studies and land purchases, said Nebraska state Sen. Dan Hughes, a Republican farmer whose district abuts Colorado. 

Colorado’s official answer amounts to, “What was that, now?” 

We’ve got to figure out how to make it work for the next 100 years.

– Jay Goddard

Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs said Ricketts gave Gov. Jared Polis a courtesy call the morning of his January news splash but offered no details. 

The media has heard more about Nebraska’s current plan than the Colorado state engineer, said Kevin Rein, the Colorado state engineer. 

Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources details what it calls accelerating plans by Colorado to divert more South Platte water before it gets to Nebraska’s canal marker at Ovid, which would have a 1921 water right. Colorado interests with rights dated before 1921 could still take out their water regardless of the canal. 

Jay Goddard visits Julesburg Cemetery on March 18. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ricketts, whose office declined comment to The Sun, wrote in an op-ed that Colorado’s 2021 update to its South Platte plan includes potentially hundreds of projects and “threatens to choke off the flow of water into Nebraska.”

The thing is, Nebraska’s not paranoid if Colorado really is out to get them.

The Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and Parker Water & Sanitation District, in fast-growing Douglas County, have teamed up for a new reservoir near Akron and pipeline plan that would indeed take more water from the river that is currently being sent downstream to Nebraska. Their PowerPoint presentation to the Colorado legislature and other interested parties includes a slide showing “Water Delivered to Nebraska in Excess of the Compact.”  In other words, perfectly good water for Colorado is there for the taking.

Colorado is a growth monster to the west. Nebraska needs to protect its rights, Hughes and others argue. 

And this is not the first battle in a long cold war over water.

The South Platte River is seen from overhead in Logan County on March 16, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado has been accused of draining the crucial Ogallala Aquifer supplying agriculture from deep beneath eight states. Colorado farmers “mine” the Ogallala’s water, Ricketts’ editorial claims, while Hughes notes that Nebraska farmers have had meters monitoring their Ogallala pumping for 40 years. 

Rein responds that while it’s true Colorado did not meter its wells until 15 to 20 years ago, it has long limited well withdrawals by controlling the irrigated acreage attached to well permits. Besides, he said, all the states over the Ogallala — Nebraska included — are “mining” the aquifer without fully replacing their take.

Colorado is also obligated to provide water to both Nebraska and Kansas to comply with a separate compact in the Republican River basin. Northeast Colorado farm interests lament the state’s obligations under a 2016 settlement with Kansas, which requires drying up 10,000 Colorado farm acres to put more water back into the Republican.

“The value of water is only going to increase,” Hughes said. “If we look at the water projects that were built 100 years ago, the amount of money that was spent then was exorbitant. But in retrospect, that was money well spent.”

Would Nebraska’s move be a legal invasion?

Nebraska points to the 1923 compact and says, “read the fine print. We’re building a canal.” 

Colorado is reading from the same compact, but points to a different paragraph. 

“Without that canal, there is no right that Nebraska has to that water during the non-irrigation season,” said Rein, Colorado’s state engineer. “Matter of fact, the language of the compact says that Colorado has the full and uninterrupted use” of the river until a canal is built, he added. 

Does anyone actually envision Nebraska condemning and buying Julesburg-area farmland, and sending backhoes over to start digging? Nebraska certainly does. Hughes, helping to shepherd the canal project through the legislature, says authorization to buy real estate will be in the initial appropriation. 

If we look at the water projects that were built 100 years ago, the amount of money that was spent then was exorbitant. But in retrospect, that was money well spent.

– Neb. State Sen. Dan Hughes

Hold onto your legal briefs, Colorado responds. 

“There’s a lot to understand on the historical use of eminent domain from one state over another,” said the DNR’s Gibbs. “Has that ever been done? And so we are analyzing all that.”

Nor is it clear, if Nebraska wants to use any federal money for the project, whether U.S. agencies would look kindly on spending it in a neighboring state that opposes the idea. It’s not even clear yet whether one county can spend federal money in another county — water developers are asking thirsty Douglas County officials to spend $20 million in stimulus money as a down payment on their pipeline from the San Luis Valley, to enormous opposition. 

Who will get final say? 

“Even that is not decided yet,” Rein said. “Is it a Colorado water court? These compacts operate under the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s still an open question.” 

Farmland is seen from overhead in Logan County on March 16. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Local farmers keep a wary eye on the eastern horizon 

Farmers and ranchers in the fertile wedge from Denver northeast along Interstate 76 and the South Platte to the Nebraska corner will keep tabs on the debate while making hay. Ag prices have finally stayed ahead of costs to a point where local landowners are making real money, said Goddard, who sees the balance sheets as a banker and in his own Black Angus operation. 

“It was rough for about eight years and then this last year was tremendous,” Goddard said. 

Reservoir operators who store water for Colorado farm shareholders stayed busy diverting late winter flows into their reservoirs, like Prewitt and North Sterling. 

Local farmers have called Joe Frank, who runs the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, about whether Nebraska can take their land through eminent domain. He tells them there are years of questions to be answered before that happens. 

What current Nebraska politicians might not appreciate, Colorado water experts say, is how Colorado agriculture makes the South Platte a much more reliable river than nature made it. 

South Platte River on March 18 in Julesburg. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Before settlers moved in and altered the landscape, the river’s flow was intermittent at best, said Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District, taking shelter from a sleet storm in the dam keeper’s shed at Prewitt Reservoir. 

“After the big flush of water would come in the late spring from snow melt, the river would actually go dry at Fort Morgan, which is 120 miles from the state line,” Yahn said. “it would actually disappear into the sand.” 

Regular irrigation of fields, seepage from unlined canals, and recharge for the augmentation of wells, all return water into the river channel throughout the year, Yahn said. Sterling and Julesburg, and Nebraska towns on the other side of the border, “they’re always getting some water down there, which they never would have until the development in Colorado,” he said. 

If Nebraska did manage to build its canal at Ovid, in a dry year, it would still have to defer to river water rights holders with older priorities, Yahn noted.

North Sterling Reservoir under clear skies on March 18 outside Sterling. The large irrigation reservoir offers boating, camping and waterfowl hunting for locals and tourists in the high plains. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

After the big flush of water would come in the late spring from snow melt, the river would actually go dry at Fort Morgan.

Jim Yahn, manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District

And as long as Colorado delivers 120 cubic feet a second to the border in summer, it can continue to build new reservoirs to capture spring and summer runoff claimed by Colorado districts. The Lower South Platte/Parker partnership’s proposal for a Fremont Butte reservoir near Akron is among those proposals. 

Nebraska finishing a canal and taking water from its turn in line would not deprive old reservoirs upstream like Prewitt and North Sterling, Yahn said. They hold water with priorities of 1910 or earlier. Nebraska’s drain, though, could impact Logan and Sedgwick County-area recharging ponds meant to augment area wells.

Still, Yahn said, he doesn’t know how the canal idea even works, physically. 

The quirky contours of the hills lining the south bank of the South Platte make ice dams a regular winter thing in Colorado’s far northeast. Goddard, driving his pickup in the abandoned canal bottoms, has seen local pools of water flow backward toward Greeley. An iced-over canal would make Nebraska’s water claim largely meaningless.

Water fills a livestock trough from a ground well powered by a windmill on Jay Goddard’s property in Julesburg. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Can’t we all just get along? And please, don’t take the windmill. 

Jay Goddard’s pasture for his Black Angus stretches from his house on the river just west of Julesburg, east past a storied set of caves dug by an Italian immigrant, under his old wooden windmill — still working — that Julesburg high school seniors use for their graduation photos, around the Teepee Colorado State Welcome Center, under I-76 and past the cemetery. His land encompasses 2 miles — or 10%, as his bank brain likes to point out — of the 24 miles of old Nebraska canal. 

The seniors would rather not see his windmill come down for a new canal. Goddard wonders how he’ll drag feed to his cattle or maintain the trees planted as a snow fence for I-76 if Nebraska takes some of his land and finishes a ditch. 

But he’s pretty sure there will never be a hot war with Nebraska. Farm interests are too similar on both sides of the artificial border.

“There’s nothing magical that happens at the state line,” he said. “It’s not like there’s this animosity toward Nebraskans. There’s a lot of people here that are current Cornhusker fans rather than Colorado Buffaloes. We’re obligated to honor what we said we would honor and, and we’ll do it.”

Maybe what Coloradans can get out of a little cross-border water sniping, Goddard said, is a greater appreciation for the state’s breadbasket. The value of cattle raised from Fort Collins east is in the billions of dollars, he said. Meanwhile, the farmers he works used to raise 170 bushels of corn an acre but now are using plant genetics, precise irrigation and far less water to raise 250 to 300 bushels.

“They’re doing everything they can,” Goddard said, “to be efficient and still feed the world.”

This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.


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