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

Colorado’s state water engineer has a message for the Nebraska officials doubling down on their commitment to a $567 million canal across the border: 

You can build it, but the water may not come. 

Colorado state engineer Kevin Rein acknowledges a historic compact gives Nebraska the right to build the canal at the South Platte River west of Julesburg. But in a five-page response to Nebraska’s first official evaluation of the plan, tacking closely to the direction set by Colorado’s attorney general, Rein says the actual water Nebraska is counting on may never show up. 

The Nebraska report by an engineering firm makes multiple assumptions that Colorado disputes, in particular whether the water will be “physically available, or whether it’s legally available at the time when it’s physically available,” Rein said in an interview. 

The Nebraska study “does not adequately consider future development” by Colorado of water in the upper section of the South Platte, a stretch running back from Washington County all the way up through Greeley, Boulder County and Denver, Rein’s letter says. The compact doesn’t give Nebraska any say over how much upper section water Colorado can use from the South Platte or how much water must be available at a key river gauge at Balzac, a ghost town near Brush. 

Other failings of the study, Rein adds, include relying on lower section flows of irrigation water returning to the river that Nebraska doesn’t have a right to; not accounting for diversion rights at Julesburg Reservoir; and ignoring that the canal would be iced over and unable to deliver water across the border during some of the time Nebraska has a right to take it, from October to April. 

Nevertheless, Nebraska is itching to start. 

Nebraska is in talks to option or buy up land around Julesburg and to the west for canal construction, Rein said. Grassed-over scars of Nebraska’s unfinished attempt at a Perkins Canal in the late 1800s are visible across northeastern Colorado. 

Nebraska has had designs on a canal into Colorado's portion of the South Platte River since the 1890s, as this old map of the once-attempted route shows.
Nebraska has had designs on a canal into Colorado’s portion of the South Platte River since the 1890s, as this old map of the once-attempted route shows. (Zanjero evaluation report to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, December 2022.)

Colorado takes pains in its official response to say it has always honored a 1923 compact with Nebraska on how the South Platte operates, and always will. The letter, with extensive input from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, is not meant to be a hard “no,” Rein said. 

The engineering formulas and legalese are meant to say, “There may be things that you didn’t consider, that will reduce the amount of water you’ll be able to yield,” Rein said. 

Nebraska surprised Colorado and Western water watchers in early 2022 with a revival of the ancient Perkins County Canal plan. (Perkins County is on the Nebraska side of the border, though the canal may or may not actually run through it.) Nebraska’s governor warned Colorado had plans to use up all available South Platte River water before it left the state just northeast of Julesburg, and that the only way for Nebraska to secure its rights was a $500 million canal allowed in the compact. 

Nebraska needs the water for its agriculture-based economy and for recreation, state officials said. The state’s legislature quickly agreed, and voted to launch engineering studies and start setting aside money for eventual construction. 

A year ago, Rein and the office of Gov. Jared Polis said they hadn’t heard many details of the canal plan directly from Nebraska engineers. The Nebraska consultants’ report was delivered to the state legislature in late December. 

“Nebraska stands to lose the water supply that provides benefits to its residents if it does not build the project,” the study concludes. If begun in earnest in 2023, the report estimates, the canal could be flowing by 2033. 

At the 500 cubic feet per second rate the canal has a compact-codified right to draw from the Colorado side of the South Platte, the project would deliver about 78,400 acre-feet to Nebraska in an average year for irrigation and storage, the study says. By comparison, Denver Water’s Dillon Reservoir in Summit County can hold 257,000 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot provides a foot of irrigation water to one acre for a season or supplies two to four typical city households for a year.) 

If expected Colorado river development projects take away 50% of the current remaining supply in the South Platte, the study adds, the canal could still deliver 69,900 acre-feet to Nebraska each year. The water could support 1.6 million irrigated acres in Nebraska and bolster municipal supply to faster-growing eastern cities such as Omaha and Lincoln. 

Total economic benefits from the project would range from $698 million to $754 million, an enticing payoff for the $567 million project cost, the study adds.

Part of the study’s optimism about how much Colorado water it can get stem from a disagreement over the extent of climate change. Colorado forecasters and engineers predict continuing heavy impacts on the South Platte Basin from an ongoing drought and temperature and snowpack pressures. Nebraska studies “find more moderate temperature changes and even stabilized precipitation patterns” for the lower section of the river, the Nebraska report said. 

Nebraska’s Deputy Director of Natural Resources Jesse Bradley said the Colorado state engineer’s letter fails to account for the fact that the Nebraska supply study “used a conservative approach.” Bradley’s email attached a photo from near Julesburg showing strong river flow on March 14. 

A map for a state of Nebraska canal evaluation shows the Platte River watershed, branching back from Nebraska to the North Platte in Wyoming and the South Platte River rising in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. (Zanjero evaluation report to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, December 2022.)
A map for a state of Nebraska canal evaluation shows the Platte River watershed, branching back from Nebraska to the North Platte in Wyoming and the South Platte River rising in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. (Zanjero evaluation report to Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, December 2022.)

“Even assuming that flows entering the lower section are zero, there will still be significant flows available for the canal,” Bradley wrote. Bradley said his photo showed South Platte River flow at the state line near Julesburg was 260 cubic feet per second on a day Nebraska would have the right to divert, even though flows were near zero at the gauge dividing the river’s upper section from the lower section. 

“In addition, this does not account for the many junior Colorado recharge projects in the lower section that are currently diverting, but would be curtailed to meet Nebraska’s demand,” he added. 

“We have not had the opportunity to discuss the letter with Kevin (Rein) and hope to do so in the future,” Bradley said. 

The Colorado response letter on future water supply does not include an extensive environmental analysis of the canal’s impacts. But previous studies have warned canal engineers may never overcome the South Platte flow requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The Nebraska report says the canal may actually improve conditions satisfying a 2006 interstate pact to support South Platte wetlands wildlife, but doesn’t explain how taking more water out before the Nebraska border would achieve that end. 

Nebraska officials have said in some conversations they feel a canal could be completed within four years, said Joel Schneekloth, a regional water resource specialist at Colorado State University. But the likely litigation over EPA environmental impact rules alone could drag on for years, Schneekloth added. 

Nonprofits and water agencies along both the North and South extensions of the Platte River, and the mainstem after they meet 90 miles east of Julesburg, have fought for decades over providing enough water and habitat for whooping cranes. Northern Water in Colorado started planning the two-reservoir Northern Integrated Supply Project in the early 2000s, and only in late 2022 received its final federal permit, Schneekloth said. That project faces still more opposition lawsuits. 

South Platte River environmental issues will “come into play, and that’s going to be an issue that will be adjudicated,” he said. 

In prepared marks at a January water congress, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser listed many reasons why the Nebraska canal is “Stated simply . . . both unwise and unlikely.”

Schneekloth, as well as water experts on the Nebraska side of the border, agree with the Colorado engineer’s pointed questions about where exactly Nebraska can find the water to fill the canal. 

With low off-season flow and all the senior water rights diversions allowed above the Nebraska canal spot, Schneekloth said, “we’re starting out with basically a dry river at that point.”

While the Nebraska legislature moves forward, they’re hearing from local academics who are similarly skeptical. 

“There are a lot of senior users in the basin who would basically be able to take the water, so I’m not even sure legally if this canal would really be able to appropriate water out of the South Platte,” an appropriations committee heard in 2022 from Anthony Schutz, a University of Nebraska associate law professor, according to Nebraska public radio. 

Nebraska officials said in their response email to The Colorado Sun that they have “discussed alternatives” to the canal with Colorado that would allow their state to divert South Platte water in a different location that would reduce any impact to Colorado landowners.

“That alternative was dismissed by Colorado, as they indicated they would not recognize Nebraska Compact rights unless the diversion is located” southwest of Julesburg and the tiny hamlet of Ovid

As for Nebraska shrinking from the implications of the Colorado engineer’s hydrology-questioning letter, Schneekloth is not expecting surrender. 

“They’re dead serious about this,” he said.

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Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver