Inside Possible Nebraska-Colorado Water War

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts at the podium at a January 10 announcement about a plan to "strengthen water resources."
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts at the podium at a January 10 announcement about a plan to "strengthen water resources." governor.nebraska.gov
Fights over water rights are as old as America, and a new one appears to be brewing between Colorado and Nebraska over the South Platte River Compact, signed 99 years ago.

On January 10, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, joined by the state's attorney general and members of the so-called "Star Wars" special legislative committee, announced that "Nebraska intends to take action to protect its entitlements of South Platte River water by constructing a major canal in parts of Colorado and southwest Nebraska," according to a news release from the governor's office.

The project will "support multiple uses, including irrigation, power production and municipal water supplies," it continues, and is intended to "protect Nebraska's South Platte River, which [is] being threatened by planned developments in Colorado."

Nebraska hasn't specified the problematic developments in Colorado, but the concern must be significant, since the price tag on the canal system is estimated at $500 million.

Here's video from the event announcing the project:
Among the speakers was Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, who argued that the new canal falls within the purview of the South Platte River Compact. "Signed in 1923, the Compact divides the waters of the South Platte River, ensuring certain flows will be delivered to Nebraska at the state line near Julesburg, Colorado," the Nebraska governor's office contends. "Construction of the canal and storage system (colloquially known as the 'Perkins County Canal' at the time the Compact was signed) along the Nebraska-Colorado border will preserve Nebraska’s sovereign right to its share of the South Platte River water into the future."

The South Platte River Compact runs ten pages and is filled with language both vague and arcane, as illustrated by this excerpt from Article V:
1. Colorado shall have the right to maintain, operate, and extend, within Nebraska, the Peterson Canal and other canals of the Julesburg Irrigation District which now are or may hereafter be used for the carriage of water from the South Platte River for the irrigation of lands in both states, and Colorado shall continue to exercise control and jurisdiction of said canals and the carriage and delivery of water thereby. This Article shall not excuse Nebraska water users from making reports to Nebraska officials in compliance with the Nebraska laws.

2. Colorado waives any objection to the delivery of water for irrigation of lands in Nebraska by the canals mentioned in paragraph one (1) of this Article, and agrees that all interests in said canals and the use of waters carried thereby, now or hereafter acquired by owners of lands in Nebraska, shall be afforded the same recognition and protection as are the interests of similar land owners served by said canals within Colorado; provided, however, that Colorado reserves to those in control of said canals the right to enforce the collection of charges or assessments, hereafter levied or made against such interest of owners of the lands in Nebraska, by withholding the delivery of water until the payment of such charges or assessments; provided, however, such charges or assessments shall be the same as those levied against similar interests of owners of lands in Colorado.

3. Nebraska grants to Colorado the right to acquire by purchase, prescription, or the exercise of eminent domain, such rights-of-way, easements or lands as may be necessary for the construction, maintenance, operation, and protection of those parts of the above mentioned canals which now or hereafter may extend into Nebraska.
Thus far, Colorado officials are reacting to Nebraska's move cautiously, at least in public.

Lawrence Pacheco, spokesperson for Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, notes in a statement that "the attorney general’s office has been in contact with the Nebraska attorney general’s office to learn more about the project and its implications for Colorado."

A similar tone is struck by Conor Cahill, press secretary for Governor Jared Polis. "The governor just learned of this situation yesterday morning, and we are working to understand it more thoroughly at this time, including a legal and operational analysis," he said on January 11. "Governor Polis will continue to fight for Colorado's water rights and interests in interstate compacts and to oppose the diversion of precious water resources from Colorado."

This isn't Colorado's only front in the ongoing battle over water, an increasingly scarce commodity. The Colorado River Compact, an even more ancient agreement between Colorado and six other states, turns 100 this year.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts