Nebraska buys land in Colorado to build a canal, but doubts remain about plans to divert water
Nebraska is moving forward with plans to build a canal that would redirect some South Platte River water out of Colorado. The state bought about 90 acres of land in Colorado as part of construction plans.
The purchase marks an important step for the Perkins County canal project since critics have questioned its feasibility from the start. The canal was first pitched in January 2022 by then-Governor Pete Ricketts as a way for Nebraska to protect its water supply against rapid development on Colorado’s Front Range. The plan would take advantage of a 1923 legal agreement about sharing the South Platte.
The late December land purchase is so far the only one Nebraska has made in conjunction with the canal project. The state spent about $90,000 on the parcel southeast of Julesburg. Jesse Bradley, the state’s deputy director of Natural Resources, said it could be used “in conjunction with construction activities” and may not contain the canal itself.
When the canal was first proposed, Colorado’s government said they were waiting to see more details about how the project would work, and other experts cast doubt on its viability. Two years later, Nebraska officials provided more details, and the state legislature approved more than half a billion dollars to purchase land and build the project. But some on the other side of the border remain skeptical.
“I still wonder about the feasibility of it,” said Jim Yahn, general manager of Colorado’s North Sterling Irrigation District. “I think they'll find it’s probably not quite as much water and probably twice the cost of what they think right now.”
Yahn detailed a few hurdles that could get in the way of the project’s completion. First, they might have trouble filling the canal with water in the first place. Some nearby Colorado reservoirs have legal priority over Nebraska water users, and because the bulk of the water would be moved during non-irrigation season, it could literally get frozen by wintertime temperatures on its way to Nebraska.
Yahn, who formerly served as the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s director for the South Platte basin, also said Nebraska should be prepared to spend a lot of money in order to acquire land along the canal’s path.
“There aren't a lot of people along the canal alignment in Colorado,” he said. “There's probably four major landowners. Most of them probably will hold out for, hopefully, quite a bit of money.”
Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources is planning to visit with individual landowners in both states this spring and discuss the details of purchasing land for the canal. In December, the agency held a public meeting about the project in Ogallala, Nebraska.
The project is still in its early stages and will likely require another decade of planning, design, and construction before it becomes a reality.
“It’s a large project, so there’s always things that are unexpected,” Nebraska’s Bradley said. “But we’re continuing to proceed at the scheduled pace. Where we’re at is where we hoped to be a year ago.”
Colorado, for its part, said it did not have a comment on the recent land purchase but remains involved in the project at a broader level.
“There still remains a long and costly process for Nebraska to acquire land, design, permit, and construct the Perkins County Canal,” Chris Arend, communications director for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, wrote in an email to KUNC. “In the event that Colorado and Nebraska disagree on the substance or the process that is required, Colorado will take whatever steps necessary to ensure Nebraska complies with the Compact and all other applicable laws.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.
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