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2 States Fear the Other Has Designs on River

Nebraska and Colorado have shared the South Platte's water for 99 years
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 12, 2022 4:05 PM CDT
2 States Fear the Other Has Designs on River
The South Platte River flows in April in Fort Morgan, Colo.   (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson)

Since 1923, Nebraska and Colorado have shared the water of the South Platte River in harmony. Now both states are worried that the other is trying to get the jump on the river water, the Wall Street Journal reports, in a split that could end up in court. It began when Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts became nervous after learning of a host of projects—mostly for the Denver area—under consideration in Colorado that would siphon off water before it reaches the Colorado-Nebraska line. "Our estimate is that if they were to complete all of these, they would reduce the amount of water coming to Nebraska in the South Platte by 90%," Ricketts said.

Ricketts responded by announcing a project of his own: 60 miles of canals and several reservoirs that would pull water from the South Platte a few miles upstream from Julesburg, Colorado, at a cost of $500 million. That's permitted by the states' 99-year-old compact, but it did not please Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who found out about the project from Ricketts only hours before the announcement and said he was stunned. He said the Colorado projects Ricketts fears have only been proposed by local governments and agencies; they haven't been approved by the state. Polis called Nebraska's perception a "misunderstanding of Colorado's intentions."

The result is "this really bizarre boondoggle of a project that wouldn’t benefit Nebraska or Colorado," Polis said, per the Journal. Colorado will defend its water rights, the governor said, predicting that landowners and environmental groups also will take Nebraska to court over the canal project. People living in the potentially affected areas in both states are concerned about the effects of Nebraska's canal plan, including whether more water would be drawn from Lake McConaughy, a reservoir on the North Platte River important to tourism. Anthony Schutz, who teaches water and environmental law at the University of Nebraska law school, said the states' agreement permits Colorado to take as much water as it wants from that stretch of the South Platte anyway. (Read more water stories.)

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