Future of Perkins County Canal not clear; impacts are

The proposed project, known as the Perkins County Canal, just recently cleared a hurdle as Nebraska state lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill that allows Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources to lay the groundwork for the estimated $500 million canal. Discussions first began in January as Nebraska Gov. Pete Rickets announced the plan to dig the canal from the South Platte River to divert water out of Colorado under a 99-year-old compact. With still many discussions to come, the future of the canal isn’t as clear, but some of the impacts are.

Gene Manuello lives and farms in Logan County and said that the canal would have an impact on irrigated agriculture in the lower part — below the Morgan-Washington County line — of the river.

“This compact only impacts District 64 and doesn’t impact the rest of the South Platte River,” Manuello said. “If the Perkins Canal is built, it shouldn’t impact surface owner’s right for irrigation in the summertime, but it could influence well pumping due to not being able to put away water for recharge in the wintertime.”

Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District in Colorado and who also works closely with farmers every day on water-related issues, said that this means irrigators in District 64 could have their augmentation supplies diminished by Nebraska’s demand to supply water to the Perkins Canal.

This canal would give Nebraska the right to claim 500 cubic feet per second from rural, northeastern Colorado in early spring, late fall and winter and store it for use in Nebraska at other, drier times, of the year.

Robert Sakata of Sakata Farms in Brighton, Colo., is only 30 miles downstream from the largest metropolitan area in the state.

“Our farm is near where a large portion of the population calls home,” he said. “Agriculture in Colorado has a long and admirable history of not only being the economic engine for the state but the proud heritage of so many great-grandparents to now great-grandchildren on farms and ranches across the state. Just like Colorado manages the state’s water resources to make sure that we comply with the South Platte River Compact, we are bound as individual water rights holders to the important prior appropriations doctrine that allows us to plan for the future. And that is key, how we plan.”


Arguably one of the bigger concerns to irrigated agriculture in the South Platte basin, and thus, the water Nebraska receives through irrigation, is planning for the increase in water demands driven by this population growth in Colorado.

“Various municipal water providers continue to look to dry up irrigated agriculture in the South Platte basin to supply their new demands for water,” Frank said. “Unless new water supplies are developed and future municipal demands are lowered, the practice of ‘buy and dry’ will continue to have negative impacts on agriculture in the South Platte basin.”

However, these impacts aren’t only to agriculture, Manuello added.

“We’ve already seen the effects of buy and dry and how it can destroy the economy in the area,” Manuello said. “Yes, there are impacts to people who want to continue in agriculture, but it also impacts the economy of everything in this area.”

Sakata said that clear discussion is needed from everyone for the future.

“Even in the city, people are still actively engaged in water conservation efforts — everything from xeriscaping yards to installing low-flow appliances,” he said. “There is only so much water and the best way for us to keep Colorado Colorful, as the welcoming sign at Julesburg says, is for collaboration. This means having farmers, ranchers, conservation groups, municipal water providers, planners and anybody else who wants to join in to have honest discussions about what we want tomorrow to look like.”


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