Sonnenberg says Ricketts ignored his offer to talk about South Platte water rights
Gov. Polis calls for ‘thoughtful Nebraskans’ to work with Colorado for mutual benefit
Nebraska officials apparently have ignored overtures from Colorado to work out a solution to the problem of rapid growth in Colorado in the face of a diminishing water supply.
In January Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts unveiled a $500 million plan to dig what is commonly called the Perkins County Canal from the South Platte River near Ovid to a reservoir somewhere in Nebraska. The canal is allowed under the terms of the South Platte River Compact of 1923, and can divert up to 500 cubic feet per second out of the river. But without the canal, Nebraska can’t exercise that water right.
On Wednesday Ricketts testified before the Nebraska Legislature’s Committee on Natural Resources that the canal needs to be completed as soon as possible because Colorado will otherwise claim all of the water Nebraska should be getting. He said rapid growth along Colorado’s Front Range and plans by Colorado to provide water for that growth endanger the thousands of acre feet of water a year that flows into Nebraska from Colorado.
Ricketts dismissed suggestions by the senators that re-negotiating part of the compact might be a more amiable way of guaranteeing winter water, and it wouldn’t cost $500 million. The governor said that may be possible, but the canal was necessary to give Colorado real incentive to negotiate.
Now, it turns out, that’s not exactly true.
Colorado State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, told the Journal-Advocate he’d reached out to Ricketts in January and offered to travel to Lincoln to discuss the issue. Apparently, however, Ricketts wasn’t interested.
“I reached out to Gov. Ricketts by phone, identifying myself and suggesting we talk,” Sonnenberg said. “I was immediately transferred to his scheduler and shared my contact information. I suggested we should talk and I was happy to meet him in Lincoln. I never received a return call.”
Other Colorado officials would be willing to work with Nebraska as well. Asked Friday whether Gov. Jared Polis would be willing to negotiate with Ricketts on the water issue, a spokesperson in Polis’ office gave the following statement:
“Gov. Polis will continue to aggressively defend our water rights for the Eastern Plains, our farmers and ranchers, and all of Colorado. Colorado will fight for our interests, uphold our obligations in good faith, and oppose attempts to divert Colorado’s rightful precious water resources. This canal to nowhere would clearly be a huge waste of Nebraska taxpayer money and is unlikely to ever be built. There remains time for thoughtful Nebraskans to avoid this boondoggle and focus on meaningful water policy working with partners like Colorado.”
Sonnenberg agrees that Nebraska would be better served by working with Colorado to maintain a wintertime streamflow in the South Platte.
“It would be advantageous for us to work together to benefit both of us and our agricultural communities,” he said. “Maybe (we) build storage together and share the costs so the excess water that leaves our state could benefit agriculture communities in both states.”
Nebraska officials point to an increased emphasis on building water storage in the South Platte Basin as the reason for their renewed interest in the long-abandoned Perkins Canal. In testimony full of exaggeration and hyperbole, Ricketts and director of Natural Resources Tom Riley told their senators Colorado will be spending $90 billion on 283 storage projects, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in winter stream flow into Nebraska.
But, according to Joe Frank, general manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, water rights in the lower reaches of the river in Colorado actually help deliver water into Nebraska.
“The fact that water users in the ‘lower section’ of the South Platte River own water rights under Colorado’s robust priority system ensures that water will be called into the northeast corner of Colorado for beneficial use,” Frank said. “This beneficial use generates return flows that are delivered to Nebraska in both the irrigation and non-irrigation season.”
And, Frank said, it would be nearly impossible to siphon off 90 percent of the water that crosses into Nebraska during the winter months.
“There is a law of diminishing returns in which there are extremely high risks and very minimal benefits associated with developing all the remaining excess flows in the South Platte River,” Frank said. “In my opinion, this all makes the probability of reducing flows at the state line by 90 percent nearly impossible.”
Frank and Sonnenberg are particularly interested in resolving the issue because the responsibility for maintaining the 1923 compact falls primarily on the stretch of the South Platte from the Morgan-Washington county line to the Nebraska state line. That’s entirely within Frank’s water conservancy district and Sonnenberg’s senate district. Sonnenberg pointed out that Colorado has always honored the compact.
“We have always been in compliance with our compact and will continue to meet those obligations,” he said. “If Nebraska lawmakers want to get past the rhetoric and actually try to solve this problem together, Gov Ricketts should still have my number.”
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