Is Nebraska Building a $500 Million ‘Canal to Nowhere’ Just to Own the Libraries?


Earlier this spring, Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the construction of a canal that would siphon water from neighboring Colorado, sparking a war of words between the leaders of the two states. Nebraska Governor, Republican Pete Ricketts, said the canal “will protect Nebraska’s water rights for our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.” Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis calls the project a “canal to nowhere” that “probably will never be built.”

The two states share water rights to the South Platte River, and Republican politicians in Nebraska say a new canal is needed to protect the state’s water supply from encroachment by its neighbor at the fast-growing west.

The strange thing about the political firestorm, according to water experts, is that the canal would really do nothing. The water Nebraska wants to protect does not face an immediate threat from Colorado, and in any case, it is not clear that the canal would provide Nebraska with additional water beyond what it receives. already. The total amount of water that could flow through the planned $500 million canal is unlikely to change the course of either state’s future.

“It’s kind of a weird claim,” said Anthony Schutz, an associate professor of law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert on water issues. “I don’t know exactly what this thing would protect us from.”

While the canal doesn’t change the water balance between the two states, it does help Nebraska lawmakers spend the $1.9 trillion federal funding they received. Recovery plan passed by congressional Democrats last year. It could also allow them to score political points by opposing the Democrats who govern Colorado. The episode comes as other parts of the western United States truly face heartbreaking, zero-sum trade-offs in water allocation during an ongoing mega-drought that has been exacerbated by the climate change – and this may be a glimpse of how concerns around these issues can be mobilized for partisan warfare.

The story behind the canal project is a curious footnote in the larger western water story. In 1923, Colorado and Nebraska signed a treaty which governed the use of a segment of the South Platte River, which flows from the Colorado Rockies to Denver and Nebraska. The treaty required Colorado to send 150 cubic feet of water per second to Nebraska for the duration of the irrigation season – in other words, it prevented Colorado from drying up the river before Nebraska farmers could. can use it. The treaty also gave Nebraska the right to build a canal large enough to divert an additional 500 cubic feet of water per second during the off-season for irrigation, but the project never materialized: engineers had already tried and failed to build a channel across the rocky territory connecting the states in the late 1800s, and no one ever revived the idea.

For about a century, the treaty lay in the dust. Nebraska has perhaps the largest groundwater resources of any state, not to mention thousands of miles of rivers, so water wasn’t a big deal. Additionally, Colorado often outmoded its treaty obligations on the South Platte: from 1996 to 2015, the State delivered Nebraska nearly 8 million additional acre feet than he was bound to deliver under the treaty. Around the same time, however, Colorado began drawing more from the South Platte to support booming population growth, primarily in the Denver area.

In January of this year, Colorado officials released an updated plan for the South Platte, outlining nearly 300 possible water diversion projects along the river. This list of projects was only hypothetical, but it caught the attention of Nebraska lawmakers. Governor Ricketts released a statement saying he was “vigilantly monitoring” the construction of new water infrastructure in Colorado, and he told the Legislature “they were trying to take our water.” Even though South Platte water is far from essential to the survival of Nebraska agriculture, and even though Colorado has already delivered far more to Nebraska than it required under treaty, Ricketts insisted that the state must protect its water rights against growing liberalism. metropolis to the west.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland in February 2017.
Mike Theiler/AFP via Getty Images

“He’s a bit of a straw man,” Schutz, the University of Nebraska water law expert, said of Nebraska’s concern over Colorado’s plans. “A lot of these projects that [Colorado] proposed would not actually reduce water availability.

Even so, the century-old treaty gave Nebraska the notional rights to build its own canal, and the state had plenty of money to pursue such a project. It was thanks to President Biden’s US bailout package, which doled out billions of dollars in pandemic recovery aid to Nebraska and left the state with a large budget surplus. The unicameral state legislature has spent most of this year’s session trying to find ways to spend that excess, and the $500 million canal project was a perfect candidate. The legislator passed a bill in April which allocated $50 million to begin construction of the canal, enough to begin buying land in Colorado and completing preliminary designs.

The legislature’s sudden decision on the bill came as a shock to water experts. As one Colorado water manager put it, “the water world was rocked” when the bill passed.

This is because, according to Schutz, the very premise of the canal project is flawed. Ricketts argued that the channel would avoid a “decrease [in] agricultural water supply and [increased] pumping costs”, but neither scenario is possible, even if the population of Colorado continues to grow. Nebraska depends on groundwater for more than 80% of its agricultural irrigation, and the water that comes from the hypothetical canal would only come in the offseason anyway, so it wouldn’t help the state’s farmers. Meanwhile, state water rights only cover a section of the South Platte, and Colorado has unlimited rights to a section of the river further upstream, meaning the Centennial State can support future growth even without encroaching on Nebraska water.

Moreover, says Schutz, it is not clear that there is even enough water in the river to fill the canal, if it were to be built.

“If you look at the amount that’s coming in right now, that’s probably the maximum amount of water we would ever get in the canal,” he told Grist. “And that’s not a lot of water.” Not only that, but the treaty also only gives Nebraska the right to build a canal that box divert 500 cubic feet of water per second. In fact, this does not give the state the right to so much water.

“Politically, I think the governor had to make Colorado a bad guy, but when you really get into the weeds, I don’t know how bad Colorado is,” Schutz said, arguing that the state Conservative government has been scrambling to find ways to spend federal stimulus money so lawmakers “don’t have to deal with the political dynamics of having a lot of extra money to spend on social programs”.

As the bill neared passage this spring, the two governors shot each other in the media. Colorado Governor Polis called the project a “mess” and said his state would “aggressively assert” its water rights. Ricketts fired back, “I had no idea Jared Polis was so concerned about taxpayers here in Nebraska…. In fact, he never really spoke to me.

For the moment, the debate is only a war of words, but it could degenerate if the channel advances. Colorado and Nebraska have sued each other over water in the past, and indeed Colorado reached a settlement with Nebraska just a few years ago over allegations that Colorado violated a water-sharing pact on another river. Building the canal would force Nebraska to buy or condemn farmland across Colorado’s state lines, which would likely also lead to litigation with private landowners. Colorado probably wouldn’t sue Nebraska until the latter began building the canal, but if it sued, the dispute would go directly to the United States Supreme Court.

The fact that such a minor water supply project can generate so much controversy is a sign that water security is becoming a key political issue, even in places where the drought situation is not yet catastrophic. . The century-old compact between Nebraska and Colorado, like the treaties that anchor the use of the Colorado River farther west, was crafted in a time of cooperation and compromise between the states. As the water supply in the region continues to disappear, this interstate friendliness goes with them. In its place has emerged a conflict over how to balance competing interests like agriculture and urban growth. In this case, however, the conflict is more reminiscent of a schoolyard fight than a major political debate.