Feb 24, 2022 - News

What you need to know about Nebraska's water fight with Colorado

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Nebraska's governor is embracing the maxim that "water is for fighting" — and the war he's waging is against Colorado.

Threat level: Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is seeking to invoke a 99-year-old compact approved by Congress that allows Nebraska to divert water from the South Platte River through a canal near Ovid, on Colorado's northern border.

  • The $500 million project is a top priority to provide water to Nebraska farms and ranches.
  • Ricketts is warning lawmakers and residents that Colorado's population growth on the Front Range could significantly reduce the river's flow into his state.

What he's saying: "Colorado is looking to take our water," Ricketts told a Nebraska legislative panel in early February, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

  • The governor added an exclamation point about the stakes: "There will be no future prosperity (in Nebraska) if we don't manage our water."

Between the lines: The proposal's complicated history and potential legal hurdles are significant, but Nebraska has indicated it is designed as leverage to get Colorado to the negotiating table.

  • The list of water projects in Colorado that Nebraska cited as a concern remains preliminary, and leaders here wonder if Ricketts is just confused.

The other side: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has said he's open to talking, but his office told Axios Denver in a statement that he would "continue to aggressively defend our water rights."

  • He called the project a "canal to nowhere" and a "boondoggle" that is "unlikely to ever be built."

By the numbers: For now, Nebraska is entitled to up to 120 cubic feet per second of water from April to Oct. 15.

  • The canal would allow the state to divert an additional 500 cfs the other half of the year — an amount it's already receiving, according to reports.
  • Nebraska could use eminent domain or buy land for the project.

The backstory: This idea isn't new, the Omaha World-Herald reports, and in fact it began in 1891 but ran into cost constraints. The remnants are still visible near the Colorado border town of Julesburg.

  • A second effort to restart the project was derailed in the 1980s.

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