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Ricketts says South Platte canal and reservoir system vital for state's future

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Gov. Pete Ricketts and other supporters of legislation to construct a canal and reservoir system to secure South Platte River water flowing into Nebraska from Colorado sounded alarm bells Wednesday as they urged the Legislature to launch the $500 million project now.

"Colorado is looking to take our water," Ricketts warned, pointing to what he said are $9.8 billion of water projects proposed or in the works in Colorado to capture that water for use in its rapidly developing front range before it crosses the border into Nebraska.

Nebraska is entitled to that river flow under a 1923 compact, but only if it builds a canal system.

A canal, a century-old compact between Nebraska and Colorado, and a sea of unknowns

Colorado projects under consideration would reduce water flowing into Nebraska by 90% if they all were adopted, the governor told the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.

"There will be no future prosperity (in Nebraska) if we don't manage our water," Ricketts said.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who introduced a bill (LB1015) at the request of the governor to adopt what is described as the Perkins County Canal Project, said the proposal would exercise Nebraska's rights to access South Platte water under terms of the century-old compact between the two states.

"If Colorado develops (the projects that are being considered) and we don't act, the water is gone forever," Hilgers said.

Nebraska agency head urges funding support for South Platte project

"Every drop of Platte River water is critical for Nebraska," he said, "and we have the right to enforce those flows if we build the canal."

Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, told the committee that this is "a catastrophe that we can prevent" with action now.

Act now, he said, or that water is "lost forever to new growth in Colorado."

At stake, supporters said, are irrigation for Nebraska agriculture, generation of electric power, support of wildlife and access to drinking water, with a direct impact specifically on water in Lake McConaughy at Ogallala and potentially affecting the water supply for Lincoln and Omaha.

Ricketts has proposed appropriating $100 million in federal pandemic recovery funding and $400 million from the state's cash reserve to fund the project. A legislative fiscal note accompanying the bill suggests that "it is likely that costs for the completion of the project will exceed this amount."

Colorado plans to defend water rights after Ricketts proposal for South Platte River

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, a member of the committee who is seeking $450 million in federal pandemic recovery funding for investment in developments in North Omaha, asked Hilgers to consider reducing his funding request to $250 million as "a sign of commitment" that Nebraska intends to exercise its water rights while it attempts to negotiate with Colorado.

That, in turn, would free up more funding for other projects, including the North Omaha project supported by Wayne and Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha.

"I think we have to protect the water," Wayne said, "but I represent a community that is looking for the same investment and is not being treated the same."

The Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the bill, and other nature groups raised some concerns.

"Wildlife will pay the price" if the South Platte flow is managed predominantly for irrigation, Sierra Club spokesman Al Davis said.  

Representatives of Audubon Nebraska and the Nature Conservancy voiced similar concerns without testifying in opposition. 

Ricketts will seek $500 million Platte River canal system appropriation now

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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