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South Platte flooding

The South Platte River near Roscoe was dry in 2013. Big new reservoirs planned near Denver would divert more of the South Platte's Nebraska-bound water.

As the population within the Denver area continues to explode, its thirst will only increase.

The pumping of groundwater in the relatively dry climate of Colorado’s Front Range has left many communities unable to keep pace with the demands of this expansion. The Denver Post reports that officials in our neighboring state have planned large reservoirs that aim to capture additional water from the Nebraska-bound South Platte River and return it back to the metropolitan area.

Such a plan would dramatically change the landscape of the Platte River, which courses largely uninterrupted from the Rockies through Nebraska to its mouth at the Missouri River, and could have significant impacts on Lincoln and the state as a whole.

Nebraskans may not think much of this news; our state has 79,000 miles of rivers, more than any other. But one would be hard pressed to find a river as vital to Nebraska as the Platte, which helps sustain the vast majority of its population in some capacity.

Nebraska can do little to stop this development, too, unless it would be found to imperil federally protected species such as the sandhill crane and piping plover.

As long as Colorado meets the terms of the 1923 South Platte River Compact – which requires an average flow of 120 cubic feet per second between April and October – the state’s hands are tied. Colorado officials believe they can divert this water and still meet those terms.

The six core counties of the Denver Metropolitan Statistical Area have an estimated population north of 2.8 million – nearly 1 million more people than the entire state of Nebraska. It grew by 13% between the 2010 Census and a 2017 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, meaning the demand is only projected to increase.

Further handcuffing this state is a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a Nebraska law banning the exportation of water was unconstitutional and violated the dormant commerce clause. The ruling determined water was an article of interstate commerce.

Most years, the development of this reservoir should have little impact. But the interruption could be particularly problematic in years where mountain snowpack falls significantly below average.

Lincolnites can think back to mandatory water restrictions in 2012 as a result of decreased precipitation that brought drought conditions to the entire state. With the Platte River watershed being the city’s primary source for water, a marked decrease in flows could spell trouble in the future.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a sudden surge of water-related editorials in the Journal Star. This spring’s record flooding has raised a number of topics – from a second source for Lincoln’s drinking water to the need for better flood protection – that must be addressed in the coming years.

As vital as water is presently to our largely agricultural state, its importance will only continue to grow in the future.

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