Nebraska water groups approve $500 million Colorado Canal project

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LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska water regulators rallied Wednesday to a proposal to build a $500 million canal in neighboring Colorado to divert water from the South Platte River, a project rooted in fears that the Denver’s fast-growing region only consumes most of the river. the water.

Leaders of Nebraska’s irrigation and natural resource districts touted the plan as a critical step to preserving the state’s water supply as much as possible. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts has identified it as a top priority, saying not moving forward would eventually cost Nebraska billions as farms, cities and other water users grapple with shortages.

“In my opinion, it’s a good deal,” Ricketts said in testimony before the Legislative Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee.

Ricketts announced a plan last month to invoke Nebraska’s right to build a canal in Colorado under the South Platte River Compact, a 99-year-old water-sharing agreement between the states. Building the canal would allow Nebraska to draw water from the river in late fall, winter, and early spring and store it for use during drier periods.

Some Nebraska water regulators have said they are confident Colorado intends to increase its water use to meet the needs of a Denver-area population that is expected to more than double. here 2050.

Colorado officials said they did not fully understand Nebraska’s concerns and goals, noting that they have always complied with the requirements of the pact. Last week, a lawmaker in northeast Colorado introduced a bill that would require regulators to prioritize South Platte River water storage projects.

“Now is the right time, and Nebraska can’t wait any longer,” said Kent Miller, executive director of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District in North Platte, Nebraska.

Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said the river’s reductions will force water regulators to release more water from Lake McConaughy, a major reservoir of the North Platte River, which converges with the South Platte River to form the Platte River. .

Riley said reduced flows would also affect power generation in the state, force farmers to remove productive farmland, and hurt municipal water supplies in the river basin. Nebraska also depends on the river for some of its public power plants, including a coal-fired facility that uses water for cooling.

“In my 35 years as a water resources engineer, I’ve never seen a bigger water project for Nebraska,” Riley said, calling the situation “a disaster we can prevent.” .

Elizabeth Elliott, director of Lincoln’s transportation and utilities agency, said Lincoln depends on the Platte River to supplement the water it draws from wells. She said the water from the South Platte River provides about 7% of the city’s water.

Elliott pointed to the 2012 drought that sparked a wave of residential water restrictions, during which police issued citations to homeowners who were caught watering their lawns.

John Winkler, general manager of the Omaha-based Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, said reduced river flow would reduce water supplies to his area, which is part of the Platte River Basin. . Winkler said construction costs will quickly rise with inflation the longer the state waits to approve the project.

“We have to be progressive and look not just at what’s happening today, but what’s happening 50 or 100 years from now,” he said.

Some Nebraska lawmakers questioned the cost of the project and questioned why Nebraska didn’t try to negotiate a new deal with Colorado first. Under the contract, Nebraska must build the canal to claim 500 cubic feet per second from the lower section of the river that runs through northeast Colorado, and they can only do so during the non-irrigation season.

“It just seems easier to negotiate another pact,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha.

Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, who introduced the bill on behalf of the governor, said moving forward with the canal could help Nebraska “put the strongest foot forward.” in any negotiation. But he said the canal proposal was not intended as a bargaining chip and argued the state should go ahead with the project.

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