Colorado, Nebraska jostle over water rights amid drought

May 17, 2022, 5:00 PM | Updated: May 18, 2022, 9:23 am
The Peterson Ditch that carries water from the South Platte River to Don Schneider's property Frida...

The Peterson Ditch that carries water from the South Platte River to Don Schneider's property Friday, April 29, 2022, in Ovid, Colo. As climate change-fueled megadrought edges eastward, Nebraska wants to divert water in Colorado by invoking an obscure, 99-year-old compact between the states that allows Nebraska to seize Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal. (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson)

(AP Photo/Brittany Peterson)

OVID, Colo. (AP) — Shortly after daybreak on the high plains of northeastern Colorado, Don Schneider tinkers with seed-dispensing gear on a mammoth corn planter. The day’s task: Carefully sowing hundreds of acres of seed between long rows of last year’s desiccated stalks to ensure the irrigation water he’s collected over the winter will last until harvest time.

A two-hour’s drive eastward, Steve Hanson, a fifth-generation Nebraska cattle breeder who also produces corn and other crops, is preparing to seed, having stored winter water to help ensure his products make it to market. Like Schneider and countless others in this semi-arid region, he wants his children and grandchildren to be able to work the rich soil homesteaded by their ancestors in the 1800s.

Schneider and Hanson find themselves on opposite sides of a looming, politically-fraught dispute over water resembling the kind that until now has been reserved for the parched U.S. states along the Colorado River Basin.

As climate change-fueled megadrought edges eastward, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled Legislature this year voted to move forward with a plan that stunned Colorado state leaders. The Cornhusker State wants to divert water in Colorado by invoking an obscure, 99-year-old compact between the states that allows Nebraska to seize Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal.

Nebraska’s plan underscores an increasing appetite throughout the West to preemptively secure water as winter snows and year-round rainfall diminish, forcing states to reallocate increasingly scarce flows in basins such as the South Platte and its better-known cousin, the Colorado River.

Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, gave precious few details in calling for $500 million in cash reserves and one-time federal pandemic funds to be spent on the project, other than to say it will benefit agriculture, power generation and municipal drinking water. Ricketts decried proposals in Colorado to either siphon or store more South Platte water, especially in the rapidly-growing Denver metro area, saying they threaten Nebraska’s water rights hundreds of miles downstream.

The announcement sent Colorado officials scrambling to dust off the 1923 compact, which both Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on and still stands as the law of the land. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis vowed to “aggressively assert” Colorado’s water rights, and state lawmakers lambasted the proposal. GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf, an area cattleman, declared: “You give Nebraska what they’re due but you don’t give them much else.”

For now, Colorado is not going to legally challenge Nebraska’s right to a canal under the compact, said Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “The other side of that coin is that we’ll make every effort that their operation is in compliance with the compact” and protects Colorado’s rights, Rein said.

The South Platte meanders 380 miles from the Rocky Mountains through the Colorado town of Julesburg at the Nebraska line. Depending on the season, it can seemingly disappear in parts, only to re-emerge downstream. It can become a torrent with heavy snowmelt or flooding. Cottonwood trees line its banks and sandbars create the illusion that it consists of multiple creeks in many places.

The compact allows Nebraska to build a canal to claim 500 cubic feet (more than 3,700 gallons) per second between mid-October and April, the non-irrigation season.

Nebraska’s Legislature allocated $53.5 million for an engineering study for the project, which as originally envisioned under the compact would begin somewhere near Schneider’s farm in Ovid and run at least 24 miles into Nebraska’s Perkins County, where Hanson’s operations are headquartered.

Hanson’s all for it, saying the more water there is to irrigate his and his neighbors’ expansive farms, the better their progeny can carry on that legacy.

“I want my grandsons to be able to have the assurance that they can farm irrigated should they choose,” he said.

“When the word came out that the ditch might be coming, let me tell you, our area was elated,” said Collin Malmkar, 79, who with his wife Jeanne, 75, and their children grow corn, popcorn and peas on 15,000 acres in the Perkins County seat of Grant. Jeanne’s great-grandfather worked on a failed 1898 effort to dig a canal from Ovid.

Schneider, whose son Bradon also works the fields, is worried the project could kill his life’s work in a region that’s long struggled to keep its younger generations from leaving.

“If we had to convert this to a dryland farm, I’m not sure where we’d start” to downsize, said Schneider, 63. “I’d love to retire in a couple of years. But my 30-year-old son, what’s he going to do?”

Schneider and his neighbors take surplus South Platte water in winter to augment the wells they use to irrigate their crops in summer. That water, in turn, eventually makes its way back into the South Platte. If Nebraska claims that winter water under the compact, Schneider says the alternative — non-irrigated dryland farming — means reduced crop yields, fewer farms and fewer jobs.

Both Hanson and Schneider — and many others in this region where occasional “Donald Trump 2024” billboards dot two-lane highways — don’t like to use the words “climate change.” The lack of moisture to work with speaks for itself.

“Something’s changing, that’s for sure,” Schneider said. “I’m not sure what’s really driving it. We usually get buried in snow, and we haven’t seen those in years.”

“While I’m not a 100% believer in it, some of the thoughts are that we’re getting short on water because of climate change,” Hanson avers. Scientists have long warned that human-made climate change has made the West warmer and drier in the past 30 years.

Remnants of the 1898 effort to dig a canal can be seen in Julesburg, where grass-lined ditches run into the modern-day Julesburg cemetery, Interstate 76 and even the Colorado Welcome Center at the state line.

Jay Goddard, a banker in Julesburg, walks the abandoned ditch on farmland he owns next to the cemetery and marvels at the effort put into it. His bank provides operating loans to farmers on both sides of the border to keep them running until harvest time.

“If we lose any of our irrigation for our communities up and down the river, whether it’s in the Nebraska side or the Colorado side, we lose farmers,” Goddard said. “We lose kids in schools, our electric companies that serve us, the insurance agencies to the grain elevators, grocery stores to pharmacies. You know if we lose irrigation, the communities continue to dry up. Literally.”

Schneider echoes the same worries in his role as a Sedgewick County commissioner. Tax revenue plummeted after Ovid’s old sugar beet factory closed; the county sheriff recently took a higher-paying job closer to the Front Range in Colorado.

“We can’t buy a deputy,” Schneider says.

Farmers on both sides emphasize they’d like to see a workaround that serves everybody. All agree that a canal project will be years in the making — and that if disputes arise, attorneys specializing in the intricacies of water law or eminent domain could have a field day.

“I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime,” says Schneider. But he adds: “(Gov. Pete) Ricketts has confounded everyone.”


Associated Press writer Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Nebraska contributed to this report.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content. ___

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Dutch farmers block entrances to supermarket warehouses

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch farmers angry at government plans to slash emissions used tractors and trucks Monday to blockade supermarket distribution centers, the latest actions in a summer of discontent in the country’s lucrative agricultural sector. The Netherlands’ busiest aviation hub, Schiphol Airport, urged travelers to use public transport to get to its […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Iran TV: Sandstorm shuts offices, schools in Tehran, region

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Schools and government offices closed in Iran’s capital and several other cities in the country on Monday, after yet another sandstorm blanketed Tehran and the surrounding region. State-run TV warned of poor air quality and advised the elderly, those sick and children to take precautions. Banks and the Tehran Stock Exchange […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Canadian government: Tycoon in China due to stand trial

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese-born Canadian tycoon is being put on trial in China, Canada’s government said Monday, five years after he vanished from Hong Kong during an anti-corruption crackdown. Xiao Jianhua was due to stand trial Monday, a government statement said. It said Canadian diplomats were “monitoring this case closely” and provided unspecified services […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Data puts Turkey’s annual inflation at 78.6%, a 24-year high

ISTANBUL (AP) — Annual inflation in Turkey hit 78.62% in June, the highest rate since 1998, according to official data released Monday. The Turkish Statistical Institute, or TurkStat, released the monthly figures as Turkey is experiencing a deepening cost-of-living crisis. Consumer prices rose by 4.95% on a monthly basis, the institute reported. While many countries […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Russia tries to press its offensive into Ukraine’s east

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces tried Monday to press their offensive deeper into eastern Ukraine after taking control of a key stronghold. The Ukrainian military confirmed that its forces had withdrawn from the city of Lysychansk, the last bulwark of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk province, one of the two regions that make up […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Outages disrupt services at Japan’s No. 2 telecoms carrier

TOKYO (AP) — Many users of Japan’s No. 2 mobile carrier KDDI Corp. were still having trouble making calls Monday after a massive outage throughout the weekend that affected nearly 40 million people, disrupting deliveries, weather reports and other services across the country. The company said data transmission had largely been restored by Monday morning, […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]

COVID Vaccine is a Game-Changer for Keeping our Kids Healthy

Snohomish Health District SPONSORED — Cheers to the parents and guardians who keep their kids safe and healthy. The dad who cooks a meal with something green in it, even though he’s tired and drive-thru burgers were tempting. The mom who calms down the little one who loudly and resolutely does NOT want to brush […]
Colorado, Nebraska jostle over water rights amid drought