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.”

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

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Colorado, Nebraska jostle over water rights amid drought