Colorado and Nebraska scramble for water rights amid drought

OVID, Colo. (AP) – Shortly after daybreak on the high plains of northeastern Colorado, Don Schneider tinkers with seed-delivery equipment on a gigantic corn planter. Today’s task: Carefully sow hundreds of acres of seed between long rows of last year’s withered stalks to ensure that the irrigation water he collected over the winter will last through the harvest time.

Two hours east, Steve Hanson, a fifth-generation Nebraska cattle rancher who also grows corn and other crops, prepares to sow, having stored winter water to ensure its products reach the 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 their ancestors cultivated in the 1800s.

Schneider and Hanson find themselves on opposite sides of a looming, politically charged dispute over water resembling one that has hitherto been reserved for parched US states along the Colorado River Basin.

As the climate-change-fueled mega-drought heads east, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled legislature voted this year to move forward with a plan that stunned Colorado state leaders . Cornhusker State wants to divert water from Colorado by invoking a murky 99-year state pact that allows Nebraska to grab Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal.

Nebraska’s plan underscores a growing appetite across the West to preemptively secure water as winter snowfalls and year-round precipitation decline, forcing states to reallocate increasingly scarce flows into areas basins such as the South Platte and its better known cousin, the Colorado River.

Republican Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts gave few valuable details as he called 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 the agriculture, electricity generation and municipal drinking water. Ricketts denounced Colorado’s proposals to siphon off or store more water from South Platte, particularly in the growing Denver metro area, saying they threatened Nebraska’s water rights hundreds of miles away. downstream.

The announcement prompted Colorado officials to dust off the 1923 pact, which Congress and the US Supreme Court signed and which is still the law of the land. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has pledged to “aggressively assert” Colorado’s water rights, and state lawmakers have lambasted the proposal. GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf, an area rancher, said, “You’re giving Nebraska what it’s due, but you’re not giving it much else.”

At this time, Colorado will not legally challenge Nebraska’s right to a canal under the pact, said Kevin Rein, Colorado state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “The flip side is that we will do everything we can to make sure they operate in accordance with the covenant” and protect Colorado’s rights, Rein said.

The South Platte winds 380 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the town of Julesburg, Colorado on the Nebraska border. Depending on the season, it may seem to disappear in places, only to reappear downstream. It can become a torrent with heavy snowmelt or flooding. Poplar trees line its banks and sandbars create the illusion that it consists of several streams in many places.

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

The Nebraska Legislature has allocated $53.5 million for an engineering study for the project, which, as originally planned under the pact, would start somewhere near Schneider’s farm in Ovid and span at least 24 miles in Perkins County Nebraska, where Hanson’s operations are headquartered.

Hanson wholeheartedly agrees, saying the more water there is to irrigate his vast farms and those of his neighbors, the better their offspring can carry on that legacy.

“I want my grandsons to be able to feel confident that they can farm irrigated if they want to,” he said.

“When it was learned that the ditch could come, let me tell you that our region was delighted,” said Collin Malmkar, 79, who with his wife Jeanne, 75, and their children grow corn, pop- corn 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 Ovide.

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

“If we were to convert this into a dryland farm, I don’t know where to start” to downsize, said Schneider, 63. “I would like to retire in a few years. But my 30 year old son, what will he do?

Schneider and his neighbors draw excess water from South Platte in the winter to augment the wells they use to irrigate their crops in the summer. This water, in turn, eventually returns to the South Platte. If Nebraska says winter water as part of the pact, Schneider says the alternative — unirrigated dryland farming — means reduced crop yields, fewer farms and fewer jobs.

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

“Something is changing for sure,” Schneider said. “I’m not sure what really motivates him. We are usually buried in snow, and we haven’t seen any for years.

“While I don’t believe it 100%, some of the thoughts are that we’re running out of water because of climate change,” Hanson says. Scientists have long warned that human-caused climate change has made the West hotter and drier over the past 30 years.

Remnants of the 1898 canal-digging effort can be seen in Julesburg, where grass-lined ditches flow into modern Julesburg Cemetery, Interstate 76, and even the Colorado Welcome Center on the US border. State.

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

“If we lose some of our irrigation for our communities up and down the river, whether it’s on the Nebraska side or the Colorado side, we’re losing farmers,” Goddard said. “We are losing children to schools, our power companies that serve us, insurance agencies to grain elevators, grocery stores to pharmacies. You know, if we lose irrigation, communities keep drying up. Literally.”

Schneider echoes the same concerns in his role as Sedgewick County Commissioner. Tax revenues plummeted after Ovid’s former sugar beet factory closed; the county sheriff recently took a better-paying job near Colorado’s Front Range.

“We can’t buy an assistant,” Schneider said.

Farmers on both sides point out that they would like to see a workaround that benefits everyone. All agree that a canal project will take years to prepare – and that in the event of a dispute, lawyers who specialize in the intricacies of water law or in eminent domain could give themselves over to heart joy.

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


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


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