WASHINGTON — Colorado’s booming Front Range needs more water and some officials there have hit upon a solution: grab it from the Nebraska-bound South Platte River.

A move to hold back more of that water could have a big impact on Nebraska agricultural, power and recreational interests downstream, as well as on the sandhill cranes that depend on those flows to create their sandbar habitats.

Colorado’s reasoning is comparable to Willie Sutton robbing banks because that’s where the money is, said Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy program at the University of Colorado.

“The South Platte is about the only basin we have where we have rights to more water,” Kenney said. “So people are getting excited about taking more of it.”

While Colorado has its share of rivers, legal agreements on many of them place strict obligations on the state over how much water it can take out, he said, but the state has more flexibility under the agreements governing the Platte.

That’s bad news for the Platte, said George Cunningham, conservation chair of Nebraska’s Sierra Club chapter.

“Any additional water that would be captured out of the watershed only creates long-term problems for the Platte.”

At the root of the situation is a basic math problem. Colorado is one of the fastest-growing states in the country and that growth is outpacing available water.

“We have too much population and not enough access to water in the future,” said Chris Arend, communications director for Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. “We’re going to have a gap.”

The Denver Post quoted Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, saying that up to 50% of the irrigated agriculture in the basin is projected to dry up by 2050.

Colorado created a water plan a few years ago that looks to local entities to come up with projects for closing that gap. That has spawned various proposals for building multiple large reservoirs northeast of Denver to capture more of the Platte before it reaches next-door Nebraska.

The stakes for Nebraska are high, given that the state relies on the river to irrigate crops and generate hydropower. The river helps provide water supplies to the Lincoln and Omaha metropolitan areas.

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Past studies have found that the migrating sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes bring tens of thousands of tourists into central Nebraska — visitors who spend more than $14 million directly and indirectly.

Water battles between states are certainly nothing new. In the West, they say, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.

But both Nebraska and Colorado officials downplayed the idea of a looming clash.

Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Fassett said Colorado’s water plans have been in the works for a long time and are no cause for panic.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on it,” Fassett said. “That’s what downstream states do. We always look upstream.”

He said individual projects are being floated now, but it’s not clear which ones will move forward.

Backers will have to figure out how to finance any proposals — no easy task given the massive construction costs involved.

“Even with the strong economy that Colorado has, these are very expensive projects,” Fassett said.

And it could take new projects years to go through all of the planning, permitting and development required.

Members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation said they are monitoring the situation and are ready to assist state officials.

Any new project would have to fit into existing agreements that allocate amounts of water between the states, but there is reason to believe Colorado could legally take more than it is now.

Aside from the interstate agreement, however, new projects could face litigation from environmental groups if they would potentially hurt downstream wildlife.

Those groups have suggested Colorado would be better off taking land being used for irrigation-heavy corn and bean production and returning it to grazing land.

They’ve also urged the state to explore new technologies that could improve conservation.

Arend said the state is indeed exploring many avenues to address its water issues, including conservation efforts.

And he offered assurances that any new projects will involve open conversations with Nebraska.

“We enjoy and appreciate our relationship with the citizens of the state of Nebraska,” Arend said. “More of them are moving here every day.”