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.”
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Rain clouds and a bit of a rainbow roll over the Millard, Nebraska, sky on Aug. 16, 2016.
The sun sets behind a center pivot located north of Red Cloud, Nebraska, on Thursday, July 27, 2006.
Storm clouds hide the sun as it sets over Nebraska's Sand Hills on July 7, 2009, near Thedord, Nebraska.
A summer storm passes north of Rose, Nebraska, on Sunday, June 10, 2007.
A rainbow forms over U.S. Highway 12, just east of Valentine, Nebraska, as storms roll over the area on July 25, 2017.
The sun sets behind an approaching storm as a car heads west on U.S. Highway 34 near Union, Nebraska, on April 24, 2016.
Icicles form on vines in downtown Omaha on Feb. 24, 2017.
Railroad tracks are illuminated by the setting sun on May 3, 2017, east of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
The sun sets behind Chimney Rock on May 3, 2017.
Members of the Boats, Bikes, Boots & Brews group head to shore as the sun sets after an evening out on Lake Zorinsky on April 22, 2015.
Icicles hang from the horse carriage parking sign in the Old Market on Jan. 15, 2017.
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A layer of fog covers the Missouri River near the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge on Feb. 5, 2015.
A setting sun creates a pink haze on a windmill and the Sand Hills southwest of Rushville, Nebraska, on Sept. 22, 2007.
Pigeons scatter at sunset as the St. John's steeple is silhouetted against the Woodmen tower in downtown Omaha on Oct. 3, 2014.
The sun bursts behind the clouds over the North Platte River east of Bridgeport, Nebraska, on July 26, 2006.
Steve Jobman, a farmer south of Minatare, Nebraska, cuts alfalfa after sunset on June 2, 2004.
Wheat waves in the wind in a field west of Dalton, Nebraska, on July 18, 2001.
The moon rises over the northern cross of the St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha on Feb. 10, 2017. On this night, there was a full moon, a lunar eclipse and comet 45P passed by the earth.
As the wind speed picks up, a woman holds onto her hood while crossing 16th Street along Dodge Street in Omaha on Feb. 24, 2017.
From left: Melody Borcherding, Kseniya Burgoon and Michael Beltz scoop out a vehicle on Jan. 23, 2018, in Norfolk.
Jeff Bachman harvests soybeans and prepares to transfer them as the sun sets on a field near Ayr, Nebraska, on Oct. 19, 2008.
As the sun sets, sandhill cranes arrive to roost in the Platte River at the Rowe Sanctuary & Iain Nicholson Audubon Center south of Gibbon, Nebraska, on March 12, 2008.
A pair of sandhill cranes pass in front of the moon shortly after sunrise at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska, on March 13, 2012. Sandhill cranes, which mate for life, can live between 20 and 40 years.
A windmill is dwarfed by storm clouds near Crawford, Nebraska, on May 3, 2017.
An early November storm system rolls through the Great Plains, but Omaha only receives rain, which collected on freshly-fallen leaves on Nov. 11, 2015.
Cattle head up to a well to get a drink at the end of the day near Sparks, Nebraska, on Aug. 21, 2015. Smoke from the wildfires in the western states created a haze.
The moon rises above the corn as farmers harvest the last of their fields in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa on Nov. 5, 2014.
Two riders help round up part of the 750 head of cattle branded at the Lute Family Ranch, located south of Hyannis, Nebraska, on May 12, 2005. Mick Knott, who runs the ranch, owns about half the cattle, and the Lute Foundation owns the rest. The work started about dawn and finished about noon.
The rising sun illuminates a tree and a windmill in a snow-covered field located on U.S. Highway 20 between Rushville and Chadron, Nebraska, on March 1, 2017.
The College Home Run Derby was held at TD Ameritrade Park and was highlighted by The World-Herald's annual Independence Day fireworks display on July 2, 2015.
Fog rises from the Missouri River and covers the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge on Jan. 5, 2010.
The weekend's perfect weather colored the clouds at sunset south of Wymore, Nebraska, on Oct. 23, 2004.
Deer chill out at Chalco Hills Recreation Area on Feb. 22, 2018.
A leaf is covered in a dusting of snow near 138th and Hickory Streets on Dec. 18, 2014, in Millard.
A runner emerges from the edge of the rising sun on Sept. 11, 2015, at Zorinsky Lake Park and Recreation Area in Omaha.
Nearly 45 minutes after sunset, an orange and blue glow is seen setting behind the Omaha skyline flanked between trees in Council Bluffs on Jan. 11, 2018.
Rain drops collect on a flower following early showers on May 10, 2017, in Millard.
The promise of rain is fleeting for the seven windmills on the Watson Ranch north of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, on U.S. 71 on May 16, 2004.
A crescent moon sets behind the UNO bell tower on Nov. 6, 2013.
Ralph Remmert is depicted in the mural "Fertile Ground" near 13th and Mike Fahey Streets in north downtown Omaha on June 19, 2017.
Ralph Kohler, 94, keeps his eyes to the sky for ducks and geese as the sun rises over his hunting pond east of Tekamah, Nebraska, on Nov. 30, 2011. Kohler has been a professional guide for most of his life, and he is preparing for the spring season.
The sun rises over St. Paul Lutheran Church, located three miles north of Republican City, Nebraska, in March of 2004.
Geese are silhouetted in the color and clouds as the sun sets at Zorinsky Lake on Feb. 21, 2016.
The sun rises on Chimney Rock on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, near McGrew, Nebraska.
Cranes walk through the shallow water of the Platte River shortly before sunset near The Crane Trust, which is close to Wood River, Nebraska, on March 13, 2012. The river provides cranes with a safe place from predators for rest at night.
A bespangled vest awaits a rider during Nebraska's Big Rodeo on July 25, 2013, in Burwell, Nebraska.
Horses stand in the snow on Feb. 22, 2018.
Residents of the Nebraska Panhandle enjoyed unseasonably mild temperatures and cloud cover on Aug. 12, 2004.
Members of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association hold their hats as 2013 Miss Burwell Rodeo Olivia Hunsperger passes by during the opening ceremonies on July 27, 2013, in Burwell, Nebraska. "This may be a small town, but it's got a big rodeo, and it's got a really big heart," Hunsperger said.