Nebraska can only guarantee that Colorado sends the state the South Platte River water it’s entitled to by exercising its right to finish the 1894 Perkins County Canal, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday morning in North Platte.
He spoke with The Telegraph about his surprise call to cross the state line and revive the long-abandoned irrigation project before reviewing his Thursday State of the State speech at the North Platte Regional Airport.
Colorado leaders’ attitude toward the 1923 South Platte River Compact in approving upstream water projects shows “the only way we can guarantee the (promised) flow is to build the system,” Ricketts said.
His request for $500 million to finish the canal is the largest of three regional projects he’s proposing to assist with federal COVID-19 aid and surplus state revenues.
The governor endorsed a special legislative committee’s call for a new marina and road improvements at Lake McConaughy near Ogallala, part of $200 million in statewide water-related projects. He also backed help for the $325 million Sustainable Beef LLC meatpacking plant at North Platte.
“We’ll essentially have two budgets” this session, Ricketts told about 30 people in the Lee Bird Field conference room.
One will recommend how to allocate $1.04 billion in American Relief Plan aid, while the other will make regular adjustments in Nebraska’s two-year budget cycle while drawing down surplus tax revenues, he said.
But Ricketts said both budgets will avoid new ongoing spending commitments and focus on one-time needs. The state’s regular budget programs will be held to 3% growth, he said.
“I’ve told agencies we’ll live within our means as a government, because that’s what Nebraskans do,” he told his airport audience.
The all-but-forgotten South Platte River Compact allows Nebraska to complete 24 miles of the partly dug canal in Colorado. It started just south of Ovid, 93 miles upstream from North Platte, and ran south of Julesburg to near the state line.
That’s about as far as drought-stricken Perkins County residents got in the fall of 1894, after they approved $90,000 in county bonds and then personally went into Colorado to do the digging themselves.
But the bonds never were sold, forcing them to give up. The canal would have run a total of 65 miles, clipping corners of Deuel and Keith counties and ending at the Perkins-Lincoln county line, according to contemporary newspaper stories.
The 1923 compact says Nebraska has the power to finish what Perkins County residents started — including the right to buy or even seize land on both sides of the state line.
It says Colorado would have to guarantee canal flows of up to 120 cubic feet per second during irrigation season and up to 500 cfs the rest of the year.
Ricketts said Nebraska leaders became alarmed when they learned that Colorado water officials have been approving permits for upstream projects on the assumption Nebraska never would revive the 1894 canal.
Their attitude has amounted to “Nebraska has a right, but they’re not exercising it, so they’re probably fine” to use up South Platte water in Colorado, he told The Telegraph.
If every suggested Front Range project were approved, he said, it could slash South Platte flows into Nebraska up to 90% and harm agricultural, industrial and domestic water users all the way to Lincoln and Omaha.
Reviving the Perkins County Canal wouldn’t prevent all those projects, Ricketts said. But “that’s the only way Colorado is obligated” to provide what it agreed to 99 years ago.
He acknowledged that finishing the canal and building associated structures could be a long way off, given that legal challenges likely are inevitable and no modern designs exist.
“Building a canal and reservoir system takes decades, no matter what,” Ricketts said.
The 1923 compact says the canal would have to follow the 1894 project’s route in Sedgwick County. Ricketts said it’s less clear whether Nebraska must do so east of the state line.
“If the attorney general says that’s what we have to do, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Much faster progress is likely in enhancing McConaughy, a specific mission lawmakers gave the special committee organized under last year’s Legislative Bill 406.
The panel, which held several days of hearings in August in Ogallala, was charged with finding ways for Nebraska to protect and better use its water — including boosting tourism and recreation.
Ideas unveiled early this week featured a new Lake Mac marina with more than 100 boat slips, a shoreside restaurant and related facilities. Ricketts said it isn’t yet known if it would go on the lake’s north or south shore.
An eye-catching main entrance to the lake area would be designed and installed north of Ogallala. Turn lanes would be added at three critical spots on Nebraska Highway 92, which parallels the north shore.
The state also would improve the south-shore paved road from U.S. Highway 26 through the Lakeview residential and recreational area, including Bayside Golf Course.
Such amenities, Ricketts said, “will enhance the experience not only for Nebraskans but for tourists,” including Lake Mac’s regular summer flow of visitors from Colorado.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has been separately working to upgrade its roads and facilities at McConaughy, the state’s largest outdoor tourist attraction, and neighboring Lake Ogallala.
Legislative Bill 336, also passed in 2021, also eyed Lake Mac in allowing Game and Parks to raise the cost of nonresident park permits to twice the rate of resident ones. The agency’s board did so when it met in October in North Platte.
Other water projects endorsed by the special Unicameral committee would build a 4,000-acre lake near Lincoln and Omaha and upgrade facilities at Lewis & Clark Lake and Niobrara State Park in northeast Nebraska.
More by Todd von Kampen
Five stories that sum up Unicam's 2021 session
From Sen. Mike Groene's rail park bill to raising non-resident park permits prices at Lake McConaughy, here are some highlights from the last Nebraska Legislature session.
State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte was principal sponsor of LB 40, which allows state matching funds for communities wanting to build rail parks, and a co-sponsor of LB 156, which permits up to five “inland port districts” in Nebraska.
Also adopted 49-0 Thursday was LB 185, a bill by Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer appropriating state funds for “federally qualified health centers” owned by Native American tribes in urban areas.
State senators have sent a cattle brand-reform bill partly reflecting industrywide meetings last fall in North Platte to the final stage of co…
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who had been kept closely informed during the negotiations, swiftly signed the bills into law.
Groene will serve on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and General Affairs committees as part of the final list of committee assignments senators approved Friday.