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Watch now: Governor: Dry South Platte riverbed shows need to finish Perkins canal

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Governor: Dry South Platte riverbed shows need to finish Perkins canal

Drivers and pedestrians using Ogallala's South Platte River bridge Tuesday could see only dried-out channel cuts in the broad riverbed where the stream — never plentiful except for floods — had flowed until this summer. The bridge carries U.S. Highway 26-Nebraska Highway 61 traffic between the Keith County seat's Union Pacific Railroad overpass and Interstate 80 interchange.

OGALLALA — The bone-dry South Platte River channel less than a mile away illustrates why Nebraska is reviving the long-dormant Perkins County Canal project from Colorado, Gov. Pete Ricketts said here Tuesday.

The governor, who spoke later in Alliance, also touted progress in expanding broadband access and reviewed the state’s property tax credit programs during an hour-long forum at Ogallala’s Kathleen Lute Public Library.

But Nebraska’s worst drought since 2012 — responsible for a reduced Lake McConaughy as well as the vanished South Platte — was foremost on the minds of the 35 people in the two-year-old library’s conference room.

Ricketts, who toured possible Keith County canal locations earlier this month, reminded the audience that it’ll take a decade to design and build the Perkins canal started in 1894 but soon abandoned when funds ran out.

But he said Colorado, where the abortive effort began near Ovid in Sedgwick County, has proved Nebraska must invoke its right to build the canal under the two states’ 1923 South Platte River Compact.

“These are big projects. It’s going to take time to get them done,” Ricketts said. “But it’s important to do them, especially when you see the drought we have right now.”

The compact requires Colorado to deliver up to 500 cubic feet per second of South Platte water between Oct. 15 and April 1 — but only if the Perkins canal is built.

It also mandates that Colorado supply up to 120 cfs in the river during the April 1-Oct. 15 irrigation season, regardless of whether the canal is built.

But that isn’t happening this summer, Ricketts said. He called attention to both the dry riverbed in Keith County and Lake Mac’s decline this summer to 36.6% of capacity as of Tuesday — its lowest level since 2012.

“Right now, we aren’t getting the water we’re supposed to be getting from the South Platte River,” he said. “And we have a compact for them to deliver that today.”

Nebraska officials are documenting Colorado’s failure to meet its compact obligations, the governor said.

Lake Mac’s owners, the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, are wrapping up their annual delivery of irrigation water to their farming customers in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released water to maintain central Platte wildlife habitat from its McConaughy “environmental account.” That was set up under a three-state 1997 agreement tied to federal renewal of Kingsley Dam’s license.

The National Weather Service’s South Platte gage near Julesburg, Colorado, measured the river’s flow there Tuesday afternoon at about 50 cfs — less than half the compact’s summer mandate.

Kent Miller of North Platte, general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, said only 25 cfs is going into the long-established Western Irrigation District canal. It leaves the river below Julesburg, just south of the state line, and returns west of Ogallala.

He blamed the situation on Colorado, where South Platte water projects have exploded over the past half-century to water that state’s farmland but also supply the ever-growing Front Range.

“They’re sweeping the river,” Miller said. “They’re taking all that’s there.”

Dennis Schilz, a rural Brule farmer and Western Irrigation District president, said 2022 was the first year in his memory when his district’s customers couldn’t get their full allotment from the South Platte.

“It dried up before we got a third of the way” through the season, he told the audience. “It’s serious.”

Leonard Rice Engineers of Denver, in a 2017 study for the Colorado Legislature, declared that 90% of South Platte water had gone to Nebraska “in excess of the compact” from 1996 to 2015.

A Colorado Senate bill introduced in January would have required that state’s Water Conservation Board to prioritize South Platte water development. Senate Bill 22-126 was killed on March 28.

Ricketts said the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources will soon seek “requests for proposal” from potential Perkins canal designers. The 2022 Legislature appropriated $53.5 million for design and land acquisition.

Nebraska officials have been contacting landowners in both states on the canal’s likely 21st-century route in a search for willing sellers, he said.

The South Platte compact, negotiated after a 1920 effort to revive the canal, grants Nebraska the power of eminent domain to seize Colorado land if needed for the canal.

It also says Nebraska must generally follow the Perkins canal’s surveyed 1894 route in Sedgwick County but doesn’t have to east of the state line.

The abandoned 16 miles started just west of Ovid’s South Platte bridge and meandered southeast, crossing Julesburg’s present-day Interstate 76 interchange to the town’s cemetery.

Also Tuesday, Ricketts:

Outlined a smorgasbord of grants funded by the state and federal governments to expand broadband internet service through more of Nebraska’s rural areas.

The broadband.nebraska.gov website lays out the grant opportunities for broadband providers, Ricketts said.

Nebraska will require providers to provide more robust upload and download capacity than the current standard, he added. “We want to build for the future.”

Urged listeners to pick up forms at the forum if they haven’t claimed 2020 or 2021 income tax credits tied to school district property taxes. They amounted to 6% of school tax bills in 2020 and 25.3% in 2021.

Ricketts said about 40% of Nebraskans haven’t claimed those credits, which for 2022 will cover 30% of both K-12 and community college taxes.

A separate, older state credit is applied directly to gross property tax bills. One local landowner, saying he owns multiple parcels, asked why all the state’s property tax relief couldn’t be given that way.

“Because the senators did not want to,” Ricketts replied, quoting the truism that politics is “the art of the possible.”

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