Some question $500 million plan to resurrect irrigation canal on South Platte

By: - January 26, 2022 6:00 am
Tom Riley, director of NE Natural Resources Dept.

Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, testifies about proposed Perkins County Canal. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN – People lined up at the State Capitol Tuesday to support proposals by Gov. Pete Ricketts to spend the state’s allocation of $1.04 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Mental health providers praised his idea of setting aside $40 million for new treatment facilities. Sports and arts groups supported the $100 million set aside for COVID-19 impacted, “shovel ready” projects. And a rural firefighter thanked Ricketts for earmarking $35 million to replace aging ambulances across the state.

In addition, representatives of the state’s community colleges lauded the idea of getting $90 million to enhance training in trades that have shortages right now, including truck drivers and nursing aides.

But several questions were raised about the governor’s most expensive proposal — setting aside $500 million to build a long-forgotten irrigation canal on the South Platte River.

Ricketts has proposed utilizing $100 million in AARP funds and $400 million in state cash reserve monies to resurrect the Perkins County Canal project, which would divert waters of the South Platte near Ovid, Colorado, and deliver it to Nebraska, likely for irrigation.

Canal proposed in 1890s

The canal was first proposed in the 1890s, but construction was halted in 1894, due to a lack of funds, after only a couple miles were dug. 

But the Perkins County Canal was included in a 1923 water compact reached between Nebraska and Colorado over each state’s rights to the flows of the South Platte. And now Ricketts has dusted off the old canal project in an effort to capture the water guaranteed under the compact.

Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said that construction of the canal is the only way Nebraska can “preserve and protect” its water allocation.

But two senators on the Appropriations Committee, Steve Erdman of Bayard and Mark Kolterman of Seward, questioned how such a pricey, long-forgotten project suddenly became a big priority. 

And what about the half-billion-dollar pricetag, Kolterman asked. “That is a lot of money,” he said.

“Projects of this nature are expensive,” Riley said, adding that the cost estimate was based on projections made in the 1980s.

The State of Colorado, he said, is spending “20 times that amount” on its water projects impacting the South Platte, which flows through fast-growing Denver.

‘Colorado is concerned’

He said Nebraska needs to start the canal project now, to preserve its water allocation before Colorado snaps it all up.

“Colorado is concerned and is looking to accelerate their projects,” Riley told the Appropriations Committee.  

But Laurel Sariscsany of the Open Sky Policy Institute, a Lincoln-based think tank, said the canal could end up bogged down in lengthy litigation with Colorado. That raises concerns that the ARPA funds would not be spent by the 2026 deadline, she said, resulting in the federal government taking back those funds. 

Overall, Sariscsany questioned why about 25% of the governor’s ARPA proposals dealt with sewer and water infrastructure projects when the state expects to get $358 million for such projects from the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

Better uses for funds

Former State Sen. Al Davis, now a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, asked whether there were higher priorities than the Perkins County Canal on which to spend $500 million, such as improving the state’s existing parks.

In a recent interview with the Nebraska Examiner, Dave Aiken, a water law authority with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the influx of federal funds has made the Perkins County Canal suddenly feasible.

Clearly, Aiken said, Colorado is ahead of Nebraska in planning projects that utilize the South Platte’s flows, but the Perkins Canal idea has certainly grabbed their attention. Whether or not state lawmakers agree to set aside a half-billion dollars is a big question, he added.  

 “I can’t believe that all $500 million is going to end up in the Perkins County Canal project, but we’ll see,” Aiken said. 

Gering Sen. John Stinner, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said the committee might want an additional briefing about the canal project. “These are big-time dollars,” he said of the project’s cost.

The Appropriations Committee took no action on the governor’s ARPA proposals after a public hearing that extended into the evening. The committee will make budgetary decisions later, which will be debated by the full Legislature.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.