Ricketts: Nebraska must build Perkins County Canal or risk a $1B economic hit

Governor tells lawmakers that $500 million canal is ‘a bargain’

By: and - February 9, 2022 8:06 pm
Gov. Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts pitched his proposal to build a $500 million canal system Wednesday to a legislative committee. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — If Nebraska stands pat, the Cornhusker State’s portion of the Platte River could run dry, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told a legislative committee Wednesday. 

Colorado, he said, is investing nearly $10 billion to keep more of the South Platte River’s water inside its borders rather than letting it flow east into Nebraska. He said building his $500 million canal would be “a bargain.”

“Colorado is looking to take our water,” Ricketts said, pointing to massive population growth in Denver and on the Front Range. 

Canal only way to claim water

Ricketts said that building the so-called Perkins County Canal and a series of storage reservoirs is the only way to claim water promised in a 1923 compact with Colorado.

That compact promised Nebraska flows of 500 cubic feet per second from the South Platte River outside irrigation season. 

State Sen. Mike Hilgers
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

But the agreement, according to Ricketts and other state officials, promises Nebraska that water only if the state builds a canal to divert flows from northeast Colorado.

“As an attorney, I can tell you how important it is that Nebraska maintain its legal rights under the compact,” said State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who introduced the canal proposal on behalf of the governor. Hilgers has announced a run for Nebraska attorney general.

He and other proponents emphasized the importance of the Platte River, which provides water not only for irrigation and wildlife, but also for water systems like Omaha’s and Lincoln’s, which supply more than half of the state’s population.

Senators on the Legislature’s Natural Resources District questioned whether the project could be built for less than $500 million or whether Nebraska could renegotiate its compact with Colorado to capture river flows.

But Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said earmarking $500 million now sends a signal that the state is serious about building the canal.

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)

He estimated it would take up to three years to design the canal system, then five to seven years to build it. Riley added that the water would be stored and used to sustain flows in the Platte River and would not be diverted into other watersheds, such as the nearby Republican River basin.

Colorado has planned $9.8 billion in water-related projects in the basin, including dams, channels and reservoirs.Those 283 water projects, if completed, could leave Nebraska with 90% less water crossing the state line, Ricketts said.  

Nebraska has been able to get the water in the past, but Colorado’s increasing thirst for water threatens Nebraska’s future, Ricketts said.

He told lawmakers the project would protect Nebraska’s top industry, agriculture, and its cities’ ability to grow.

“It’s a huge hedge against future droughts,” Ricketts said.

State officials estimated a potential economic hit of $1 billion if the canal wasn’t built.

Cost is $250 per resident

The OpenSky Institute and others have questioned whether the canal could end up bogged down in lengthy litigation with Colorado. If that occurs, they say, Nebraska might risk losing federal funds that must be spent by 2026.

Al Davis of the Sierra Club of Nebraska said the $500 million price tag translates into more than $250 per state resident, a massive expense. He questioned whether the money would be spent more wisely on “people” than on the canal.

The proposal, Legislative Bill 1015, calls for using $100 million in federal coronavirus relief funds and $400 million from the state’s cash reserve funds. If all the state funds aren’t needed, the money would go back into state coffers, he said.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne asked whether spending $500 million on economic development and jobs might be smarter.

“If you don’t have water, you’re not creating jobs,” Ricketts responded.


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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

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.