Ricketts doubles down on Perkins County canal project, says delay helps Colorado

Colorado spokesman blasts canal as ‘boondoggle’ and ‘huge waste’ of tax dollars

By: - March 2, 2022 1:49 pm
ricketts press conference

Gov. Pete Ricketts (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state’s top water official doubled down Wednesday on the need to build a $500 million canal on the South Platte River, saying that delaying the work would hurt Nebraska.

“Delay only benefits Colorado,” the governor said at a morning news conference.

That brought a strong retort later Wednesday from a spokesman for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who called the canal “a boondoggle” and a “huge waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Ricketts spoke to reporters as the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is planning to allocate only $22.5 million in planning funds for the proposed Perkins County Canal and as Nebraska water officials are engaging in at least some talks with their counterparts in Colorado.

Sens. Wendy DeBoer and John Stinner
Sen. John Stinner at the Nebraska Legislature (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. John Stinner, chair of Appropriations, has said he can’t support earmarking a half-billion dollars in state funds to a project before a study has been done to determine whether it’s feasible.

But the governor and Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, told reporters Wednesday that any delay would just allow Colorado to move forward with more projects that consume Nebraska’s allocation. 

Time to ‘push forward’

Ricketts said Colorado has responded to Nebraska’s effort to revive the long-dormant Perkins County Canal project by introducing legislation to accelerate water projects that draw water from the South Platte for the growing Front Range.

“Their philosophy seems to be that possession is nine-tenths of the law,” the governor said. “So the longer this is delayed, the more projects (in Colorado) get built … and the more difficult it is for us to get that water.”

 “We’ve got to push forward and build this canal,” Ricketts said.

Tom Riley, director of NE Natural Resources Dept.
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The governor called the news conference to lobby for his 2022 budget proposals as the Appropriations Committee works to finalize its proposed budget. Ricketts’ spending ideas include the Perkins County Canal, building a $260-million state prison and enacting a trio of tax cut proposals.

He said a recent state revenue forecast, which upped expected tax revenue by nearly $800 million in the next two fiscal years, provides plenty of money to fund the canal and prison, as well as the tax cuts.

Both Ricketts and Riley said the canal, which would begin in northeast Colorado, is the only way Nebraska can claim water from the South Platte that was set aside for Nebraska in a 1923 compact with the Rocky Mountain state.

‘A boondoggle’

Conor Cahill, press secretary for Colorado Gov. Polis told the Nebraska Examiner on Wednesday that Colorado’s water plans are locally driven and have not yet been funded. Yet, Cahill said that the proposals were “incorrectly being used by Governor Ricketts to justify this boondoggle that would be a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“It is increasingly clear that this is an offensive not defensive effort by Governor Ricketts to go after Colorado’s rightful water resources, and take the private land of hard working farmers and ranchers,” the spokesman said.

Ricketts said Wednesday he had discussed the canal project with Gov. Polis when they ran into each other in Washington, D.C., recently. Riley said he talked to his water counterpart in a Zoom meeting only yesterday.

When asked, Riley said the discussions have focused on Nebraska’s plan to build the canal, not on other alternatives to the $500 million project.

Cahill disputed that, saying in a statement that Nebraska has “never raised” concerns about the South Platte River compact.

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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.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.