Ricketts makes unannounced visit to possible routes for controversial Perkins County Canal

Colorado officials have called the $500 million project a waste of taxpayer funds and a ‘canal to nowhere’

By: - September 9, 2022 11:09 am
Perkins County Canlal

Gov. Pete Ricketts joined other state officials in an unannounced visit in September to the area of the proposed Perkins County Canal. New Gov. Jim Pillen has proposed transferring $14 million from the State Environmental Trust to a fund that could be used for the canal. (courtesy of Nebraska Governor’s Office)

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts made an unannounced visit to possible routes of the proposed Perkins County Canal this week and said drought conditions in Nebraska make it even more essential that the controversial project be built.

 “This visit reinforced the need for us to protect every drop of South Platte River water we can,” Ricketts said in a press release.  “The Perkins County Canal is essential for this purpose.” 

This spring, Ricketts proposed resurrecting the long-dormant Perkins County Canal project, estimated to cost $500 million, saying it was the only way Nebraska could claim non-irrigation period flows from the South Platte River guaranteed in a river compact with Colorado.

Compact gives right to water

The governor also said Nebraska needs to claim its rightful share of the river’s flows before Colorado, and its fast-growing Front Range, capture it instead. 

South Platte River
Drought conditions have dried up the flows in the South Platte River east of Ogallala, near Roscoe. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

The project promises to expand irrigated cropland areas in southwest Nebraska, which is experiencing drought conditions this year. At one location visited on the South Platte River, east of Ogallala, there was zero flow in the river.

Colorado officials have condemned the proposal, calling it a “canal to nowhere” and a waste of taxpayer money.

Some Nebraska lawmakers have questioned how the canal project, which had been abandoned a century ago as too costly, had suddenly become a priority. And environmental groups have raised concerns about affecting flows that sustain fish and wildlife on the Platte River system. 

On Thursday, it was revealed that Ricketts had toured portions of the South Platte River Basin two days’ earlier. 

A press release from the governor’s office said the visit, which wasn’t announced on the governor’s weekly public schedule, offered “a first-hand look at drought conditions and included a windshield survey of possible routes and reservoir locations for the Perkins County Canal.”

Report due in December

Also on the trip were Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Mike Hilgers and Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. 

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said Friday that the trip wasn’t listed on the public schedule because the tour wasn’t open to the public or media.

An independent report on the cost, benefits and water supply for the proposal is expected to be completed in December.

The canal would begin in northeast Colorado and cross into Nebraska somewhere south of the South Platte, either into Perkins or Deuel Counties, before rejoining the river. A series of reservoirs would be part of the project, officials have said. 

Tom Riley, director of NE Natural Resources Dept.
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, has called the Perkins County Canal the most important water project in his 35-year career. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Riley said his department is “following the path laid out by the (Nebraska) Legislature” in working toward a fully functional canal and reservoir system within a few years.

Pursuing options on land

“This includes a study of the project, as well as preliminary design and building plans,” Riley said. “In the meantime, we are actively pursuing option agreements for properties along the general canal corridor.”

Nebraska would have the power of eminent domain, even in Colorado, to legally obtain land for the canal if a landowner refused to sell. Use of eminent domain often becomes controversial in rural areas and spawned lawsuits over its use for the now-abandoned Keystone XL pipeline.

 Riley added that Nebraska officials continue to “dialog regularly” with their Colorado counterparts about the project.

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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.