Perkins County Canal project moves forward amid questions about final cost

By: - March 9, 2022 5:47 pm
Perkins County Canal

Work on the Perkins County Canal near Ovid, Colorado began in 1894, but the project halted after running out of money. (Courtesy of the Perkins County Historical Society)

LINCOLN — After an afternoon-long debate, state lawmakers advanced a controversial proposal to begin designing a $500-million canal to divert water from the South Platte River.

Legislative Bill 1015, introduced on behalf of Gov. Pete Ricketts, advanced from first-round debate on a 36-3 vote.

Sen. Steve Lathrop
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

But there were questions about why the long-forgotten Perkins County Canal, which was abandoned in the 1920s, had now become a state priority.

“This thing’s one hundred years old. All of a sudden, we have this urgency,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

Compact granted flows

Ricketts and other supporters have resurrected the canal project, saying that unless it is built, Colorado will suck up the flows of the South Platte River for development on the Front Range. That would reduce flows for irrigation and wildlife in Nebraska.

Supporters of the canal, which would begin in Colorado, maintain that the only way to capture the off-season flows Nebraska was granted via a 1923 water compact with Colorado is to build the Perkins County Canal, which is enshrined in the compact.

$53 million proposed

But the Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget, has recommended only about $53 million to do design work on the canal project. State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the chairman of that committee, said it would be fiscally irresponsible to commit $500 million to the canal — one of the most expensive construction projects in state history — without more study.

State Sen. Dan Hughes
State Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Lathrop also questioned whether $500 million would be enough to complete the canal and whether lawmakers would be abandoning other state priorities, such as tax cuts, in favor of the canal.

Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk defended the project, saying water is the lifeblood of the state. He said passing the bill would signal to Colorado “how serious we are about water.”

Venango Sen. Dan Hughes, who chose LB 1023 as his priority bill, said that unless Nebraska exercises its right to the waters of the South Platte, it will be soaked up by Colorado. The Front Range, he said, is projected to double in population in the next 30 years. 

“If we don’t build this canal, that water will go away. It will be lost to use forever,” Hughes said.

The bill faces two more rounds of debate. The issue could also come up when the Legislature debates the state budget.

Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.