Protecting Nebraska’s Water Rights for Generations to Come
By Governor Pete Ricketts
January 11, 2022
Governor’s official photo here.
Major Stephen Long described the Plains as the “Great American Desert” when his expedition studied our region in 1820. “It is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence,” wrote his group’s geographer. Fast forward 200 years, and Nebraska has developed into a global powerhouse of agricultural production. We rank #1 in the nation in agricultural cash receipts per capita.
How have Nebraskans transformed the “Great American Desert" into some of the most productive ag land in the world? Through our inventive and responsible use of water resources. While we’ve used these resources wisely, the actions of our neighbors in Colorado threaten to deplete them.
The water we depend on for agriculture, drinking water, and other uses isn’t confined within our state’s borders. The Ogallala Aquifer underlies eight states, and rivers like the Republican River and Platte River flow across state lines in and out of Nebraska. Over the years, we’ve negotiated agreements with surrounding states regarding our shared water resources.
One such agreement is the South Platte River Compact that Nebraska signed with Colorado nearly 100 years ago, in 1923. It regulates the use of the waters of the South Platte River, which originates in the Rockies and flows through Colorado into Nebraska.
Colorado is currently planning nearly 300 projects and over $10 billion of expenditures to ensure no “excess” water leaves its state. This threatens to choke off the flow of water into Nebraska.
The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NeDNR)—working with the Attorney General’s Office, natural resources districts (NRDs), and public power districts in our state—has been vigilantly watching developments in Colorado. NeDNR estimates that Colorado’s plans, when fully implemented, will cause a nearly 90% reduction in flows coming into Nebraska from Colorado.
This would dramatically impact Nebraskans. Colorado’s plans to siphon off water from the South Platte River would decrease agricultural water supplies and raise pumping costs for our residents. It would jeopardize municipal water supplies for Lincoln, Omaha, and other Platte River communities. The loss of water would threaten the cooling water supplies for Gerald Gentlemen Station, Nebraska’s largest electric generation facility. The decreased flow would also undercut our capacity to generate hydroelectric power in Nebraska. The reduction in water would almost surely increase costs and regulatory burdens for the State, our NRDs, and water users.
The good news is that the South Platte River Compact entitles Nebraska to construct a canal to ensure access to our fair share of the South Platte River’s water. The agreement specifically provides Nebraska authority over water and land in Colorado for the project.
On January 10th, I announced Nebraska’s intention to construct this canal—pending the Unicameral’s approval—to protect our water users from reduced South Platte River flows. My mid-biennium budget recommendation for the Legislature will include $500 million for the canal project. Upon approval, we’ll engage stakeholders on project location and design.
Constructing the canal is the primary means for Nebraska to exercise our legal rights to water flows from the South Platte River. If we fail to act now, Nebraska could see sharply reduced inflows from the South Platte River. As I already mentioned, this would have a devastating impact on our state. By taking initiative to build the canal, we’re protecting Nebraska’s water rights for our kids, grandkids, and generations beyond. Given the State’s strong financial position, budget resources are available to undertake this historic project without incurring a penny of debt.
Nebraska’s way of life depends on access to our state’s abundant water resources. We’ve been great stewards of our water through the years. For example, we’ve maintained the Ogallala Aquifer, on average, within one foot of where it was in the 1950s. We’ve done all of this while developing into a global leader in agricultural irrigation.
Inventions like the center pivot, the development of drought-resistant hybrid crops, and the use of precision irrigation techniques have optimized our use of water resources. The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute estimates that crop water productivity for corn and soybeans in Nebraska increased 75% from 1990 to 2014. In other words, our farmers are continuously growing more crops with less water.
All of Nebraska stands to gain when we preserve, protect, manage, and engage in good stewardship of our water supply—and all stand to lose if we fail to do so. Our ag producers are reliant on water supplies as they work to feed the world. Communities from Ogallala to Omaha depend on the Platte River for drinking water. We use water from the Platte River to generate power, and the river is crucial to the quality of our natural environment as well.
I urge the Legislature to act now and protect our water supplies from being irreversibly diminished. You can help by reaching out to your State Senator to make your voice heard. Their contact information is available at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov.
If you have questions about the proposed canal, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-471-2244. Let’s seize the moment to make sure future generations of Nebraskans can enjoy the water resources they’re entitled to.