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Is Nebraska constructing a $500 million ‘canal to nowhere’ simply to personal the libs?

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Earlier this spring, Nebraska lawmakers handed a invoice authorizing development of a canal that may siphon water from neighboring Colorado, igniting a disagreement between the 2 states’ leaders. Nebraska’s governor, Republican Pete Ricketts, says that the canal will “defend Nebraska’s water rights for our youngsters, grandkids, and generations past.” Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, calls the scheme a “canal to nowhere” that’s “unlikely to ever be constructed.”

The 2 states share rights to water from the South Platte River, and Republican politicians in Nebraska say {that a} new canal is important to protect the state’s water provide from encroachment by its fast-growing neighbor to the west.

The unusual factor concerning the political firestorm, in keeping with water specialists, is that the canal wouldn’t actually do something. The water Nebraska needs to guard doesn’t face an instantaneous risk from Colorado, and in any case it’s not clear the canal would offer Nebraska any extra water past what it already receives. The overall quantity of water that would circulate by means of the deliberate $500-million-dollar canal is unlikely to alter the course of both state’s future.

“It’s type of a bizarre declare,” mentioned Anthony Schutz, an affiliate regulation professor on the College of Nebraska-Lincoln and an skilled on water points. “I’m undecided what precisely this factor would defend us from.” 

Even when the canal doesn’t alter the stability of water between the 2 states, nevertheless, it does assist Nebraska lawmakers spend down federal funding they acquired from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package handed by Congressional Democrats final yr. It may additionally permit them to attain political factors by antagonizing the Democrats who govern Colorado. The episode comes as different elements of the western U.S. actually do face wrenching, zero-sum tradeoffs in allocating water throughout an ongoing megadrought that has been exacerbated by local weather change — and it could be a preview of how anxieties round these points may be mobilized for partisan warfare.

The historical past behind the canal challenge is a curious footnote within the bigger story of western water. Manner again in 1923, Colorado and Nebraska signed a treaty that ruled using one section of the South Platte River, which flows from the Colorado Rockies by means of Denver and into Nebraska. The treaty required Colorado to ship 150 cubic toes of water per second to Nebraska all through the irrigation season—in different phrases, it prevented Colorado from drying up the river earlier than Nebraska farmers may use it. The treaty additionally gave Nebraska the precise to construct a canal giant sufficient to divert a further 500 cubic toes of water per second in the course of the irrigation offseason, however the challenge by no means got here to fruition: Engineers had already tried and failed to build a canal by means of the rocky territory connecting the states within the late 1800s, and nobody ever revived the concept.

For a couple of century, the treaty collected mud. Nebraska has maybe the most important groundwater sources of any state, to not point out 1000’s of miles of rivers, so water wasn’t an enormous difficulty. Plus, Colorado typically exceeded its treaty obligations on the South Platte: From 1996 by means of 2015, the state delivered Nebraska almost 8 million more acre feet than it was required to ship underneath the treaty. Across the similar time, nevertheless, Colorado started drawing extra from the South Platte to assist booming inhabitants development, primarily within the Denver space. 

In January of this yr, Colorado officers launched an up to date plan for the South Platte, outlining nearly 300 attainable water diversion initiatives alongside the river. This listing of initiatives was simply hypothetical, nevertheless it caught the eye of Nebraska lawmakers. Governor Ricketts launched an announcement saying he was “vigilantly watching” the development of recent water infrastructure in Colorado, and he instructed the legislature “they’re attempting to take our water.” Regardless that water from the South Platte is way from important to the survival of Nebraskan agriculture, and regardless that Colorado already delivered way more to Nebraska than it wanted to underneath the treaty, Ricketts insisted the state wanted to guard its water rights from the rising liberal metropolis to the west.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts speaks on the Conservative Political Motion Convention in Nationwide Harbor, Maryland, in February 2017.
MIKE THEILER / AFP through Getty Photos

“It’s a little bit of a straw man,” Schutz, the College of Nebraska water regulation skilled, mentioned of Nebraska’s concern concerning the Colorado initiatives. “Quite a lot of these initiatives that [Colorado] is proposing wouldn’t really lower the provision of water.”

Even so, the century-old treaty gave Nebraska the theoretical rights to construct a canal of its personal, and the state had loads of cash to pursue such a challenge. That was due to President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which doled out billions of {dollars} of pandemic restoration assist to Nebraska and left the state with a significant budget surplus. The state’s unicameral legislature has spent most of this yr’s session looking for methods to spend down that surplus, and the $500 million canal challenge was an ideal candidate. The legislature passed a bill in April that allotted $50 million to start out canal development, sufficient to start out buying land in Colorado and conduct preliminary designs.

The legislature’s sudden transfer on the invoice got here as a shock to water specialists. As one Colorado water supervisor put it, “the water world was rocked” when the invoice handed. 

That’s as a result of, in keeping with Schutz, the very premise of the canal challenge is flawed. Ricketts argued that the canal would avert a “lower [in] agricultural water provides and [increased] pumping prices,” however neither situation is within the playing cards, even when Colorado’s inhabitants retains rising. Nebraska depends on groundwater for greater than 80 % of its farming irrigation, and the water that comes from the hypothetical canal would solely arrive in the course of the offseason anyway, so it wouldn’t assist the state’s farmers. In the meantime, the state’s water rights solely cowl one part of the South Platte, and Colorado has limitless rights over a bit of the river farther upstream, which means the Centennial State can maintain future development even with out encroaching on Nebraska’s water.

Moreover, Schutz says, it isn’t clear that there’s even sufficient water within the river to fill the canal, ought to it ever be constructed.

“For those who have a look at the quantity that’s coming in proper now, that’s most likely the utmost quantity of water that we’d ever get within the canal,” he instructed Grist. “And that isn’t quite a lot of water.” Not solely that, however the treaty additionally solely provides Nebraska the precise to construct a canal that can divert 500 cubic toes of water per second. It doesn’t really give the state the precise to that a lot water.

“From a political perspective, I believe that the governor needed to make Colorado into a nasty man, however then while you actually get into the weeds I don’t know the way dangerous of a man Colorado is,” Schutz mentioned, arguing that the state’s conservative authorities has been straining to search out methods to spend away the federal stimulus cash in order that lawmakers “don’t need to cope with the political dynamics of getting a bunch of additional money to spend on social applications.”

Because the invoice neared passage this spring, the 2 governors sniped forwards and backwards at one another within the media. Colorado Governor Polis known as the challenge a “boondoggle” and mentioned his state would “aggressively assert” its water rights. Ricketts shot again: “I didn’t know Jared Polis was so involved about taxpayers right here in Nebraska…. In truth, he’s by no means actually talked to me.”

For now the controversy is only a disagreement, nevertheless it may escalate if the canal strikes ahead. Colorado and Nebraska have sued one another previously over water, and certainly Colorado reached a settlement with Nebraska just some years in the past over claims that Colorado violated a water-sharing compact on a unique river. Constructing the canal would require Nebraska to buy or condemn farmland throughout state traces in Colorado, which might doubtless result in litigation from personal landowners as nicely. Colorado most likely wouldn’t sue Nebraska till the latter really started to construct the canal, but when it did sue, the dispute would go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court docket.

The truth that such a minor water challenge can generate a lot controversy is an indication that water safety is changing into a key political difficulty even in locations the place the drought scenario will not be but catastrophic. The century-old compact between Nebraska and Colorado, just like the treaties that anchor using the Colorado River farther to the west, was designed in an period of cooperation and compromise between the states. As water provides throughout the area proceed to fade, although, that interstate friendliness is vanishing with them. As an alternative has emerged a battle over the right way to stability competing pursuits like agriculture and concrete development. On this case, although, the battle is extra paying homage to a schoolyard combat than a grand political debate.


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