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Nebraska governor to claim eminent domain over Colorado in fight over water supply

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Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts is considering using eminent domain to take land in Colorado to build a canal off the South Platte River, saying a 99-year-old agreement allows him to do so.

The two states signed the South Platte River Compact in April 1923, granting each of them various rights in connection with the river. In an interview with Fox News Digital, Ricketts said nearly 300 projects announced by Colorado over the years for the South Platte River Basin pose a threat to Nebraska’s water access.


“Nebraska’s producers – our farmers and ranchers – feed the world. And after our people, water is Nebraska’s greatest natural resource,” Ricketts said, adding that if Colorado goes through with all of its plans, “They would reduce the amount of water coming to us by 90% and that would have a dramatic impact on our condition.”

The South Platte River in Denver on March 3, 2021.
(Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As for Nebraska taking land from Colorado to build its canal, the pact allows each state to invoke eminent domain for specific reasons. For Nebraska, the agreement says it can do so to build and operate a canal to divert Colorado water from the river to irrigate Nebraska lands.

“Colorado consents that Nebraska and its citizens may hereafter construct, maintain and operate such canal and thereby divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado for use in Nebraska, in the manner and at the time provided in this section, and grants Nebraska and its citizens the right to acquire by purchase, prescription, or exercise of eminent domain any rights of way, easements, or lands necessary for the construction, maintenance and operation of the canal,” the pact states.


Ricketts believes this provision covers his canal, which he says is necessary due to projects in Colorado that he says will not only hurt Nebraska’s industry, but also Omaha’s water supply. and Lincoln, the two largest cities in the state.

Nebraska governor to claim eminent domain over Colorado in fight over water supply

Dust blows as Oscar Ortiz, a rider with Cure Feeders, works with cattle on September 13, 2017 in Idalia, Colorado.
(RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Ricketts said construction of a canal began in 1894, but stopped due to lack of funds. This new channel would cost around $500 million. Ricketts has yet to reveal where the money will come from to fund it, but teased that details will come in Thursday’s State of the State Address.

Ricketts said he has not heard from Colorado Governor Jared Polis since announcing his plan for the canal. Polis’ office, however, said it was against it.

“The governor just learned of this situation Tuesday morning, and we are working to understand it in more depth at this time, including a legal and operational analysis,” a Polis spokesperson said in a statement to Fox News. “Governor Polis will continue to fight for Colorado’s water rights and interests in interstate compacts and to oppose the diversion of Colorado’s precious water resources.”

Polis later released a new statement reiterating its desire to “aggressively protect and assert Colorado’s rights”, saying “Colorado has fully complied with the South Platte Compact for the 99 years that the agreement has been in place.” .

Nebraska governor to claim eminent domain over Colorado in fight over water supply

Ronnie Crawford fishing in the South Platte River in Denver on May 13, 2013.
(Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Polis insisted that Colorado was not withholding water from Nebraska, that the plans that had been discussed “should not be considered officially approved projects that will be implemented”, and that any plan that was put implemented would be “subject to major conversations, including with Nebraska.”


“We hope to better understand Nebraska’s concerns and goals, because so far those concerns and goals are just hard to understand,” Polis said. “Our long-standing compliance and respect for the interstate water agreement on the South Platte River remains intact, and we hope our partners in Nebraska will show that they share that respect.”

“Colorado and Nebraska have a long history of working together on our interstate water issues because of Colorado’s privileged status as an upstream state,” Polis added. “However, any actual project proposed by Nebraska in Colorado would be subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it complies with the covenant, private property rights, Colorado water law and federal and state environmental obligations, as endangered species issues, among others, are of critical importance on the South Platte River. I look forward to a productive dialogue with Governor Ricketts on the important issues of the water development and the protection of our natural resources in Colorado and Nebraska.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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