Don Schneider tinkers with seed-dispensing gear on a massive corn planter shortly after dawn on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. The task for the day: carefully sowing hundreds of acres of seed between long rows of last year’s desiccated stalks to ensure the irrigation water he’s collected over the winter lasts until harvest.
Steve Hanson, a fifth-generation Nebraska cattle breeder who also produces corn and other crops, is preparing to seed a two-hour drive east, having stored winter water to help ensure his products make it to market. Like Schneider and many others in this semi-arid region, he wants his children and grandchildren to be able to work the rich soil that their forefathers homesteaded in the 1800s.
Schneider and Hanson find themselves on opposing sides of a looming, politically charged dispute over water similar to that previously reserved for the parched United States states along the Colorado River Basin.
As a megadrought caused by climate change moves eastward, Nebraska’s Republican-controlled legislature voted this year to move forward with a plan that stunned Colorado state leaders. The Cornhusker State wants to divert water from Colorado by invoking a cryptic, 99-year-old treaty that allows Nebraska to seize Colorado land along the South Platte River to build a canal.
Nebraska’s plan reflects a growing desire throughout the West to secure water in advance as winter snows and year-round rainfall decline, forcing states to reallocate increasingly scarce flows in basins such as the South Platte and its more famous cousin, the Colorado River.
Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, provided few details in requesting $500 million in cash reserves and one-time federal pandemic funds for the project, other than to say it will benefit agriculture, power generation, and municipal drinking water. Ricketts has criticized Colorado proposals to siphon or store more South Platte water, particularly in the rapidly growing Denver metro area, saying they endanger Nebraska’s water rights hundreds of miles downstream.
According to Kevin Rein, Colorado’s state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Colorado will not legally challenge Nebraska’s right to a canal under the compact for the time being. “On the other side of that coin,” Rein said, “we’ll make every effort to ensure that their operation is in compliance with the compact” and protects Colorado’s rights.
The South Platte River flows 380 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Nebraska border, passing through the Colorado town of Julesburg. Depending on the season, it may appear to disappear in places only to reappear downstream. With heavy snowmelt or flooding, it can turn into a torrent. Cottonwood trees line its banks, and sandbars give the impression that it is made up of several creeks in many places.
The Nebraska Legislature appropriated $53.5 million for an engineering study for the project, which, as originally envisioned in the compact, would begin near Schneider’s farm in Ovid and run at least 24 miles into Nebraska’s Perkins County, where Hanson’s operations are based.
Schneider and his neighbors use surplus South Platte water in the winter to supplement wells used to irrigate crops in the summer. This water eventually finds its way back into the South Platte. Schneider claims that if Nebraska claims winter water under the compact, the alternative — non-irrigated dryland farming — means lower crop yields, fewer farms, and fewer jobs.
The 1898 canal digging effort can still be seen in Julesburg, where grass-lined ditches run into the modern-day Julesburg cemetery, Interstate 76, and even the Colorado Welcome Center at the state line.
Farmers on both sides say they’d like to see a solution that benefits everyone. Everyone agrees that a canal project will take years to complete — and that if disputes arise, water law or eminent domain attorneys could have a field day.