The Crestone Eagle • February, 2022

Nebraska Governor announces $500 million plan to claim water in South Platte—why this concerns the SLV

by Lisa Cyriacks

In a January press conference, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts announced that Nebraska would invoke its right to divert water from the South Platte River amid concerns that Colorado’s plans for the river could reduce water flows into his state by as much as 90%. The governor revealed a $500 million plan that could include canals to feed into a reservoir to store water for Nebraska’s use.

The South Platte River is one of two major tributaries of the Platte River. The South Platte River originates in the Rocky Mountains and flows through central Denver along US Interstate 76 into Nebraska, where it combines with the North Platte River into the Platte River, a major river in Nebraska.

In 1923 the two states—Colorado and Nebraska—signed a water-sharing agreement aka a “compact”.

Colorado released a report in January that identified 282 new projects within the South Platte River Basin on their side of the border, at a total cost of $9.87 billion.

“We are very concerned about what is going to happen with these projects,” Ricketts, a Republican, said at a news conference. The reduced streamflows “are going to have a dramatic impact on our ability to feed the world.”

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican, said Colorado has been issuing water usage permits that would cut into Nebraska’s rightful share.

This isn’t Colorado’s only front in the ongoing battle over water, an increasingly scarce commodity.

Douglas County Commissioners are currently considering a plan to supplement their water supply by bringing water from the San Luis Valley (SLV) to their county. Douglas County relies primarily on water from the Denver Basin. The South Platte serves as a principal source of water for the Colorado Front Range and the Eastern Plains.

Renewable Water Resources (RWR) is proposing to move 20,000 acre-feet of water annually from the San Luis Valley’s aquifer to Douglas County. RWR is asking Douglas County for an initial investment of $30 million. If Douglas County agrees, the $20 million would come from American Rescue Plan Act stimulus money.

RWR needs to find a customer like Douglas County to move its export proposal forward. RWR asserts there is ample water in the valley’s aquifer.

On the same day that Douglas County Commissioners met with RWR’s engineer, Bruce Lytle, in the SLV the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board met to discuss the bleak picture of the valley’s aquifers’ current water supply.

Recent studies show that there is no water available that can leave the valley to the Front Range without disrupting the local economy’s water supply.

Experts at the RGWCD meeting reported that expected snow melt runoff from Medano Creek within the Great Sand Dunes National Park is at 50% of normal. The valley just experienced its fourth hottest year on record.

The unconfined aquifer, which provides irrigation water, has not recharged this winter as it typically does during the off-irrigation season.

Producers in Subdistrict 5 of the conservation district (western Saguache County) will likely face another irrigation season where groundwater wells are shut down.

It makes no sense to pump water out of the San Luis Valley during a time when farmers in the area are making self-imposed water cuts on their irrigated land to better balance out their demands with their supplies.

RWR’s proposal lies in the northeastern end of the valley. Lytle, the engineer for RWR, said they expect to have 22 to 25 groundwater wells pumping, with the well depth at 2,000 feet and wells spaced a mile apart.

The San Luis Creek runs through the middle of the wellfield and Rio Alto Creek through the southwestern side. Both these creeks supply the wetlands on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge created under the Great Sand Dunes National Park Act.

RGWCD plans to challenge RWR’s proposal in the Water Court. “We can’t see a path forward without injury or that would comply with rules and regulations as they exist today,” Simpson said.

Aqua es vida – Water is life.