Ricketts pays unannounced visit to possible routes of controversial Perkins County Canal

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts paid an unannounced tour of possible routes for the Perkins County Canal Project this week and said drought conditions in Nebraska are making construction of the controversial project even more critical.

“This visit has reinforced the need for us to protect every drop of water in the South Platte River that we can,” Ricketts said in a press release. “The Perkins County Canal is essential to that end.”

This spring, Ricketts offered to resurrect the long-dormant Perkins County Canal Project, estimated at $500 million, saying it was the only way Nebraska could reclaim non-irrigation period flows from the South Platte River secured in a compact river with the Colorado.

Compact entitles you to water

The governor also said Nebraska must claim its rightful share of the river’s flows before Colorado and its fast-growing Front Range capture it instead.

Drought conditions dried up South Platte River flows east of Ogallala near Roscoe. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

The project promises to expand areas of irrigated cropland in southwestern Nebraska, which is experiencing drought conditions this year. At one location visited on the South Platte River, east of Ogallala, there was no flow in the river.

Colorado officials condemned the proposal, calling it a “duct to nowhere” and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Some Nebraska lawmakers have wondered how the canal project, which was scrapped a century ago for being too expensive, suddenly became a priority. And environmental groups have expressed concerns about the impact of flows that support fish and wildlife on the Platte River system.

On Thursday, it was revealed that Ricketts had visited parts of the South Platte River Basin two days earlier.

A news release from the governor’s office said the visit, which was not announced on the governor’s weekly public schedule, offered “first-hand insight into drought conditions and included a windshield survey of routes possible and reservoir locations for the Perkins County Canal. ”

Report due in December

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Sen. Mike Hilgers, and Tom Riley, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director, were also on the trip.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said Friday that the trip was not on the public schedule because the tour was not open to the public or the media.

An independent report on the costs, benefits and water supply of the proposal is expected to be completed in December.

The canal would begin in northeast Colorado and cross Nebraska somewhere south of the South Platte, either in Perkins or Deuel counties, before joining the river. A series of tanks would be part of the project, officials said.

Tom Riley, Director of the NE Department of Natural Resources.
Tom Riley, director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, called the Perkins County Canal the most significant water project of his 35-year career. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Riley said his department is “following the path set by the (Nebraska) legislature” in working toward a fully functional canal and reservoir system within a few years.

Searching for options on land

“This includes a study of the project, as well as preliminary design and construction plans,” Riley said. “In the meantime, we are actively seeking option agreements for properties along the general canal corridor.”

Nebraska would have the power of eminent domain, even in Colorado, to legally obtain land for the canal if a landowner refused to sell. The use of eminent domain often becomes controversial in rural areas, and has resulted in lawsuits over its use for the now-abandoned Keystone XL pipeline.

Riley added that Nebraska officials continue to “engage regularly” with their Colorado counterparts about the project.

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