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

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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts is planning to use eminent domain to take land in Colorado to build a canal off the South Platte River, claiming that a 99-year-old agreement allows him to do it.

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 that nearly 300 projects Colorado has announced over the years for the South Platte River Basin pose a threat to Nebraska’s water access.

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“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 will reduce the amount of water coming to us by 90% and that would have a dramatic impact on our state.”

The South Platte River in Denver March 3, 2021. 

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

As far as Nebraska taking Colorado land to build its canal, the compact does allow each state to invoke eminent domain for specific reasons. For Nebraska, the agreement says it can do this to construct and operate a canal to divert water in Colorado from the river to irrigate Nebraska lands.

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

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Ricketts believes this provision covers his canal, which he believes is necessary because of Colorado’s plans that he fears would not just hurt Nebraska’s industry, but also the water supply for Omaha and Lincoln, the state’s two biggest cities.

Dust flies up as Oscar Ortiz, a pen rider at Cure Feeders, works with cattle on Sept. 13, 2017 in Idalia, Colo.

Dust flies up as Oscar Ortiz, a pen rider at Cure Feeders, works with cattle on Sept. 13, 2017 in Idalia, Colo.
(RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

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

Ricketts said he had not heard from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis since announcing his plan for the canal. Polis’s office, however, indicated that he’s against it.

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

Later on, Polis issued a new statement reiterating his desire to “to protect and aggressively assert Colorado’s rights,” claiming that “Colorado has been in full compliance with the South Platte Compact for the 99 years the agreement has been in place.”

Ronnie Crawford fishes the South Platte River in Denver May 13, 2013. 

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

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

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“We hope to more fully understand Nebraska’s concerns and goals, as so far those concerns and goals are quite simply hard to make sense of,” Polis said. “Our longstanding compliance of and respect for the water agreement between our states on the South Platte River remains intact, and we hope that our partners in Nebraska will show that they share that respect.”

“Colorado and Nebraska have long worked together on our interstate water issues because of Colorado’s privileged status as a headwaters state,” Polis added. “However, any actual proposed project by Nebraska in Colorado would receive rigorous review to ensure it is in compliance with the compact, private property rights, Colorado water law and state and federal environmental obligations, as endangered species issues among others are of critical concern on the South Platte River. I look forward to a productive dialogue with Governor Ricketts on the important issues of water development and protection of our natural resources in both Colorado and Nebraska.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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