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Nebraska and Colorado are fighting over water rights. As rivers dry up, it may become the new normal

Stephanie Elamand Jason Clavarick, CNN

Colorado-Nebraska border ( CNN)Residents of this state border have built industry, economy and livelihoods around the South Platte River. However, the flow diminished as thesevere and widespread droughtdug into the High Plains.

Nebraska didn't want to let things happen by accident, so he called up a century-old water compact print between the two states, creating new tensions in the process.

In April, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts signed a law permitting Nebraska to build a canal in Colorado and draw water from the South Platte River, within the terms of compactness. did.

In response, Colorado Governor Jared Polis described the plan as "a costly and misguided political stunt."

But climatologists say it can happen more often as droughts spread in the western and central parts of the United States, water supplies are depleted, and tensions between urban growth and agriculture worsen. It states that there is.

"We experience drought every 20 years, but not on this scale," said Tom Cech, former co-director of the One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University in Denver. Stated. "We are riding the wave of water rights battles in the West. This is the driest thing in 1200."

Who has the rights?

The South Platte River runs northeast from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado through Denver and along I-76 towards Nebraska. Along the way, the city gives way to miles of farms and ranches on either side of the Colorado-Nebraska border.

However, much of the land is now brown.

Due to concerns about the amount (or small amount) of water flowing through the South Pratt River, Ricketts built a canal on land in Colorado, a non-autumn and winter irrigation month.

"Without this compact and the ability to exercise our rights, we would have a dramatic impact on our state," Ricketts said at a press conference in April. Pointed out Colorado's ever-growing population and its estimated $ 10 billion for 282 new projects along the South Pratt River. "If all long-term goals are affected, the amount of water flow to Nebraska will be reduced by 90%."

The rationale was frowned upon in Colorado.

"In fact, many of these projects don't always bear fruit," Colorado state engineer and Colorado Water Resources Director Kevin Rhein told CNN, and the state uses. Said that it is reducing. Ensure that Nebraska has access to the water it has rights to, based on water rights priorities.

"In the 99-year history of Compact, we have adhered to those provisions of Compact," Rhein said. "They are getting what they agree on."

Despite Denver's growing population, Rein said less water was used for conservation efforts. Said. However, the state acknowledges that future expansions may impact supply.

"Development along the South Platte River can begin to diminish as it moves down the river, down the river, and finally towards Nebraska," Rhein said. Stated.

At the same time, canal construction will affect Colorado's water rights, Rhein said. But overall, he believes compact is good for Colorado.

"In fact, two states are doing well," he explained. "What we have is good for the farmers in Colorado, as well as for the Nebraska farmers in the area who are part of the community and cooperating, and they can be affected.

The South Platte River Compact allows 500 cubic feet of water per second in Nebraska during the fall and winter months from October 15th to April 1st (conditions apply). ..

However, from spring and summer, April 1st and October 15th, Nebraska's quota will be reduced to 120 cubic feet per second.

But critically, due to the compactness, Nebraska built a canal on the land of Colorado, diverting water from South Platte "for irrigation of the land of Nebraska" and "Nebraska and its citizens." Gives the right to acquire by purchase. Prescription, or exercise of prominent territory "land required for the construction and maintenance of the canal.

To date, the Nebraska Legislature has approved $ 53.5 million for the Perkins County Canal Project Fund for "land purchase design, engineering, permits, and options." The state also said it hired an independent consulting firm to perform cost and timeline analysis. The study will be submitted to the Nebraska Legislature by the end of the year.

In the midst of this political tug of war were captured farmers, ranchers, and their communities around South Platte in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. canal.

'No one wants to lose their property'

History is everywhere in Julesburg, Colorado. There is a Pony Express trail and Fort Kosofsky immortalized in the 1990 movie "Dances with Wolves".

For Jay Goddard, a banker and fifth-generation rancher in this corner of Colorado, history literally extends throughout his land.

Goddard's ranch has 2.5 miles of scars since Nebraska began digging a canal in Perkins County more than a century ago.

"Well, obviously no one wants to lose their property," Goddard told CNN as he walked the rest of the ditch, with the interstate and Nebraska visible in the distance. .. The ground on his ranch is dry and brittle. "Usually some of these lagoons are pooled and are now completely dry."

He is also concerned about the impact of canals on the overall health of the river. doing.

"I hope the river doesn't slow down during the winter. There are many hunters in the area. There are many good wildlife such as geese, turkeys, deer and ducks. Migration. I'm worried that the river will dry up at the wrong time because it will come at that time. "

Not only will it hurt Tourism and the economy in Julesberg, but it will also affect businesses in the neighborhood. Goddard explained that the borders are porous and that many people like him are active in both states.

"I want to make sure that my [agriculture] producers and those who are banking on our [agriculture] lenders are well cared for on both sides of the line," Goddard said. Said.

On the other side of Nebraska, peasant Darrell Armstrong sees the problem as a "agriculture and city" battle, not Nebraska vs. Colorado.

"Many agreements so far feel that [rural areas] are in short supply," Armstrong told CNN. "People who supported the agreement had nothing to do with signing the agreement."

According to Chef, the plateau's population growth was made possible by agriculture.

"Without irrigation in Colorado (western), probably only prickly pear and sage brushes will grow," Chef said. "Water is the key to economic growth not only in Colorado and western Nebraska, but also in California and the western part in general."

As Armstrong called "very catastrophic" the drought prolongs. The conditions for his business have become stricter. "We are seeing potentially zero production of water-free dryland crops," he said.

He agrees with Goddard that South Pratt needs to be protected.

"South plats are basically the lifeline of our surface aquifers, so somehow we need to keep them up and running," Armstrong said. "We are seeing more and more down the river from what was in the past."

The proceedings could delay Nebraska's progress on the canal project. But for now, these farms and ranches have more questions than answers.

"What can they do to me so that it doesn't affect not only my production, but other producers in the field?" Rancher Goddard wonders. I thought.

A new era of water war has just begun in an era of unprecedented climate change, with rivers drying up and despair flowing.

"I believe that human nature is our greatest barrier to managing western water," Chef said.