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99-year-old compact requires Colorado to deliver water to Nebraska

The South Platte River Compact entitles Nebraska to Colorado water.

DENVER — The South Platte River system supplies water to the entire Front Range of Colorado and most of the northeast plains. 

The river's headwaters are high in the Mosquito Range, but other big rivers like the St. Vrain, Big Thompson and the Cache la Poudre also flow into the South Platte.

It is formed by snow and rain that falls in the Colorado mountains, but that doesn’t mean all the water is ours to keep. We must allow some water to continue into Nebraska.

In 1923, an agreement was struck between the two states called the South Platte River Compact. Colorado agreed to allow 120 cfs (cubic feet per second) of water to flow through the Julesburg gage at the Nebraska state line from April 1 through Oct. 15. That’s about 900 gallons of water per second.

Credit: Colorado State University Archives

If that river flow drops below that agreement, then Colorado must withhold junior water rights -- junior to 1897 -- on the lower part of the South Platte, which is between the Nebraska state line and the western Washington County line in Colorado, to get the flow back up.

“If we do that, and that does not improve the flows or the flows do not get back up to 120 cfs, we have complied with the compact," said Kevin Rein, the director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources. "We don’t need to continue taking other actions to try to deliver that amount.”

Rein said our state is diligent in its efforts to meet Colorado’s obligation to Nebraska. He said there have been years where the streamflow at Julesburg is below 120 cfs, but on all those occasions Colorado did curtail all the junior water rights on the lower South Platte. 

Rein also said his relationship with Nebraska water officials is strong, so he was caught off guard Monday by an announcement by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts to seek additional water from the South Platte.  

“We understand that the governor may have suggested that Colorado has been holding water back," Rein said. "And Colorado has not been holding water back. We use it according to the law and according to the compact, and we are not aware that Nebraska has been deprived of water that it believes it’s legally entitled to under the compact due to Colorado’s actions.”

RELATED: Nebraska announces $500M plan to claim water from Colorado

Ricketts did not specifically say in his press conference how he intends to get more water from Colorado, but he did say there was part of the South Platte Compact that gives Nebraska the right to build a canal on the Colorado side.

“The information that we have gotten points to the fact that Governor Ricketts is eluding to Article 6 of the compact," Rein said. "Article 6 does specifically identify a canal and diversions within Colorado, but we don’t know if that is their proposal for sure."

Rein said Ricketts has not directly communicated with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, so without knowing exactly what Nebraska's plan is, Colorado cannot evaluate how the compact may or may not apply. 

"I can tell you that I am proud of the way we live up to our responsibility to meet the compact and we do it very well," Rein said.

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