A South Platte River water storage win at the Capitol

The first step to building a reservoir or dam to capture millions of gallons of water flowing down the South Platte River won unanimous approval last week at the state Capitol.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, an Ignacio Republican, has been sounding the siren call on South Platte storage for the past year. It’s an idea area residents have talked about for generations.

Millions of gallons of water flow into Nebraska, far exceeding the amount required under the Colorado-Nebraska compact that governs South Platte water use. And Colorado wants and needs to keep that water.

The question lawmakers have to answer now is how to store the water and more importantly, where.

A proposed storage project in the Narrows Valley near Fort Morgan won congressional approval several decades ago. But building a dam or reservoir anywhere on the main channel of the South Platte won’t work, said Eric Wilkerson of Northern Water, a water provider leading the effort to build a new dam on the Poudre River.

The trouble is that there isn’t anywhere to store that water. Existing reservoirs aren’t large enough, and that means water rushing to Nebraska floods fields and basements along the way.

Water advocates point to several possible methods of collecting and storing that water, including funneling it into underground storage or by expanding existing reservoirs. But there is no silver bullet solution.

Brown’s bill, which was heard last week by the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Energy Committee, calls for a study to identify ways to store more water.

The bill sailed through the Democrat-controlled Ag Committee, a needed political victory for Brown, whose seat has been targeted by Democrats. The 13-member committee includes Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.

“We can’t keep depending on the Western Slope for water for Front Range growth,” Brown told the Ag Committee Monday. He warned that without more storage, the Front Range will have to rely on agricultural buy-and-dry, the practice where municipal water providers buy irrigated farmland for the water rights.

These buy-and-dry deals have dried out thousands of acres of farmland, mostly on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

In Crowley County, for example, buy-and-dry has left this once agriculturally-prosperous county with one-tenth of the farmland it had before the 1970s, devastating the economy.

Colorado faces a massive water shortage. By 2050, due in part to an expected doubling of the state’s population, the state could be short a million acre-feet of water a year, according to the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative, a study commissioned by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. An acre-foot of water is the amount it would take to cover one acre of land with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.

Finding a way to store excess water on the South Platte would help agricultural production and enhance the state’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act, Brown said. It also would improve migratory bird and wildlife habitats in Colorado.

The bill has the support of the Hickenlooper administration. James Eklund, head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told the committee the bill would be a step forward in addressing the state’s water needs outlined in the state water plan.

Rep. KC Becker, a Democrat whose district includes Boulder and west-of-the-Continental Divide counties such as Grand and Jackson, pointed out the problems of resuscitating the Narrows idea.

She noted former Commissioner of Ag and state Rep. Don Ament of Sterling gave the project a thumbs down just a few months ago. Ament has been Colorado’s representative on a three-state Platte River recovery program for close to 20 years. The program handles negotiations over the Platte River water supply and how it satisfies environmental concerns, particularly in Wyoming and Nebraska.

Ament told the Interim Water Resources Review Committee last October that storage on the South Platte would take pressure off of agriculture, which faces its own water shortfall in the future.

Two counties in Colorado — Weld and Yuma — are among the top 20 in the nation’s most productive agricultural counties, he said.

In the last six years, Ament said, the South Platte has sent four million acre-feet of water into Nebraska over and above what’s required in the compact.

The Narrows Project would have been the largest earthen dam in the world, and it had strong support for years, including two congressional approvals. But President Jimmy Carter, based on recommendations from the US Fish & Wildlife Service that the project would harm Nebraska wildlife habitats, vetoed the project in the late 1970s.

In the intervening years, some of the land planned for the Narrows site has been developed or turned into agricultural land, although the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which acquired land for the project, still owns much of the site and has not declassified the project, according to Ament.

A project as large as the Narrows, estimated at a million acre-feet of water storage, isn’t feasible, Ament said.

Other sites have been identified, even gravel pits. What’s needed are many smaller places to hold water, rather than a massive one, he said.

The study would look at storage possibilities along the South Platte from Greeley to Julesburg.

Ament also discussed the relationship between South Platte storage and the state’s compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

“When you divert water from the South Platte, you’re responsible for impacts on birds at Grand Island,” Nebraska, Ament said.

The state has no choice but to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act in every possible way, Ament said, because it “trumps everything this legislature does and anything anyone else does, including water users. When they declare we have Endangered Species Act problems in Grand Island, Nebraska and we’re big water users, we have to do something.”

Brown indicated Monday any storage solution should take into account a state guarantee of its continued compliance with the Act.

Eklund added the state’s looming water shortfall is most critical in the areas along the South Platte, whose headwaters are in the mountains just south of metro Denver and flow downstream to Julesburg and into Nebraska. “Big gains” in water supply can be made on the South Platte, he said.

The bill, which would study storage solutions, carries a cost of $250,000, to be paid out of a fund under the control of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s basin roundtables, state-authorized groups that work on water issues and include representatives from city and county governments, and agricultural, recreational, environmental and industrial interests.

Eklund said the CWCB, which will conduct the study, will rely as much as possible on existing data rather than reinventing the wheel.

Storage on the South Platte wouldn’t just help with the state’s water shortfall, Eklund said. It also would help people with low-priority water rights who might not otherwise get the water they need.

The only opposition to Brown’s bill came from Trout Unlimited’s David Nickum, who said he sympathized with Western Slope residents who fear the water shortfall will require more diversions of mountain water into the Front Range.

A new dam or reservoir on the main channel of the South Platte would affect water quality and stream habitats, Nickum said, suggesting a better solution would be underground aquifers or storage along South Platte tributaries.

The fear of another transmountain diversion prompted concerns from Rep. Diane Mitsch-Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat. She proposed an amendment to ensure the study wouldn’t look at mountain water as a way to fill a South Platte reservoir.

The bill goes onto the House Appropriations Committee for funding approval.

Photo credit: Photo credit Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. Oh, yay! Another water study. Nothing better to fight over in the West than water – liquid gold.

    In November 2003, Referendum A was defeated. A sad defeat for Colorado to control its water rights and provide for the future. Ref A would have gotten the financing lined up before projects were approved. Financing is critical. Nobody buys a house unless they have been pre-approved for mortgage financing.

    Anyways, good luck with the study. Colorado needs to keep the issue of water use and conservation alive and people talking and consultants busy.

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