It's "an enormous change in habitat over the last century," says Ken Strom, manager of the National Audubon Society's Rowe Wildlife Refuge near Kearney, Neb.
Before 70 percent of the massive river system's flows were harnessed by reservoirs and diverted by canals, water spread for miles across the prairie in the spring, creating long stretches of sandbars and wetlands vital to whooping cranes, sandhill cranes and other migratory birds. It's now rare to find the Platte wider than a couple hundred yards in any single location.
"Historically, we would typically get a high flow when the snow melts in the Rockies in late May and June, and that high flow would scour out the river channel of anything that may have grown up the previous year," Strom says. "All the trees you see, all of the brush on the banks, and everything that's moved into the middle of the river channel has come in because the river has lost its water flow."
Those changes on the Platte are part of a controversy that has put the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the crosshairs of thirsty Colorado cities.
At issue is the renewal of special-use permits. They allow Greeley, Boulder, Fort Collins, Loveland and two private companies to operate reservoirs and pipelines in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests of northern Colorado. Now the Forest Service is considering renewing the permits but requiring cities to release "bypass flows' - specific amounts of water released at certain times of year - to maintain river habitat at minimum levels described in a forest management plan.
The two-year dispute over the Colorado permits has received national attention. Sen. Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican whose home town of Greeley is one of the cities battling the Forest Service, says the agency is guilty of "federal blackmail."
To fight the Forest Service in court, the Colorado Legislature recently talked about earmarking $4 million to help cities and water companies block new requirements on permits.
Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Elizabeth Estill, in a tough speech to a legislative committee April 27, asked "So what will we ask the judge to do? Cut the baby in two?" She told state representatives, "I think we can do better than embark on a suicide mission at the taxpayers' expense."
Estill reminded the committee that special-use water permits are not grants of a land right, "but merely a license to use for a time," and that "by law the Forest Service must protect the plants and animals who can't speak for themselves.
"The main issue remains that there are times when the streams are dry below water-use structures; whether they are dry for a few days, for several months, or even a few hours at a time, means that some fish, insects and plants will not be able to live there," Estill said.
On the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests alone, the Forest Service has issued some 100 special-use permits. More than 800 projects are subject to permits throughout the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region.
"As things go in Colorado, they tend to go other places," says Forest Supervisor M.M. (Skip) Underwood. "If it goes to litigation, it would be more precedential."
The controversy in Colorado began to heat up in 1992. Fearing new requirements on their permits, the cities complained to their congressional representatives. Eleven members of Congress - all from Western states - fired off a letter to then-Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan claiming the bypass flows amount to confiscation of property rights.
One month before the presidential election, Madigan ordered the Forest Service to issue new 20-year permits without bypass-flow requirements. Those permits were never issued.
The cities claim the Forest Service dragged its feet implementing Madigan's policy to see if a Democratic administration would rescind the order. But the agency says federal lawyers advised it that the issuance of special-use permits requires environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. Those studies had not been conducted when Madigan issued his order.
Environmental impact statements, environmental assessments and biological studies by both the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have since been completed for seven water projects in Colorado's Front Range.
Those studies found that the diversion projects contribute to the general loss of flow in the Platte River and thus affect habitat for endangered whooping cranes and least terns and threatened piping plovers in Nebraska. Farther downstream, reduced Platte River flows hurt the habitat of the endangered pallid sturgeon, a resident of the Missouri River. The projects also could affect Front Range species such as the threatened greenback cutthroat trout by reducing flows in Colorado mountain streams.
The Forest Service is considering two choices. The first, favored by the cities, would require the cities to enter into an agreement to cooperatively manage their reservoirs in each stream basin "to accommodate forest-plan goals to the extent possible." The cities of Greeley and Fort Collins, for example, say they have a plan that would allow them to trade water among their reservoirs and provide enough flows to maintain trout habitat in the river.
Environmentalists doubt voluntary arrangements would work. They favor a second alternative requiring bypass flows that maintain at least 40 percent of the aquatic habitat in the forest, the minimum required by the forest management plan.
"We would like to see the federal government exert its authority to require bypass flows," says Rich Domingue of Colorado Trout Unlimited. "Under a cooperative agreement there's no guarantee, and (permit holders) state very clearly that if they can't use the water, they won't release it. That doesn't work."
Forest Supervisor Underwood says he expects to issue his decision on the permits by the end of May, which leaves a 45-day period for administrative appeals before the July 31 deadline for final permit renewal.
Regional Forester Estill says public comments are running 4 to 1 in support of bypass flows to maintain ecosystems.
"What they want is to make sure recreation and tourism opportunities are going to be protected over the long haul, and they see bypass flows as a way to do that," Estill says.
Water plus money
Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that Colorado diversion projects jeopardize endangered species in the Platte River in Nebraska, the permit renewals are expected to contain provisions requiring the cities to contribute money for habitat improvement projects in central Nebraska, 400 miles downstream. The payments, currently in negotiation, would be an interim measure until officials from Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska create a basin-wide recovery program.
The agency recently recommended target flows to maintain whooping crane habitat in the 58-mile region of the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island. Those recommended flows in spring would come from federally permitted reservoirs in the three basin states.
David Bowman, Platte River coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Grand Island, Neb., says larger reservoirs would contribute more than smaller projects.
Getting the states to work together will not be easy. Water officials in the three states say they are willing to consider a basin-wide program but want to avoid any plan that involves federal interference in state water-allocation procedures.
The Audubon Society's Strom says while governments upstream argue, trees and brush are choking the Platte, pushing tens of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes into smaller and smaller stretches of the river.
"Ultimately, people are going to have to decide what are the limits of human uses of water," Strom says. "When the tradeoff is to water lawns and destroy entire species that have existed for 10 million years, somebody's got to say that something's out of kilter."
For more information, contact the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, 240 W. Prospect Road, Fort Collins, CO 80526-2098 (303/498-1100). For a transcript of Elizabeth Estill's statement before a Colorado Senate agricultural committee, call Dennis Neill at 303/257-5044.
* Bob Kretschman
Bob Kretschman is a reporter for the Greeley Tribune in Colorado.