Saving the Platte

On one of the most spoken-for rivers in the West, environmentalists, irrigators and state and federal governments thread their way through a tenuous agreement

  • Platte River

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • The endangered whooping crane

    Nebraskaland Magazine/Game and Parks Commission
  • OVERCOMMITTED: Platte River

    Nebraskaland Magazine/NE Game and Parks Commission
  • PASSING THROUGH: Sandhill cranes on the Platte

    William J. Weber photo
  • JUST HOLDING ON: Least tern

    Nebraskaland Magazine/Neb. Game and Parks Commission
  • Piping plover

    Nebraskaland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
  • Old Bayard Bridge on North Platte in Nebraska

    U.S. Geological Survey, Williams GP52
  • All that is left of Bayard Bridge is some old piers

    USGS photo, Williams GP 54
  • Lake McConaughy, largest reservoir on the Platte

    Nebraskaland Magazine
  • Cartoon: Water users lining up to get their share (wildlife is last)

    Paul Fell
 

Note: a front-page editors note accompanies this feature story as a sidebar.

The new era for the Platte River began in a downstairs Stouffer Inn conference room in Denver in December 1993. Or maybe it began a few months later in Kearney, Neb.

Or maybe it began sometime around then in a meeting room at Wyoming's capitol building in Cheyenne. It's hard to pin it down, because it was the kind of turning point you don't recognize until long after you've gone through it.

Still, the Denver meeting could be described as a possible beginning. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, the nation's chief official for attempting to sort out seemingly impossible natural-resources conflicts, came from Washington, D.C., to take a seat that might have been positioned, symbolically, in the middle of the room.

Surrounding him were tables occupied by several dozen key people who compete for percentages of the Platte River - water developers representing hundreds of farms and dozens of cities, environmentalists representing endangered species and an ecosystem under stress, local officials representing the water cultures of the three very different states along the river, and the attorneys.

It was tense enough - a test of whether there was any chance that all the competing interests could agree on some reform in managing the river. It would either begin to restore aspects of the natural river or blow up in increased conflict.

The odds for restoration didn't look good.

The Platte is the river that defines the vast edge of the West, where the mountains slide into the Great Plains. Flowing more than a thousand miles from headwaters in the Colorado Rockies, across the plains of Colorado and Wyoming and the entire length of Nebraska to join with the Missouri River, the Platte gathers water from 90,000 square miles.

Its headwaters have the mountain personality - originating in snowpack along the Continental Divide, gathering in flashy streams that plunge down brief, narrow canyons. The plunge concludes abruptly on the flatland, where the water mellows to the other extreme, slowing and settling into the wide-bed tributaries, the North and South Platte. By the time the tributaries converge in Nebraska into a stretch called the Central Platte, the riverbed can be almost perfectly flat - dropping only seven feet per mile.

In total flow, the Platte is a trickle compared to the West's trademark rivers - averaging about 1.3 million acre-feet per year where the tributaries converge. The Colorado River's flow averages 11 times larger, and the Columbia, fully 120 times larger. Yet the Platte's water might be the most aggressively harnessed, blocked by 15 major dams and siphoned into thousands of canals, ditches and other projects.

More than a million city people in Colorado and 100,000 in Wyoming, and much of the agricultural economy in both states depend on the river.

Nebraska's development of the river has taken the form of intensively irrigated agriculture - hundreds of square miles of corn and soy fields whose harvest goes directly into local feedlots for cattle. It's estimated that in some stretches each drop of the Platte gets used eight times, as most of the diverted water returns to the river again and again, directly through treatment plants and agricultural runoffs or seeping back through the aquifer.

Not that it operates smoothly - when you treat a river like a grab bag, you get perpetual arguing about who owns which drop. The states have considered their segments as separate fiefdoms; so have the users within each state and at times the environmentalists who speak for fish and other wildlife. They tend to eye their neighbors upstream and downstream with suspicion, and they've papered the river with lawsuits, court decrees and elaborate water-delivery plans to divvy it up.

And development of the river impacts wildlife, most noticeably on the Central Platte. But the threat to wildlife isn't immediately apparent. With the flow organized and evened out, the bed along the Central Platte never goes dry, so it might be the best-looking stretch of river, at least to the uninformed eye.

The banks are lined by woods, so that from the air, the river seems to thrive as a vein of wild vegetation amid the farms. The stretch is rich with birds, including 1,000 bald eagles that winter over and millions of migrators - ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and shorebirds that stop in for a few weeks each spring and fall, migrating between winter refuges in the Caribbean and summer nesting grounds in Canada.

Also migrating through are a significant percentage of the world's few remaining whooping cranes - charismatic, graceful wading birds that stand five feet tall with seven-foot wingspans, feathered pure white except for dabs of red around the eyes and black on the wingtips.

There are only 185 whooping cranes left. They're on the federal list of endangered species. Their decline is linked to problems at both ends of the flyway, but the Central Platte figures in. Before development, the river's flow on the Central Platte averaged two-and-a-half to four times what it does today, depending on who's doing the estimating. The water that's missing evaporates from reservoirs and canals or percolates away.

The water used to come rushing down in the springtime, as the distant snowpack melted, to spread out hundreds of yards wide on the Central Platte, creating shallows, many sandbars and islands, and seasonally wet meadows along the banks. As the runoff would subside, the bed would go dry as much as six months a year - the summer trickle from the mountains would simply vanish into the prairie. The opposite extremes of floods and summer droughts discouraged plant growth, so that instead of being wooded, many banks and islands were bare.

The whooping crane evolved to depend on that, eating the snails and worms in the wet meadows, wading around freely, nesting in the open, always with a view of any approaching predators. Other birds of the open river habitat include the least tern, also listed as endangered, and the piping plover, listed as threatened. Farther downriver, where the Platte blends into the Missouri River, the pallid sturgeon, a fish that dates back to prehistoric times, is also listed as endangered.

The rare wildlife species need more water than they're getting, or the water should be timed more naturally, to simulate the old spring floods and sweep away the invasive vegetation. That's what the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the environmentalists' scientists believe. That's what led to the meeting six years ago in the downstairs conference room in Denver's Stouffer Inn.

Even as the meeting got under way, other attempts around the West to reform developed rivers weren't doing well. Four years of effort on a pair of rivers in Nevada - the Truckee and the Carson - were blowing up; farmers in Nevada were abandoning the negotiations there, fearing they'd have to give too much water back to wildlife. There was also a kind of stalemate on the Columbia River system, with the various federal agencies hardly able to agree on one clumsy plan (barging and trucking salmon around dams without much change in overall river management), and the states and Indian tribes holding to several more drastic plans to help the salmon.

In California, the Bay Area rivers process had gone to the top, pushing a bill through Congress calling for reform. But on the ground and riverbanks still no agreement had been reached on how to carry out that reform; in California, it was the environmentalists who feared they'd give up too much.

Regardless of all the warning signs and failures elsewhere, the Platte River consensus process took hold. No one can say exactly what the crucial breakthrough was, as meeting followed meeting. It seemed a process of subtleties, which continues today all around the river basin.

The new era on the Platte, if it is successful, will mean people along the river acknowledge the way water moves through a landscape, how all the users touch each other, and how the river connects with groundwater and the wildlife habitat. No one can ever again blast out of this closed circle unilaterally with a new well field, a new dam or a blistering regulation.

Instead, everyone will have to work together.

People talk about it the way Doug Robothom, assistant to the director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, does: "Some days you make progress and other days you wonder what the hell you're doing. You have some difficult people and some people emerge as leaders and some are thinking creatively and finding a middle ground. There are endless little goat paths you go down, and those frustrations. It can be very tense at times."

And the way Jay Maher, environmental resources manager for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, talks about it: "People have to make sure their needs are being met and the other guy isn't getting away with anything."

And Dave Sands, head of the Nebraska chapter of the Audubon Society: "There's been a lot of fighting and antagonism and nothing has been done for the river, nothing to restore flows to the endangered species. I see this as a way to stop the antagonism and start on the road to recovery."

These days, credit for the apparent progress is claimed by people in just about every camp.

A gathering of selfish interests

When Babbitt showed up at the Stouffer Inn, he and the rest of the Clinton administration had been in power about a year, preaching consensus. Babbitt already had expertise in water - he'd overseen a reform of Arizona's groundwater management during the 1980s, when he was governor there, and his assistant secretary, Rieke, had also come from Arizona and been instrumental there.

The local situation was ready for a fresh strategy. Until then, the strategy was to attempt to reform one project at a time - occasionally some new dam was proposed, or some existing dam or diversion came up for renewal of a federal permit, and the feds and environmentalists would try to apply specific leverage.

In particular, two environmental groups - the Audubon Society and the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust, which preserves some acreage along the Central Platte - were targeting Kingsley Dam. The dam holds back McConaughy Reservoir, the largest reservoir on the river, siphoning a quarter million acre-feet per year off to farms and hydropower generators, but it was vulnerable because its license to generate power was expiring.

Studies of how the dam could be adjusted to help the wildlife downriver had bogged down. An arbitrator had failed. Opposing lawsuits had been filed by environmentalists and a group of farmers.

"It was delay after delay after delay," says Paul Currier, executive director of the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust. Even as the delay dragged on, a half-dozen projects far upriver, in the Colorado headwaters, also came up for renewal, including diversionary pipelines and reservoirs for Front Range cities such as Fort Collins, Boulder and Greeley. Also, Wyoming was proposing some new projects for its farmers and cities.

So the federal government gained leverage at numerous points around the river basin.

With more at stake, political support for a consensus process began to materialize, from the ground up and the top down. In an expanded series of meetings around the river states, the hammer of the Endangered Species Act helped keep everyone talking. Finally a tangible milestone was was reached - the first written agreement, in July 1994, a Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the feds and the governors of the three states.

The memo of agreement was only six pages, so sketchy it was hard to disagree with, saying the negotiations would continue with the stated goal of harnessing the entire river basin's development to help the wildlife, somehow. It was, says participant Dan Luecke, who works for the Environmental Defense Fund in Boulder, Colo., "an agreement on the shape of the table."

A second series of difficult meetings began to figure out how to carry out the goal. Negotiators gathered in uninspiring motels and government offices strung along Interstate 80 - in Cheyenne, Lincoln, Kearney, Omaha and Grand Island. Whenever it was Denver's turn again, they moved from motel to motel or to the regional Fish and Wildlife Service office.

For a while they settled in the Continental Airlines frequent-flyer conference room in Denver's new airport, because it, too, was convenient. Always, as one negotiator says, "The coffee was bad."

"We'd all fly into Denver International Airport from around the country," says John Echeverria, who was the lead attorney for Audubon. "We'd go into one of the airport's conference rooms. No windows, just walls. Maybe 20 of us - two environmentalists, maybe five from the federal government and 16 representing the states and the development interests.

"Each time, we'd be in the room for seven hours. Meeting like that, every month or so, it's enormously demanding of your time and energy and resources."

At first, the government people were in charge, and there was a rigid order - assigned seats at the table for the states and the feds, and the rest of the people, including representatives of the irrigation districts and the environmentalists, sitting away from the table, like an audience.

The government people negotiated among themselves, with one state or another making a presentation on how no water could be spared and the feds countering. Overhead projectors hummed and blackboards were filled with charts of hundreds of months of the river's flow at dozens of checkpoints. The audience could only listen and sometimes ask questions or take potshots.

"Our irrigation district didn't even have a seat at the table, even though we were carrying the ball for Nebraska," Maher recalls.

Environmentalists were discouraged also. "We had no seats (at the table), no power in the process," Luecke says. "We'd get an opportunity from time to time to make observations, put in pleas or whine or whatever."

But on their own, the governments couldn't agree on much of anything, because they have vastly different personalities when it comes to water. One example: Colorado and Wyoming are into intensive management of both wells and surface water, while Nebraska isn't.

Nebraska, which only partly fits inside the 100th meridian that traditionally marks the edge of the West, is the real cowboy state when it comes to water policy. Unlike Wyoming and Colorado, Nebraska still makes it illegal for cities and environmentalists to buy out farmers' water. Nebraska ranks behind only California in irrigated acreage, and the Nebraska farmers hold tightly to it.

The Central Nebraska irrigation district, the main Nebraska district in the Platte River negotiations, has only 30,000 residents or so, but they grow more than 40 million bushels of corn a year, most of which goes to local feedlots that are crammed with a million cattle. The agriculture draws from more than the river. Farmers have drilled thousands of wells, inspired by the rising price of corn and advances in the technology of center pivots and pumps.

The wells now supply five times as much water to farms in the area as the river does directly. Most states have learned hard lessons about how well-pumping along rivers has dried up river after river; Nebraska has tried to ignore any connection.

Only in 1996 did the state set up a cumbersome and decentralized system for regulating such wells through "natural resource districts," which until then had focused on groundwater contamination. The new law merely gives the resource districts the right to monitor and regulate wells if they choose to.

No one even knows how many wells there are in Nebraska. Up to 20 percent of Nebraska's wells aren't registered - even though a law, in effect for more than 40 years, requires registration.

That helps to explain why, in the Platte River negotiations, Wyoming and Colorado didn't trust Nebraska to keep its hands off any water that might be released for wildlife. For its part, Nebraska didn't trust Wyoming and Colorado to release a fair percentage of the river from upriver dams; Nebraska was even pressing a separate lawsuit based on that suspicion (the case is still being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court).

Says Jim Cook, attorney for the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission: "There isn't really one side that aligns with another. All have individual interests."

After a while at the table with not much result, the bureaucrats realized, as Robothom says, "We needed the two main protagonists - environmentalists and water users - at the table also."

So the federal and state agencies let the process take on a life of its own; adding more seats right at the table was a small sign of mutual respect.

Pushing some interests too far

The second series of meetings was supposed to last maybe a year, but dragged on for a year after that, and then another year.

Ask Robotham how it felt to be engaged hour after hour, meeting after meeting, and he laughs: "It spans the range from tedium to tenseness to breakthrough, with people employing humor."

As the adversaries spent so much time together, the respect grew. Environmentalist Luecke, for example, describes Mike Jess, Nebraska's state engineer and water resources chief: "Mike Jess was a tough negotiator, but he brought some good ideas to the table."

Glimmerings of progress created new problems. As more people learned of the negotiations, more wanted to attend. A meeting in Grand Island, Neb., was packed by as many as a hundred farmers. Other meetings were packed by other interest groups.

"Sometimes the tables were so big, we had 50 people at the table," says Ralph Morgenweck, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "We evolved into gigantic meetings, of 75 people or more." Everyone agreed: That was too large.

So the next agreement was a step in the other direction, limiting meetings to 30 people or so, and when necessary, breaking into smaller work groups, still trying to represent all the viewpoints equally.

"That became more productive, simply because we had fewer people to deal with," says Currier. "And there was less grandstanding, because people weren't saying things just to please the audience."

Little by little, people sticking with the process got used to agreeing.

Changes in personnel also had to be weathered. Halfway through, Rieke, the leading federal official at the table, resigned from the Department of Interior to take another job. Her seat was filled by Patty Beneke, another assistant secretary of Interior. Luecke, of the Environmental Defense Fund (and a member of this newspaper's board of directors), also withdrew, leaving the environmentalist viewpoint to be pushed by the Audubon Society and the Whooping Crane Trust, two groups that had more years on the river. The process continued.

It was difficult even to agree on basic facts, the most crucial being, how much water does wildlife need? Fish and Wildlife Service weighed in with what seemed like a definitive number: 417,000 acre-feet per year.

That meant more than 30 percent of the flow to the Central Platte should be released when wildlife needs it. The figure stunned the water users and the states.

"We were aghast," says Cook, of the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. "Things nearly fell apart at that point."

The water users said less water is needed by wildlife. In response to the resistance, the Fish and Wildlife Service refigured and came back to the table with a number that was both lower and looser: 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet for wildlife. Sources for only 70,000 acre-feet or so were identified, and the rest would have to be discovered by further research and negotiations. This concession kept water users at the table - but not environmentalists.

When their protests in the spring of 1997 failed to budge the feds back toward the higher acre-foot total for wildlife, the Audubon Society and the Whooping Crane Trust pulled out.

"We had the sense we were doing more harm than good by attending," Echeverria says. "We were present, but we weren't having an effect on the process, and by our presence, we were implicitly endorsing the process.

"It was frustration at that point." But he adds, "You can't calibrate your proposal to the strength of the opposition."

Even so, the Platte River consensus process reached its next major milestone. The feds and the states signed a roughly hundred-page "cooperative agreement," which included details of how to help the wildlife, in July 1997 - with the negotiators for the water users supporting it - but no environmentalists at the table.

Even among the environmentalists there was chafing about strategy and science. Luecke says he believed that "to talk about 417,000 acre-feet was going to get us nowhere."

A precedent for wildlife

The cooperative agreement signed by the states and federal government called for a new strategy on the Platte River, called "environmental accounts."

These would be new water rights equal in priority to the most senior rights on the river. They would be managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which can order releases from dams and other projects according to what the wildlife needs.

The environmental account in Nebraska would be at Kingsley Dam and its reservoir, Lake McConaughy. The Fish and Wildlife Service would get 10 percent of the storable flow into the reservoir during winter, averaging 50,000 to 70,000 acre-feet per year.

In Wyoming, the environmental account would be at Pathfinder Reservoir. An inflatable plastic dam would be built across the top of the dam to increase its storage capacity, and 60 percent of the additional stored water would be managed for wildlife downriver - about 15,000 acre-feet per year.

In Colorado, the environmental account would be an innovation called the Tamarack water bank, to be developed on state land along the Nebraska border. During winter, when the river flow is high, water would be pumped from wells along the river into nearby recharge basins. During summer, when the river needs it most, the water would seep underground back to the river. The timing of the Colorado water releases would be adjusted by about 10,000 acre-feet per year.

Overall, it's touted as a $75 million deal, with the feds chipping in about half and the rest coming from the states and water projects.

As long as the states and water users commit to it, they get a federal assurance that there will be no further Endangered Species Act challenges of individual projects or permits from here on.

So, Nebraska gets the relicensing of Kingsley Dam (recently approved for another 40 years). Wyoming gets 40 percent of Pathfinder Reservoir's additional stored water, to be diverted off to cities and towns. Colorado gets its headwaters projects approved, and its Tamarack project could keep minnows there off the federal Endangered Species list.

The federal government, in return for its compromising, is supposed to get the on-the-ground aid of state and local regulators, who will work with farmers to ensure that enough water reaches the birds and fish.

The deal also calls for buying some key parcels of habitat (10,000 acres during the first 10 or 15 years), plus conservation and water-marketing schemes to come up with the rest of the 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet to be managed for wildlife - or possibly more water for wildlife or possibly less.

The emphasis is on local flexibility and "adaptive management," making more changes as you go along, based on what works and what doesn't. New studies and monitoring will supposedly determine how the wildlife species are doing and what else is needed.

In effect, the negotiations continue. A governance committee, atop a hierarchy of a dozen or more new committees, oversees it and continues to try to represent all points of view. There's a new three-year stage under way now, with public hearings, preparation of an environmental impact statement and review by the state legislatures. If the states and the federal government sign the final documents, the full program goes into effect for 10 years, with possible renewal beyond that.

"Whether you applaud it or not," says former Colorado Department of Natural Resources chief Jim Lochhead, "it is a significant shift in the way people use and manage the water." The region's water industry, he believes, is beginning to shoulder "external costs' such as habitat damage.

Nebraska water resources chief Jess, who runs surface water but not groundwater, says people along the river will be asked to make "hundreds of small, incremental decisions' adding up to real change.

The deal won't stop new developments from using water along the river, but any new draw from the river must be offset by the retirement of some other water project or conservation or water buys (all in effect transferring other water back into the river).

But not much is guaranteed. That's why the Whooping Crane Trust pulled out of the negotiations almost two years ago.

"We weren't sure the water will be enough; we weren't sure it would be delivered fast enough, and there was no firm commitment from anyone," says Currier. "Anyone can pull out at any time."

There are even doubts that any change in the delivery of water will restore the lost habitat. Luecke, a hydrologist who's also a senior environmental scientist for his group, acknowledges, "The applied science of hydrologic restoration is in its infancy."

"I don't think flowing a lot of water in the springtime is going to clean out that channel like it used to," says Vernon J. Nelson, a Nebraska farmer who's on the governance committee overseeing the process now; he also co-chairs the land committee. "The only way is to dry out the bed in the summer and go in there with a defoliant or a bulldozer and clean out the vegetation." Under adaptive management, it could come to that.

The process grows muscles

The Platte River process seems stronger now, partly because the environmental groups have rejoined it. Two of the 10 seats on the governance committee are reserved for environmentalists, now shared by the Audubon Society, Whooping Crane Trust and Environmental Defense Fund.

"It didn't make sense for us to stand outside and throw stones," Currier says. "We support the program now and want to see it work."

Audubon's Sands says, "The way the cooperative agreement is structured, it would be very difficult to pursue a policy that is not environmentally sound. The governance committee has to act by virtual consensus - the committee needs nine of the 10 total votes to pursue a policy." No major decision can be made unless at least one environmentalist signs on.

Some are less optimistic. Echeverria says he won't rejoin the Platte River process. He has resigned from Audubon to be director of the Environmental Policy Project at Georgetown University.

"The environmental interests were effectively outgunned," he says. "There were scores of attorneys and consultants from the water and power interests negotiating with a handful of environmentalists. This is a case of significant abdication of federal authority over a resource the federal government is uniquely qualified to address (the migration flyway and habitat that extends internationally).

"The whole process wasn't driven by what the species need, but by what the states and development interests were willing to give," Echeverria says. "I expect the program will prove to be inadequate for the wildlife."

"Going forward, it will only be more demanding, endless time and endless meetings. My sense is that the environmental organizations can't justify spending that much time and energy on it, but you know the irrigation districts and other development interests will be involved. Over time, the imbalance will only get worse."

One of the biggest chores will be containing well-pumping along the river in Nebraska. Nebraska has funded a program to study its thousands of wells, searching for impacts on the river. Nebraska will probably edge closer to regulation or buy-outs of wells - or be nudged along.

"We don't hide from that," says Cook. "We know we'll have to get a handle on it, and we have to persuade the other states we do have a handle."

All along the river, the impact on the irrigators using river water will be felt mainly in drought years, when the flow through canals and ditches is crucial. As Maher says, "We're removing the drought protection."

In a sign of how the Platte River process could be derailed this far along, farmers who fear loss of irrigation water have organized.

It's similar to the Nevada rebellion that derailed the process on the Truckee and Carson rivers. The Platte rebellion has reared up in Nebraska, around a statewide group of big-acreage irrigators called Nebraskans First.

"We're trying to stop the encroachment of the federal government and the enviros into this area," says Carroll Sheldon, who's on the board of directors of Nebraskans First.

Sheldon manages or owns several thousand acres of corn and soybeans along the Central Platte. "This is probably the highest-yield land in the world," he says. "We get 200 bushel of corn and 65 bushel of soybean (per acre), and if it wasn't for irrigation, we'd have almost nothing. It would just demolish us to lose our water."

Recently Sheldon and Nebraskans First have encouraged eight counties along the Central Platte to form the Coalition for Protection of Agricultural Communities. The counties have decided to spend as much as $25,000 to draw up a "custom-and-culture land-use plan," which will lay out the importance of agriculture and how the irrigation systems shouldn't be tinkered with, Sheldon says.

The law firm of Karen Budd-Falen, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., which consults with rural counties around the West in similar anti-federal, anti-environmentalist stances, has been hired to do the plan. Another group has sprung up linking rebels in all three river states, the Platte River Basin Ag Alliance.

"We feel the cooperative agreement should be stopped right now," Sheldon says. "This (Central Platte) used to be swamps. Over time, we have drained the swamps, built up land along the river and made it beautiful farmland. Now they want to turn it back to swampland. It blows your mind."

But Nelson, who grows corn on 3,000 acres using surface and well water, speaks moderately. "I hope this doesn't turn into a range war, and I don't think it will. We have an Endangered Species Act we all have to abide by - if we don't like it, we'll have to change the law," Nelson says. His farm, Winsome Inc., has been in his family for four generations, and he looks ahead to his kids and grandkids keeping it going. "I named my farm that because I like what it means - charming, pleasant personality ... The roots go pretty deep."

Nelson believes the cooperative agreement is "achievable, as long as they stop at the 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet" for wildlife. "If they go up to 417,000 acre-feet, it would devastate the economy here."

The people already signed onto the process - state officials, water-system managers and environmentalists - have responded to the rebels as they have to all other opposition: by inviting the opposition into the process.

"We need to shore up our outreach efforts," says Mike Besson, director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission. "It would have been better if we'd brought these people into the process sooner. We need to identify all the adverse impacts to see which way to go."

"I think it's a very good national model for complex issues," says Fish and Wildlife's Morgenweck. "You have to be patient to see it out, and when you do, the outcome is clearly better than if you went to court with a lawsuit. A court usually doesn't come up with a comprehensive solution, a court just rules on an individual issue or two.

"And in court," Morgenweck continues, "it's a win or lose situation - everyone is trying to beat the brains out of the opposition. But in a negotiation, human nature is, "I'm going to give a little bit here if I get a little bit over here." ... (And) what we're hearing from the public is, "We want face-to-face discussions, personal involvement." That starts to rebuild people's faith in government."

Nelson is one of many who appreciate how getting acquainted has personalized the issues.

"Locking horns doesn't do anybody any good," he says. "I might not like what you're saying, but I'm going to listen and then say what I have to say. For the farming community here, my number one concern is to use the water for farming because that's my livelihood.

"Paul Currier (of the Whooping Crane Trust) tells us his number one priority is the crane. And that's okay. It doesn't make me dislike the man ... We all gave up something to make it work. I hope it holds together."


Ray Ring writes in Bozeman, Montana. Anne MacKinnon, who contributed to this story, is an attorney and former editor of the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming.

This article is part of a continuing series on consensus, collaboration and conservation-based development and is funded by the Ford Foundation.

You can contact ...
* Paul Currier, Platte River Whooping Crane Trust, 308/384-4633;

* Jay Maher, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, 308/995-8601;

* Carroll Sheldon, Nebraskans First, 308/237-3722;

* Mike Besson, Wyoming Water Development Commission, 307/777-7626;

* Ralph Morgenweck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 303/236-7920;

* Dan Luecke, Environmental Defense Fund, 303/440-4901.