Truce holds on the Platte River

Environmentalists and farmers take a leap of faith for the sake of staying out of the courtroom

  • The braided bed of the Platte River near Silver Creek, Nebraska

    Brian Smith, [email protected]
  • North and South Platte Rivers

    Diane Sylvain

"I don’t like it much," Mike Besson, Wyoming’s water czar, says about the latest milestone in the difficult negotiations along the Platte River. But, he adds, it’s better than all-out war.

The cautious note from Besson is understandable. With a south branch flowing through Colorado, a north branch in Wyoming, and both branches merging to cross Nebraska, the Platte is one of the West’s most contested rivers. It provides drinking water to 3.5 million people and irrigates 2 million acres of farmland.

For at least seven years, federal and state agencies, along with environmentalists and farm interests, have been trying to address a wildlife crisis on the most degraded stretch, the Central Platte in Nebraska (HCN, 2/1/99: Saving the Platte).

Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation have an 800-page draft environmental impact statement up for public comment until Sept. 20. It lays out four "action alternatives," any of which would shake up the river’s plumbing to benefit endangered wildlife.

The proposal is a bold experiment that no one is certain will work, but the major players seem to share the tone of measured support that comes from Besson, director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission. "What I’m trying to prevent is another Klamath," says Besson, referring to the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border, where many of the same kinds of interests have fought a bitter war of lawsuits and water-shutoffs since 2001, with disastrous results for salmon (HCN, 7/19/04: Follow-up).

Innovative strategies

Millions of birds, including a half-million migrating sandhill cranes, use the wetlands and islands along the Central Platte. But three bird species are in trouble, because the original wide, braided channel has been deepened by unnatural flows from dozens of upstream dams and diversions, and thick vegetation has encroached on the banks and islands. Two shorebirds adapted to nest on bare sand, the piping plover and the interior least tern, have not successfully produced young from their nests in the Central Platte for 15 years. Only a handful of whooping cranes show up during migration. Downriver, on the Lower Platte, the pallid sturgeon is also in trouble.

The four alternatives in the draft impact statement share key elements tackling the problems. Flows devoted to wildlife would increase dramatically — likely in the range of 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet per year. At least 10,000 acres of habitat would be bought or protected by conservation easements, adding to about 14,000 acres that conservation groups have already set aside.

Dams for two big reservoirs — Pathfinder in Wyoming and McConaughy in Nebraska — would be tuned to deliver the water when wildlife needs it. In one innovative move, the river’s flow through eastern Colorado would be diverted into the underground alluvial aquifer when irrigators and wildlife don’t need the water, then would trickle downriver later, arriving when needed. And efforts would be made to restore vegetation-free islands and wet meadows, both important habitat.

The experiment will likely evolve for decades, as more research is done. New methods such as "island scraping" would clear existing islands for bird-nesting and move sediment back into the river to create additional bare islands. The costs — estimated from $50 million to $180 million — would be paid half by the federal government, and half by the states.

While a National Academy of Sciences report has generally backed up the Fish and Wildlife Service’s approach, there are no guarantees that the plan will save endangered wildlife. "We decided to embrace adaptive management," says Paul Tebble of the National Audubon Society in Nebraska. "It’s scary, it slows down the process, we may have to go back to the political process to ask for more water, but it beats litigation."

Well-pumpers may be targeted

The draft impact statement estimates that 11,000 acres of irrigated farmland would be taken out of production, with a $4 million loss in crops. Water and land for wildlife would be acquired only from willing sellers and lessors, but even that modest shift away from agriculture is too much for some farm interests.

Some of the Nebraska farmers who pump from thousands of wells along the river claim that the federal government is trying to shut down irrigated agriculture. But actually, the state of Nebraska is working to regulate the pumping, partly to keep the river from declining further, and partly to keep one farmer’s well-pumping from affecting another’s. So far, agriculture interests are also holding off on lawsuits against the Platte process.

Representing many Wyoming water users, Besson wants some details adjusted or spelled out more clearly. But he says the feds are listening to his concerns. "The program is still being negotiated," he says.

The next milestone will be the Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft biological opinion on the alternatives, expected any day now. The Department of the Interior will make a final decision, probably next year.

If the truce holds, and the proposed plan becomes reality, it will be a major development in Western water management, says Dan Luecke, a National Wildlife Federation consultant. "We’re trying to invent a way of governing ourselves on a different political basis," he says, "and that political basis is a watershed."

Andrew Beck Grace writes from Laramie, Wyo. Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, contributed to the story. Dan Luecke is an HCN board member.

Platte River EIS Office in Denver for more information, or to obtain the draft environmental impact statement, 303-445-2096,

Send comments to the same office at [email protected], or P.O. Box 25007, Denver, CO 80225.

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