Managing the Platte

Through a shared approach, three states and conservation groups are improving the way the Platte River is managed.
BY JASON FARNSWORTH
This birds-eye view of the Platte River channel at Nebraska Public Power District’s Cottonwood Ranch property near Overton, Nebraska, is a tract that is managed to provide habitat for three threatened and endangered bird species: the whooping crane, interior least tern and piping plover.

The Platte River is one of the hardest-working rivers in the world, supporting 8.5 million acre-feet of storage and more than 7,000 diversion rights. It provides domestic water for most of the 5 million people living along Colorado’s Front Range and irrigation water for 3.6 million acres across Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. This development has reduced the river’s yield by approximately 50% and dampened flow variability, resulting in dramatic channel adjustment. 

The PRRIP restores and maintains the wide braided channel conditions that occurred historically in the central Platte.

Approximately 80% of the wide braided channel area in the big bend reach of the Platte, critical habitat for whooping cranes and other species, was lost to narrowing between 1940 and 1980. With present and future water users facing resulting interstate water supply and endangered species issues, basin stakeholders chose to enter into a Cooperative Agreement to develop a program that would proactively address species issues and provide regulatory certainty for water users. 

A 13-year First Increment of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program was authorized by Congress in 2007 and was recently extended for an additional 13 years (www.platteriverprogram.org). During that time, the program has acquired an interest in 13,000 acres of land and 110,000 acre-feet of water and implemented an adaptive management research program to guide use of land, water and financial resources to benefit target species. The cost of this work is substantial with average annual expenditures in excess of $10 million.  

Communicating with a diverse audience

Program staff’s responsibilities frequently involve speaking to diverse audiences ranging from ditch company boards to bird watchers to civic organizations. When speaking to agricultural or domestic water users, we focus on regulatory certainty. The program quieted interstate water litigation and provides endangered species coverage for all upper basin water-related activities prior to 1997. Just as important, it provides streamlined coverage for future water-related activities. This means existing water users can focus on their operations and Front Range water users can focus on developing new supply for their rapidly growing population. This regulatory certainty was estimated to represent a net savings of over $400 million in avoided regulatory compliance and mitigation costs (over and above program operating costs) over the extended First Increment of the program. 

The PRRIP provides Endangered Species Act compliance for water-related activities in the north, south and central Platte basins. Habitat work occurs in the Big Bend Reach in central Nebraska.

The program also directly supports basin water users. Early in the First Increment, the program focused on developing water supply through off-channel storage for the purpose of diverting and storing excess flows to be released at times when they provide species benefits. As the program pursued retiming projects, it became apparent that institutional and cost barriers made large-scale storage infeasible. Water users responded by developing innovative leasing projects that benefit the program and their constituents. As of late 2020, the program leases a total of 25,000 acre-feet of storage water from irrigators and surface water irrigation districts in Nebraska and Wyoming. These leasing arrangements provide the program with cost-efficient water needed to meet its regulatory milestones while providing irrigators and irrigation districts with a much-needed revenue stream to support operations and maintenance needs in a tough financial climate.   


As of late 2020, the program leases a total of 25,000 acre-feet of storage water from irrigators and surface water irrigation districts in Nebraska and Wyoming.


Retiming of excess flows through canal and reservoir recharge projects provides another avenue for collaboration with water users. Irrigation districts in the region intentionally recharge approximately 30,000 acre-feet of water annually for the program. We are also preparing to implement the program’s first conjunctive management project that will allow us to pump recharged groundwater to the river to increase its efficiency in meeting program flow objectives and assist landowners in managing their groundwater levels. 

Environmental & civic impact

Piping plover chicks and eggs (left) and whooping crane with sandhill cranes (right)

When communicating with environmental audiences, the focus is on the program’s contributions to endangered species recovery. Local populations of least tern and piping plover have more than doubled due to creation of new off-channel nesting habitat. Similarly, the proportion of the wild migrating whooping crane population stopping on the Platte is increasing as the program improves the suitability of on-channel roosting habitat. 

The program also funds broader research efforts like the whooping crane satellite telemetry project that provide learning benefits extending well beyond geographical limits of the Platte basin. For example, many whooping crane experts believed the vast majority of crane deaths occurred during migration. Telemetry turned this conventional wisdom on its head, demonstrating cranes were no more likely to die during migration than at any other time of the year. 

When communicating with civic organizations, the focus is on the program’s commitment to being a good neighbor. This starts with a willing-buyer, willing-seller philosophy prohibiting the use of eminent domain to acquire land for species habitat or water projects. The program’s 13,000 acres of habitat were assembled over hundreds of meetings at coffee shops and kitchen tables. The program has also committed to paying property taxes to avoid shifting the tax burden. This is an important issue in rural Nebraska where property taxes keep schools open and roads repaired. Lastly, the program works hard to keep as much of its land as possible in agricultural production and open to public use through a unique recreational access program (www.platteaccess.org).

Overcoming challenges

The program has also faced its share of challenges. Early on the program was viewed as a regulatory overstep, threatening the region’s agricultural economy. With the passage of time and a sincere desire by all stakeholders to make the program work, it has gained the trust of local irrigators, conservationists and communities. 

Future challenges are anticipated to be resource related. Program stakeholders face practical limits on the amount of land, water and money that can be brought to bear to achieve program objectives into an increasingly uncertain future. Disruptive events such as the ongoing pandemic likewise inject uncertainty and complexity into the day-to-day operations of the program. Despite these challenges, the general mood of program decision-makers is openly optimistic. They have overcome decades of mistrust to build a truly collaborative program that serves both the threatened and endangered species of the Platte basin and the people who live here.  

Jason Farnsworth serves as the executive director of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. 
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