Biological Opinion Gives Passing Grade to Platte Plan

(Lincoln, NE) Conservation groups today welcomed the release of the Final Biological Opinion on the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (Program). The Biological Opinion is the United States Fish & Wildlife Service report card on the impacts of the proposed Program on the four federally protected species it is designed to conserve: the Whooping Crane, Interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon. The Program is designed to allow future development of Platte River water in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska while restoring habitat to revitalize the river’s ecosystem and protect threatened and endangered species.

Conservation groups, water users, state officials, and the Department of Interior have been negotiating details of the Program since 1997 through a Cooperative Agreement signed by the three Governors and the Department of Interior. The agreement’s goals are to offset the negative effects that decades of dam-building, water diversions, and groundwater wells have had on the Platte’s flows and habitat, to secure the long-term health of the river, and to allow needed new water uses to occur without litigation and delay over the impacts of those new uses downstream.

“With the completion of the Biological Opinion, we mark another major milestone in the process,” said Dan Luecke, Platte River Consultant for the National Wildlife Federation. “We move one step closer towards implementing the Program and providing actual habitat benefits on the land.”

The next step in the process is the expected issuance of a Final Record of Decision by the U.S. Secretary of Interior, which could occur as early as June 26. That would mark Federal Government approval of the Program. If the Governors of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming then sign on to the Program, it could be in place as scheduled by October 1.

“The bottom line is, the Platte River Program gets a passing grade with respect to the rare species it is designed to benefit,” said Duane Hovorka, Executive Director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. “Just as important, this same program will also benefit the ducks, geese, Sandhill cranes and other wildlife that rely on the Platte River, and the downstream communities like Omaha and Lincoln that depend on Platte flows to recharge municipal water supplies.”

The Biological Opinion notes that the Program would allow new water uses in all three states, and that those additional uses will put even more pressure on habitat in the Central Platte that depends upon river flows. However, the mitigation and conservation measures built into the Program will more than offset the impact of those new uses, and should begin to restore the habitat degraded by more than a century of water development.

“No conservation plan is perfect,” said Chad Smith, Director of American Rivers’ Nebraska Field Office, “but this cooperative, basin-wide approach is far more effective and less expensive than the alternative: fighting dam by dam and well by well over the impacts of new water development on wildlife and downstream water users.”

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