The Platte River Cooperative Agreement, signed in July, 1997, committed the states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, and the US Department of Interior, to develop a Proposed Program that would address the habitat needs of four rare wildlife species that depend upon the Platte River: the Whooping Crane, Interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon. The Proposed Program is intended to serve as the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for any project in the Platte Basin that requires a federal permit or license and would impact Platte River flows, allowing projects covered by the Program to gain federal ESA approval without undue delay.
The 13-year, basin-wide Program was negotiated by a Governance Committee that includes representatives from each state, the Bureau of Reclamation and Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), upstream and downstream water users, and conservation organizations, including the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.
The Proposed Program has now been signed by the Secretary of Interior and the Governors of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and will be implemented beginning January 1, 2007. To continue the work, Congress must authorize the Program, and Congress and the three state legislatures must also approve needed funding and changes in water laws to allow for the Program.
The Department of Interior released a Final Environmental Impact Statement May 23, 2006, followed by a Final Biological Opinion from the Fish & Wildlife Service, released June 20. The Secretary of Interior issued a Final Record of Decision (signaling the Department’s intent to agree to implement the Program) on September 28, 1006. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne signed the Program December 6, joining the Governors of Colorado (Bill Owens), Nebraska (Dave Heineman), and Wyoming (David Freudenthal) in approving the Recovery Program.
Central Public Power & Irrigation District and Nebraska Public Power District reached an agreement with the US Fish & Wildlife Service on a plan to deal with the biological problems caused by “hydrocycling” at powerplants owned by Central and NPPD. The practice of running the turbines full-out for a few hours, and then not at all until the next day, results in the river level rising and falling substantially on a 24-hour cycle. The agreement would result in operations that reduce the severity of the rise and fall during nesting and migratory seasons, and would resolve the issue outside of the Cooperative Agreement process. The agreement must first be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Monitoring and research through the Proposed Program would help better understand the impacts of hydrocycling on the Platte River and its wildlife, allowing for a future change in the settlement if needed.
Impact on Other Wildlife
Nebraska officials have not yet agreed on a plan to pay the costs of mitigating the impact of the Recovery Program on fishery or recreation resources at Lake McConaughy, and the issue is unresolved. On average, McConaughy will operate at roughly 8 to 9 feet below pre-1997 operating levels, because of the impact of the Environmental Account of water put in place as a result of the federal license to operate Lake McConaughy. The Environmental Account is designed to improve fish and wildlife habitat downstream, and is a key part of the Recovery Program. Wyoming has agreed to offset the impacts the Program could have at Pathfinder Reservoir. The Program would appear to have only minor impacts on Colorado wildlife, including creating some new wetland areas.
The Proposed Program
Land Plan Will Protect 10,000 Acres
The Land Plan will protect, and restore where needed, 10,000 acres of habitat in the Central Platte. The land will be protected through purchase, conservation easement, or lease, and will be open for public access and enjoyment where feasible and where consistent with conservation of the target species. Land acquisition will be only from willing sellers/leasers, and will focus on the Platte channel and nearby wet meadows.
Water Action Plan: Water to Improve Wildlife Flows
The Water Action Plan will provide 130,000-150,000 acre feet of water annually that can be used to improve river flows at times when it will benefit the habitat – typically increasing spring and summer flows. The Plan relies largely on re-timing of existing flows, but includes some water leasing, on-farm conservation, and groundwater management projects that could increase net river flows.
State Water Depletion Plans
Each state developed a water depletion plan to ensure that new water uses after July, 1997, will do no further harm to river flows that are critical for the species. The Colorado plan for the South Platte River could reduce peak flows that provide habitat benefits, but should result in no net loss of average river flow at the Nebraska state line. New water uses could be offset by bringing in water from other basins or from groundwater not connected to the Platte, from conservation, acquiring water from farms, or re-using existing flows. Colorado officials expect little new water development in its portion of the North Platte watershed.
The Nebraska depletion plan relies largely on Integrated Management Plans being developed under Nebraska’s new water law (LB 962). The state would offset the impact on target flows of new development from 1997 through 2005, including new groundwater wells. Nebraska’s Natural Resource Districts would offset most of the impacts to target flows of new development beginning in 2006. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources estimates that the incremental cost to Nebraska of the Recovery Program Depletion Plan will be $8-12 million, or roughly one million per year.
The Wyoming depletion plan will require proposed new water projects to find their own offsets for any new river depletions, although the state may develop a small water bank to help small users comply with this requirement. Wyoming is limited in its ability to development new water sources by a lack of groundwater supplies and by the North Platte River Compact.
Federal Depletion Plan and US Forest Service Management Plan
The Program deals with the very small water depletions expected from Federal Government operations (e.g., new bathroom facilities on National Forest land), but ignores the impact of major Federal farm conservation programs that impact water use. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has agreed to examine the impacts of its farm conservation programs on Platte River flows. The US Forest Service has opted to remain outside the Program and rely on ESA Section 7 consultations with the Fish & Wildlife Service for individual forest plans. The Recovery Program will track and assess the impacts of tree harvest policies on Platte River flows.
Monitoring, Research, and Adaptive Management Plan
The Adaptive Management Plan and Integrated Monitoring & Research Plan will track and assess the Program’s successes and failures, improving our knowledge of the four species and their habitat needs for use during and after the Program.
Pallid Sturgeon Components
Land and water components of the Program are designed to protect and begin to restore habitat in the Central Platte for Whooping Cranes, piping plovers, and Interior least terns. The Program will provide additional research (in concert with ongoing pallid sturgeon research on the Missouri River) and, ultimately, habitat conservation projects to benefit the pallid sturgeon based on the results of that research.
Budget and “Fair Share” Issues
Funds would pay for land, water, research and monitoring and the other Program costs. The $187 million cash costs of the Program, which will be in effect through 2020, will be split as follows:
Federal government $157 million
Colorado water users $ 24 million
Wyoming $ 6 million
Nebraska $ 0
Nebraska will get credit for the contribution of Nebraska Public Power District’s 2,650-acre Cottonwood Ranch, and Wyoming will also contribute its 400-acre Deer Creek Ranch for use by the Program.
Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming will receive credits for the water ‘contributions’ they are providing through three initial water projects (an Environmental Account of water in Lake McConaughy, reserving a portion of new reservoir capacity planned at Pathfinder Reservoir, and operation of Tamarack groundwater recharge project). Those will not be valued at the actual cost of providing the water, but at a higher, negotiated amount (based on the estimated cost of other water supply projects in the Water Action Plan, which were selected for a variety of political and economic reasons).
As a result of these paper credits, the $314 million cited by some as the ‘cost’ of the Proposed Program overstates the true out-of-pocket cost substantially.