The Platte River: Nebraska’s Lifeline
Originating high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, The North Platte and South Platte Rivers come together near North Platte, Nebraska forming the Platte River.. Flowing east across the state, the Platte delivers water that irrigates crops, fills reservoirs, sustains livestock, recharges the groundwater, floats boats, cools powerplants, generates electricity, supplies drinking water, and provides habitat for a long list of fish and wildlife species.
In March, half a million Sandhill cranes roost on sandbars in the Platte, staying for weeks to fatten up for their journey north. The crane migration is one of the top wildlife spectacles in the world. Whooping cranes, the largest birds in North America and one of the rarest, visit the Platte on their annual migratory journey between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
Ten million ducks and geese use the Platte River and nearby Rainwater Basin wetlands on their migration. Beavers, river otter, Interior least terns and piping plovers, and species as rare as the pallid sturgeon and as common as catfish call the Platte River home.
The Platte faces challenges. Two-thirds of the historic flows in the Central Platte are now used upstream. The channel that Pioneers described as a mile wide and an inch deep has shrunken to one-tenth its former width. In the stretch downstream from Kingsley and Keystone dams at Lake McConaughy, some 85% of the North Platte’s historic flows have been diverted upstream.
Much of the Platte fails state and federal water quality standards, beset by a combination of fecal coliform, E. coli, Dieldrin, PCBs, Mercury and high temperatures related to low flows.
Throughout our history, the Platte River has been one of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation’s top priorities. We fought against dams like Two Forks and the Mid-State Irrigation Project that would have taken much of the remaining flows in the Platte. Our work with National Wildlife Federation when Greyrocks Dam was proposed helped create the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust (now The Crane Trust).
For nearly a decade, Nebraska Wildlife Federation worked to represent conservation groups as the Platte River Recovery Program was being negotiated with officials from Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, federal agencies, irrigators and other water users. The Program was ratified in late 2006, and since then the Federation has helped oversee the Program and its water component.
This basin-wide, 13-year, $185 million program is designed to protect and restore 10,000 acres of habitat along the Central Platte, maintain and begin to restore critical minimum river flows needed for fish and wildlife, and provide for a comprehensive monitoring, research and adaptive management program. (For more information, visit the Platte River Recovery Program)
The Platte River Recovery Program is an important first step, but it is no silver bullet. Demand for the Platte’s water continues to increase, from Denver and growing Front Range communities, irrigators in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, and municipal water systems like Lincoln and Omaha. Protecting the Platte River and restoring the water quality and habitat in this great river is a challenge that will go on for generations.