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Platte River Ecosystem Resources and Management, with Emphasis on the Big Bend Reach in Nebraska

Platte River Ecosystem Conservation Progress


The USFWS has long recognized the importance of the Big Bend reach and proposed a national wildlife refuge along the central Platte River in the 1970s (USFWS 1974, Wallenstrom 1976). However, political opposition and poor tactics derailed this initiative (McMillen 1988). Since then, private conservation organizations (NAS, Trust, TNC) have acquired 12, 646 acres of river channel, wet meadows, cropland, and other lands (Table 21). The Trust has been most active in land acquisition.

Not all of the owned habitat is suitable for the whooping crane, least tern, and piping plover. These species prefer wide river channels with little woody vegetation. The whooping crane also prefers wetlands and wet meadow habitat for feeding, loafing, and resting. The 9,455 acres identified in Table 21 represent areas of open channel and wet meadow and areas where attempts have been made to restore open channel and wet meadow. However, not all of the 9,455 acres are available habitat for listed species. Scattered throughout the acreage are shrub and woodland communities (shelterbelts, savannahs) that do not meet the needs of some of the listed species, including whooping cranes, least terns, and piping plovers. In the aggregate, these areas make up a substantial portion of the 9,455 acres. Currier (personal communication) explains that because woodland communities are increasing in area along the river channel and in adjacent wet meadows and grasslands, the actual amount of open habitat available to endangered and threatened species has been and is continuing to decline.

Disturbance plays a large role in the availability of habitat for listed species, especially cranes. Thus, when buffer zones around disturbance features such as bridges, homesteads, buildings, developments, powerlines, and roads are considered, the proportion of the 9,455 acres that actually provides habitat for whooping cranes, least terns and piping plovers, is considerably less as well. If the 9,455 acres were divided into three equal sized blocks, and a 1/2 mile disturbance buffer was used, over two-thirds of the area would be taken up by buffers. About 2,850 acres of listed species habitat would remain.

Management of wet meadow and river channel habitat by clearing shrub and woodland growth could enhance the proportion of the 9,455 acres available for listed species. On lands owned by Wyoming and on some Trust lands, such management for whooping cranes is mandated by mitigation requirements, and in the case of the Trust, by its charter. The Trust is also charged with meeting the needs of all of the more than 300 species of migratory birds found along the central Platte. Some of the species' needs are met with management of habitat for listed species; others are not. Although Audubon and TNC may have an interest in maintaining open habitat for listed species, they have no statutory obligation to do so, nor can one expect that their management, or that of any private landowner along the central Platte would be directed solely to listed species. Both Audubon and TNC, for example, have broad interests including the maintenance of ecosystem biodiversity.

The 2,614 acres referred to in Table 21 represent woodland, forest, shrub, upland, cropland, and other habitats. These lands have some potential for restoration to wet meadow and open channel habitat. However, because these lands provide habitat for a number of other species, management strategies will favor those species. The last 577 acres in Table 21 represent areas (homesteads, buildings) with little or no restorable habitat value due to disturbance or other factors.

Most of the Table 21 holdings are within a few bridge segments and are not well distributed throughout the central Platte. Nearly 50 percent of the Trust's holdings are in one segment (Highway 281-Alda); Audubon's lands are all within one segment, and TNC's holdings are within three segments. Over the 12 bridge segments, an average of 2,400 to 2,600 acres would need to be protected in each segment to meet the estimated 29,000 acre restoration goal proposed by the Joint Study for conservation and recovery of currently listed endangered and threatened species. Additional acreage will be needed for sandhill cranes, waterfowl, and other biodiversity (Currier et al. 1985).

Further habitat conservation should follow recommendations similar to those developed by the Joint Study and Trust (1987):

Channel Restoration

Wet Meadow Conservation


There have been federal regulatory actions which have led to some habitat protection. The Wyoming land in Table 21 refers to land acquired as mitigation for the effects of the anticipated construction of a dam on Deer Creek, a tributary of the North Platte River in Wyoming. The Trust was established in 1979 as a result of an out-of-court settlement on the effects of the construction of the Gray Rocks Dam on the Laramie River, a tributary of the North Platte River in Wyoming. The purpose of the Trust is to protect and maintain the migratory bird habitat in the Big Bend area of the Platte River between Overton and Chapman, Nebraska. The Trust is to protect the physical, hydrological, and biological integrity of the Big Bend area so that it may continue to function as a life-support system of the whooping crane and other migratory species which utilize this ecosystem.

The USFWS has delivered several biological opinions under section 7 of the Act (USFWS 1987b, 1994c). These opinions on proposed upstream water projects have concluded that the projects will jeopardize the continued existence of some listed species and adversely modify designated critical habitat of the whooping crane. Even the re-licensing of a small dam (0.7 acre-foot depletion) in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains brought a jeopardy opinion. This small project, however, is one of many water catchment facilities up for re-licensing, and, cumulatively, such projects have an effect on downstream central Platte River listed species and critical habitat. The USFWS has required the purchase of land along the central Platte to remove the jeopardy situation (e.g., Deer Creek project, Wyoming). The Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are developing a mechanism to facilitate funding for the acquisition, conservation, recovery, and maintenance of Platte River habitat as required in biological opinions.

Recently, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Interior have been meeting to work out a program to address endangered species conservation (see Memorandum of Agreement section below), primarily to reduce the adverse effects of proposed actions subject to section 7 of the ESA. Applicants for federal permits would have to participate in the three-state and Interior program. In the interim, USFWS is requiring, in section 7 jeopardy biological opinions on proposed water projects, a reasonable and prudent alternative for the depletive effects of the project. The alternative amounts to a replacement of an equal amount of water within the Platte River basin. For example, two proposed sack-crete dams on the Laramie River, Wyoming, requiring the applicant to have a permit under the Clean Water Act, will deplete 0.7 acre-feet and two acre-feet from October to April and from May to September, respectively. USFWS (1995a) decided that the applicant must acquire two acre-feet from a location where its release will be reasonably assured of reaching the main stem of the Platte River; and assure that this amount of water is released between 1 February and 15 March.

As discussed previously, Nebraska law can allow instream flow rights for fish and wildlife resources. The Nebraska DWR has granted such rights for certain Platte River biodiversity and is deliberating the granting of additional rights to the NGPC for listed species and their habitats along the central Platte. Nebraska law offers an excellent opportunity to protect water resources for biodiversity (Sidle and Murray 1993). At a time when the emphasis is on local decision-making, Nebraska has laws in place to allow local governmental bodies (NRDs), as well as the NGPC, to acquire instream flow rights for biodiversity and ecosystem management. Instream flow rights have already been granted for macroinvertebrates of the piping plover and wet meadows. Application for water rights could be made for a variety of fish, mammals, birds, and their habitats.

The provisioning of instream flows for fish and wildlife and habitat protection through the regulatory process is one of the purposes of federal laws and regulations such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (42 United States Code 4321 et seq.), Council on Environmental Quality regulations (40 Code of Federal Regulations parts 1,500-1,508), Federal Power Act, and the ESA. FERC, for example, is required to balance all of the principal resources of the Kingsley project. Resources associated with Kingsley and other project facilities (i.e., reservoir fisheries, reservoir recreation, hydropower generation, and irrigation) have all increased as a result of the project. However, a principal resource that has been and will continue to be negatively affected by the projects, is the habitat of numerous fish and wildlife species which depend on an open, braided, fluvial, riverine ecosystem. Therefore, Interior desires that the final environmental impact statement produce an operating alternative that provides a more equitable balance between principal resources and the instream resources that provide habitat for federally listed species.

It is useful to review briefly the Kingsley re-licensing for a glimpse of how one water project, albeit a large project, in the Platte River system subject to federal regulation may meet a portion of USFWS recommended flows for the central Platte. None of the alternatives in FERC NEPA documents for Kingsley Dam can be expected to deliver all of the water needed for the central Platte ecosystem (Figure 11) (FERC 1992, 1994a, b). Figure 12 and 13 indicate how each alternative relates to existing instream flow conditions and to USFWS target flows. The Nebraska Plan, for example, allocates up to 100,000 acre-feet of storage in project facilities on a sliding scale to an account. The average yield or release from the account is 61,000 acre-feet. This release varies from 0 acre-feet during drouth to 100,000 acre-feet during wet periods. The average monthly shortage for the baseline is 358,000 acre-feet when the pulse flows are included. The reduction in shortage ranges from an increase of 4,700 acre-feet (Districts Plan) to a 91,900 decrease in shortage (Instream Enhancement Alternative). The Instream Flow Alternative is the only alternative which directly impacts irrigation supply by scaling back irrigation demand as storage declines. The decrease in the shortage by the other alternatives is a result of the change in water use or re-regulation. The above figures are based upon monthly data from the Opstudy model (FERC 1994b) instead of daily values such as in Table 19.

The average Service IFR with a total volume of 1,266,500 acre-feet or 1,749 cfs. Present flow in the river (SRDEIS Baseline) is 1,108,300 acre-feet or an average of 1,531 cfs. The average volume of three other alternatives shown is slightly less in magnitude (Nebraska Plan is 1,517 cfs), but similar to present conditions. Therefore, there is not much difference in total volume over time, however, the differences occur in the timing of the flows.

Project purposes are reflected in the present conditions (SRDEIS Baseline). In general, hydropower releases occur throughout the non-irrigation season as storage is built for later irrigation delivery. One effect of current operations is the decreasing flow during the critical months of June through September. The flow regime of the Nebraska Plan and the Modified Nebraska Plan are very similar, and flow is reduced during the non-irrigation season and increased during the irrigation season. The Trust Plan decreases hydropower (and river flow) even more during the non-irrigation season and releases that water during the irrigation season.

Another method of comparing the alternatives is to examine the flow duration curves contained in the SRDEIS (FERC 1994b). The distribution of monthly flows for all alternatives can be readily compared to the present condition baseline. For example, during the month of August USFWS has recommended a flow of 1,200 cfs for the fish community. This is met under current conditions approximately 6 percent of the time. The earlier recommendation of 800 cfs, which FERC used as a target in the alternatives, is met approximately 8 percent of the time under current conditions. In contrast, the Nebraska Plan increases the percent of time that 1,200 cfs and 800 cfs is met to 12 percent and 26 percent, respectively. The Trust Plan increases the frequency of 1,200 cfs and 800 cfs to 16 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

For present conditions (SRDEIS Baseline), the average shortage is approximately 358,000 acre-feet. The overall effect of the Nebraska Plan and the Modified Nebraska Plan is to reduce the shortage to approximately 347,000 acre-feet (i.e., the shortage is reduced by 11,000 acre-feet from present conditions). The Trust plan reduces instream flow shortages further, with an average shortage of approximately 330,000 acre-feet. Further reductions in shortages could be achieved through conservation or reductions in consumptive use (irrigation).

Potential improvements which could enable a form of the Nebraska Plan, for example, to serve as the cornerstone of Platte River recovery efforts include 1) "firming up" the allocation of water to the environmental account, 2) implementing conservation measures and dedicating conserved water to the environmental account, 3) reducing canal maintenance flows (and hydropower generation) similar to levels in other alternatives, and 4) increase the Overton base flows to biologically significant levels.

Re-regulation of Kingsley under most alternatives does not provide major gains in reducing instream flow shortages but Kingsley is only one water project in the Platte River system. Re-regulation, however, is important in re-ordering instream flow priorities. Re-regulation is necessary to maintain and improve ecosystem processes during spring and summer. As new or additional water is returned to the Platte River system through conservation, reduction in irrigated acres, etc. then improvements in instream flow shortages can be realized. In the case of Kingsley re-licensing, re-regulation can produce credits and debits to water needs depending on the alternative selected (Figure 14). The most favorable alternatives are those producing the most credits with pulse flows, the USFWS's highest priority flows.

Regardless of the alternative selected, (a) channel narrowing is expected to continue and cause a gradual reduction in crane riverine roosting habitat; (b) least tern and piping plover nesting habitat will continue to degrade; (c) the expected continued loss of open river and wet meadow habitat may result in a gradual decline in waterfowl habitat; (d) riparian forest acreage will increase to the detriment of federally listed species; and (e) biodiversity will continue to decline (Interior 1995, FERC 1994a).

The re-licensing of Kingsley Dam and associated facilities has continued for almost twelve years. FERC has produced draft, revised draft, and supplemental revised draft environmental impact statements (FERC 1992, 1994a, b). The process has been a major regulatory issue costing millions of dollars in staff time, field studies, and other resources. Burkardt et al. (1995) reviewed several FERC re-licensings and concluded that FERC negotiations are often protracted for an average of nine years because technical issues are not clear to the negotiating parties. Furthermore, they found that technical issues may be intractable because of fundamental, rather than technical, differences among the parties. Eckert (1993) signaled the failure of mediation efforts to resolve the Kingsley re-licensing and offered little encouragement that a settlement would be forthcoming soon. However, the FERC initially required certain flows in interim annual licenses but later rescinded those mandated flows (Sidle et al. 1990). The FERC will probably incorporate habitat and instream flow requirements in any new long-term license it grants.

Today is an era when all levels of government are supposed to provide quick and efficient services to the public. With that in mind, there should be reform of the re-licensing process to give faster decisions on natural resources and other public values associated with FERC-licensed projects. The public, agency employees, and others are tiring of costly delays.

Platte River Management Joint Study

In 1984, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, USFWS, and Bureau of Reclamation established the Joint Study. The purpose was to cooperate in discussions seeking ways to develop and implement recovery plans and programs for federally listed species. The Joint Study was to enable federal agency actions associated with water project development and depletions in the Platte River basin to proceed in compliance with the ESA while avoiding conflicts between the ESA and state water rights systems and the use of water appropriated to a state pursuant to the compact and decrees concerning the waters of the Platte River and its tributaries. Nineteen state and federal agencies and private organizations participated in the biology, hydrology, and management alternatives workgroups established by the Joint Study.

The biology workgroup identified the conditions in the Platte River basin necessary for maintenance and recovery of four listed species, the least tern, piping plover, bald eagle, and whooping crane (Joint Study 1993). The workgroup evaluated present and historical habitat conditions for the species, and modeled whooping crane roosting habitat and the requirements of the forage fish of the least tern. The workgroup suggested many habitat management alternatives and numerous implementation techniques (Appendix H).

The Joint Study and contemporaneous research probably improved the scientific content of USFWS biological opinions. Although much information was assembled by the workgroups and a draft Platte River recovery implementation plan was produced in 1993, no formal agreement was reached to implement this plan. Consequently, projects and activities subject to section 7 consultation under the ESA have been addressed on a project-by-project basis.

Memorandum of Agreement

Knopf and Scott (1990) signaled the difficulty in managing the ecological complexities of biotic associations in the Platte River system: "In addition to the various water development practices that have altered historical flow dynamics of the Platte headwaters, future conservation is confounded by the large number of political authorities that conduct land management practices...The quality of connectivity that is fundamental to understanding riparian systems has been ignored in a fractionated approach to natural resource policy and management."

In 1994, Interior entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) among Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming to establish a Platte River Basin Program (Program). We discuss this evolving Program at length because it is the most current Platte River conservation initiative. Although the Program has not been finalized, this discussion gives a general idea of the direction which may be necessary in a difficult and complex, modern-day conservation process.

The primary focus of the MOA is to address the needs of federally listed species, an identical goal of the discontinued Joint Study. The first purpose of the Program is to recover habitat of three target species (least tern, whooping crane, and piping plover) along the central Platte River. Secondly, the Program is to serve as the reasonable and prudent alternative in section 7 consultations (ESA) on existing and future activities in the Platte River Basin upstream of the confluence with the Loup River, including consultations on the pallid sturgeon. The third principal purpose of the Program is to adaptively manage the recovery of the habitats of the target species in such a manner that habitats of non-target, listed species are conserved, and that habitats of non-listed species of concern are conserved to reduce the likelihood of future listings.

The Program's long term goal is to restore and maintain the structure, function, patterns, and processes of in-channel and out-of-channel habitat in portions of the central Platte River Basin. This habitat is to be sustained in sufficient quantity and quality to support that part of the life cycle of the three target species (least tern, whooping crane, and piping plover) that occurs along the central Platte, and to reduce the likelihood of future listings of other species found in this area. The habitat will be a complex of open river channel, wetland meadow, and other suitable habitat, appropriately buffered. What follows below is a summary of various suggestions made by Interior to set a direction for the Program.

Land: The long term goal of the Program for restoring habitat for the three target species should be the equivalent of the block and segment plan prepared by the Biology Workgroup (1990) of the Joint Study. This plan calls for the management of approximately 29,000 acres of suitable habitat in 10 habitat complexes located between Lexington and Chapman, Nebraska.

Water: The flow regime now present on the central Platte in most years is inadequate to either maintain or restore the essential characteristics sought in the habitat complexes mentioned above. The long term goal of the Program cannot be achieved without the water necessary to establish and maintain these essential habitat characteristics. To this end, significant modifications in the timing and amount of water through the central Platte must accompany land management activities. Interior has identified about 130,000-150,000 acre-feet to be delivered by the Program during the first nine years of the Program. This amount is still short of the water needed to implement the USFWS's target flows.

Land and water goals would be evaluated through an adaptive management process. Adaptive management describes the operational format that integrates the incremental nature of implementing the Program with habitat management practices that are responsive to documented ecological trends in the managed habitat. A period of 18 to 25 years is anticipated to reach the Program's long term goals. The adaptive management process should include the following steps:

The following is a possible outline of the significant milestones in the first full increment of the Program:

Progress must be reasonably proportionate throughout the period over which the Program is implemented. A significant degree of certainty and stability can be provided in return for significant commitments to habitat restoration, so long as milestones are met. In the short term, 130,000-150,000 acre-feet and 10,000 acres represent substantive commitments to long-term (18-25 years) habitat goals of the program, and contribute toward offsetting the concurrent effects of projects during this initial increment. Water made available to the Program (130,000-150,000 acre-feet) could be applied exclusively to high priority shortages, or could be selectively distributed throughout the year.

The initial objectives for water may be met in a variety of ways:

In order for water developed by or dedicated to the Program to serve for section 7 compliance, Interior must be assured that such water would be legally protected. Responsibility for implementation of the Program should be shared by the federal government, state governments, and non-governmental interests to promote equity and efficiency in meeting long term goals.

The sponsors/beneficiaries of projects subject to section 7 should be responsible for their "fair share" of the total shortage of land and water habitat that needs to be restored to avoid the likelihood of jeopardy of listed species or adverse modification of critical habitat. In addition, such projects should be responsible for supplemental measures (in addition to land and water) that may be necessary by virtue of the location of specific project facilities and their impact on the habitat to be restored, i.e., sediment bypass, powerline relocation, operating changes at specific facilities, etc. The Bureau of Reclamation should share directly in the responsibilities of federal reclamation projects that serve non-reimbursable purposes.

State governments should share responsibilities for Program implementation. States should contribute in cash or in kind (along with the federal government) to the restoration of that amount of the total land and water habitat objective that is beyond the responsibility of the sponsors of projects subject to section 7. Each state should exercise its authority over land and water resources to protect water within its boundaries that is developed by or dedicated to the Program, from its point of origin to and through the habitat of the central Platte. Each state should also manage water in such a way as to prevent further diminution of flows through the habitat of the central Platte; future water development would have to replace depletions or utilize flows in excess of species requirements, including pulse flows.

The federal government should contribute along with the states to the restoration of that amount of the total land and water habitat objective that is beyond the responsibility of the sponsors of projects subject to section 7. The USFWS is to find that the Program and its timely implementation, together with any supplemental measures other than land and water that may be necessary, constitute reasonable and prudent alternatives for the operation of new and existing projects upstream of the confluence with the Loup River that are subject to section 7 and that may effect listed species associated with the Platte River Basin in Nebraska. Federal funds should be directed primarily toward measures that are not the direct responsibility of the sponsors/beneficiaries of projects subject to section 7. Federal and state governments share an interest in seeing additional habitat restored and a comprehensive solution implemented.

The 20-25-year period for the Program poses some challenges. As more demands on water are made, it will become more difficult to acquire and re-regulate water. Habitat acquisition is already difficult due to a lack of willing sellers and habitat. Wet meadows, although subject to regulatory intervention under section 404 of the Clean Water Act, continue to decline through conversion to cropland and other developments. Housing developments are creeping faster into the central Platte River valley. How much easier will habitat protection be over the next 25 years? By extending the Program over so many years, the Program cheats itself out of the opportunity to acquire needed habitat and invites delay and ever changing Program habitat goals and objectives. As the habitat base shrinks, acquisition and management costs probably will increase because expensive and unproven wet meadow restoration, for example, will become necessary.

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