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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Water for the Birds

How Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Feds Figured It Out

Story by Jayla Ryan Poppleton

It's no wonder, once you understand the competing interests involved, that it took 12 years for Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to hash out a deal to send water downstream on the Platte River for three rare birds and a fish. The three-state agreement, formally the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, officially began in January 2007.

The three state governors and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior began talking in 1994. They were joined by environmental groups and water users, who also had a vested interest in finding a solution to an increasingly impossible impasse: human water use for farms, cities, industry and sports versus the habitat needs of four species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The whooping crane, piping plover, interior least tern and pallid sturgeon each have critical habitat along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Since the late 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that every major water use on the North, South and Central Platte rivers that required consultation jeopardized that habitat. Permitting delays, costly mitigation and the frightening possibility of losing water rights pushed state governors to take the lead in resolving escalating conflicts. The initial discussion in 1994 centered on two objectives: Improve habitat for the target species and allow current and future water use to continue. The discussions were formalized in 1997 to construct parameters for the program, which, 10 years later, is finally under way.

‘Many times [the program] looked like it was going to run right off the end of a cliff,’ says David Little, Denver Water's director of planning. He was involved in negotiations from the beginning. Little is an alternate representing water users on the program's 12-member governance committee, composed of representatives from the three states, Department of the Interior, water users and environmental groups.

Little continues: ‘It really is pretty amazing when you get that diverse of a group together facing dire consequences. When you get to the edge of the cliff and look over, you go back and work a little harder.’

The word dire may sound a bit potent, but it's appropriate considering the bind all parties were in. Water users faced the uncertainty of continuing to use water they had already developed if the endangered species issue was not resolved. And those working to protect habitat knew more water was needed or recovery was unlikely. Fortunately for the birds, it seems the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is doing its job. And fortunately for Coloradans, the people who manage the water brokered the deal that will protect water use for at least 13 more years.

Ted Kowalski, who works for the Colorado Water Conservation Board and serves as the program's manager in Colorado says, ‘We're helping to solve a problem instead of standing in the way.’

Water users had little choice. The USFWS has issued countless jeopardy biological opinions for water-depletive projects on the Platte, citing those depletions as harmful to the critical habitat. In fact, almost every permit, whether new or up for renewal since the late 1970s, has hit the same wall. In order to proceed, the permit holder has to mitigate impacts, often in the form of one-for-one water replacement. Land acquisition and sediment augmentation could also be required to obtain compliance under Section 7 of the ESA, which states that permit-holders must ensure their projects aren't likely to impede endangered species recovery by deteriorating the species' habitat. These actions were cost prohibitive and sometimes impossible.

Enter the age of collaboration. The recovery program's effort will provide enough water and land to offset the impacts for all water projects on the Platte that fall into the federal nexus category, regulated by the ESA. Such projects require federal authorization, funding or are carried out by a federal agency. An example in Colorado is the Chatfield Reallocation Project in Littleton, which would increase Chatfield Reservoir's storage capacity by 20,000 acre feet, enough to supply 41,000 homes. Cities including Littleton, Denver, Parker, Castle Rock and Aurora are stakeholders in the project, which would fall under jeopardy with the USFWS without the recovery program.

Water users like those at Chatfield reap a tremendous benefit from pooling resources: They stand under an insurance umbrella that nets them ESA compliance for all four species simultaneously. To receive coverage, the only prerequisite is participation in the South Platte Water Related Activities Program, affectionately dubbed SPWRAP. Members pay a self-assessed tax to help Colorado finance its water obligation. In exchange, they can fly through a streamlined process for permit application; when they reach the section on documenting ESA compliance, they check a box and move on.

‘It's much more efficient to work on a programmatic basis to recover these species,’ says Kowalski. ‘It's also more cost-effective than if each individual water provider had to go through their own negotiations with the USFWS. Now you're able to leverage federal money and state money, resulting in a much more reasonable cost to water users.’
The program's first increment, which spans 13 years and costs $314 million, aims to reach one third of the ultimate goal for land and water in the critical habitat areas.

‘During the cooperative agreement they laid out the program but it doesn't cover every intricacy that needs to be figured out,’ says Jerry Kenny, who was named executive for the program last summer. He is based in Kearney, Neb.
Initially, the agreement is to provide an additional 130- to 150,000 acre feet of water during the months when target flows fall short of USFWS' recommendations. The program also will acquire from willing sellers 10,000 acres of land to restore and protect along the river corridor.

The federal government, which is poised to provide half the funding, is one step away from writing its first check. House Bill 1462, passed in mid-October, authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to spend $157 million. Senate Bill 752, which does the same, is awaiting final approval.

As for the states' half of the cash, Colorado will dole out most of it, mainly from the Colorado Species Conservation Trust Fund.

‘We're giving $24 million in 2005 dollars,’ says Alan Berryman, assistant general manager at Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. Berryman represents water users on the governance committee. ‘We decided with our population and how it's growing that it would be a lot easier to give money than water. Water's hard to come by.’
Wyoming will pay $6 million, and the rest of the three states' portion will come in the form of cash-water equivalents. Colorado will provide 10,000 acre feet, or roughly three billion gallons of water. That figure is worrisome at first glance, but it's important to note the program will not affect consumptive use for Colorado's water users.

‘We're not going to be taking away anybody's water,’ stresses Don Ament, former Colorado Agricultural Commissioner under Gov. Bill Owens and representative for the state of Colorado on the governance committee.

‘It's pretty hard for ranchers and farmers in Colorado to think they're having to put out water and money for these species clear down at Grand Island, (Neb.),’ says Ament. ‘But what we've put in place with this program is an insurance policy that protects these guys from dealing with the USFWS on each individual depletion they have, which would be very, very expensive.

‘Without question, this is absolutely the best thing that could happen to them.’

To fully appreciate the importance and implications of Colorado's obligation to provide water for species that live out of state, some geography and biology related to the Platte River is helpful.

Colorado is the headwaters for the North and South Platte Rivers. The North Platte River escapes into Wyoming with only 500 acre feet diverted for use in Colorado. But the South Platte, which runs straight through metro Denver and traipses across much of northeastern Colorado's agricultural heart, is the most heavily-relied on river basin in Colorado, supplying 772,400 acre feet of water in 2000. Near Julesburg, Colo., the South Platte crosses into Nebraska where it joins the north stem at North Platte, Neb.

The Platte River continues east across the North American Central Flyway, a north-south corridor for migrating birds, including the aforementioned cranes, plovers and terns. Further east, before its confluence with the Missouri River, the Platte's turbid waters nourish the freshly-laid eggs of the pallid sturgeon.

The river's riparian zones provide valuable sheltering, nesting and foraging habitat for the program's target species. But after 150 years of water development, the Platte's flow regime and structure have been altered dramatically, and the habitat is less of an Eden-like refuge than a liability.

For example, terns and plovers historically sought out the river's high sandbars as prime nesting sites. Snowmelt-driven spring flows of years past built sandbars that were high enough to withstand heavy summer rains. Now the sandbars are often inundated later in the season.

Whooping cranes are having trouble finding suitable sites to layover. The cranes look for wide, shallow sections of braided river with little vegetation so they can spot predators. Lower water levels have allowed so much new vegetation to take root that parts of the river look like forests.

According to Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, executive director of the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust, ‘For the last three summers (2004-2006) the riverbed was completely dry. You couldn't tell where it was, there was so much vegetation.’

It's so bad that the trust, which worked to restore native habitat, plows the river mechanically to clear vegetation so cranes will use it again.

Dan Luecke, a hydrologist who represented the National Wildlife Federation during the negotiations, said that the circumstances of the whooping crane are perilous. The last wild migratory population of whooping cranes uses the Platte River corridor as a stopover on their biannual migration. The birds require specific conditions for roosting and foraging in order to arrive healthy at their Canadian breeding grounds. Migration is the season of the species' highest mortality rate.

‘That migration is so risk-loaded for these birds that anything that might make it easier for them is important,’ said Luecke.

The Northern Great Plains piping plover was listed as threatened in 1985. The USFWS cites the elimination of nesting sandbars, drainage of wetlands and increased use of nesting areas by humans as reasons for its decline.
The interior least tern, one of the smallest tern species in North America, was listed as endangered in 1985. Like the piping plover, it breeds primarily on bare sandbars, many of which have been permanently inundated or destroyed by reservoirs and channelization projects.

The pallid sturgeon, a fish that can reach 85 pounds and swims up from the Missouri River to lay its eggs, is less understood. Listed as endangered in 1990, the sturgeon may have been affected by changing water temperatures and flow patterns following dam construction upstream, as well as expanded commercial harvest. Initially, the program will monitor sturgeon populations to test whether additional water provided for the birds will benefit the fish as expected.

Technically, the ESA targets only these four species for special protection, but the program's work will also benefit another bird, the sandhill crane.

Sandhills' habitat throughout the year extends from the northern United States to Siberia and from the southern United States to central Mexico. Once a year, half a million sandhills congregate along 80 miles of the Platte River for a six-week break on their way to their Arctic breeding grounds.

‘It is an ecological phenomenon,’ says Chavez-Ramirez. ‘Acre by acre, this is probably the most important piece of land for sandhill cranes. If we lost 100 square miles, it would probably decimate the population. If we lost that in the wintering or breeding grounds, it wouldn't even make a dent.’

Says Luecke, ‘The migration of the sandhill cranes is as close as you'd get in this country to a Serengeti experience. If the ESA and the leverage it gives for habitat protection has an impact on another species, I think that's great.’

Neither the sandhills nor the four target species are permanent residents on the Platte, but the river is still considered critical habitat, which, by definition, contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species that may require special management considerations or protection. The whooping crane, plover and tern's critical habitat is along the central Platte River between Lexington and Chapman, Neb., and the sturgeon's critical habitat is in the lower Platte River between its confluence with the Elkhorn and Missouri rivers.

Besides protecting and restoring land in those areas, the USFWS is asking for 417,000 acre feet of additional river flows. For now, the agreement is to provide one third of that amount. Other parties sharply questioned USFWS' target flow recommendations during negotiations.

‘It was the 800-pound gorilla in the room,’ says Mark Butler, the USFWS Platte River liaison. ‘It was there when negotiations began.’

Little agrees, ‘We had to stop arguing about the science and agree to allow USFWS to state what they believe is the species' need.’

‘For now, the USFWS recommendations will serve as a measuring stick, but will be subject to adaptive management,’ says Butler.

The agreement's adaptive management approach will give participants the chance to test and compare competing hypotheses about what the needs really are.

As Colorado's manager for the program, Kowalski coordinates the moving pieces to meet the state's obligations. For the water component, Colorado will retime up to 10,000 acre feet of water from times of surplus to times of deficit.

The water will be retimed at Tamarack State Wildlife Area, where wells along the river move water to recharge ponds at various distances. Engineers have determined how long it will take for the water to return to the river through underground aquifers. Water pumped in January and February, when there is no call on the river and interstate compacts are silent, can be returned to the river during the summer months when species need it most.

Tamarack currently retimes about 3,500 acre feet. Berryman expects it to reach 5,000.

‘We have a long list of potential sites we're going to be looking at to get the rest,’ says Berryman.

A small reservoir near the border is a possibility, though it gets tricky.

‘We can't store water in Colorado for the purpose of releasing it out of state,’ explains Kowalski. ‘It would need to serve a beneficial use in Colorado first.’

Tamarack is an example of how that can work. It had to abide by the same state statute. By providing ponds that raise minnow species of concern for Colorado and serve as habitat for waterfowl, the project meets Colorado's needs first.

So far, the three states have determined how to provide the first 80,000 acre feet of water, which will repay past depletions. Now they need to establish the other 50,000 to 70,000 acre feet to cover future water use. Each state has identified one possible project. Colorado's proposal is a more aggressive extension of the Tamarack project with additional wells and recharge ponds. That option seems unlikely to be pursued.

‘It's been an unspoken thought that it makes more sense to develop something in Nebraska, closer to where the water is needed,’ said Kowalski.

Looking into the future, no one is sure how successful the program will be.

‘Though I think the amount of land and water are appropriate levels for the program, they're modest treatments,’ says Luecke. ‘One of the big questions for me is whether there will be any noticeable changes for the species. What then? Thirteen years down the line when we ask the question, 'Have we made a difference?' I think the answer is going to be ambiguous.’

For now, the plan is in motion and participants are focused on meeting the program's more tangible goals.

‘The standard of success is not that the birds recover. They're migratory. We can't control what happens in the other habitats they use,’ explains Little. ‘The standard of success is that we implement the items that everyone has agreed on to make sure the Platte River is not limiting.’

Berryman agrees, ‘The most important thing for Colorado is to hit our milestones. If we do that, our water uses continue. In the next 13 years, we'll learn more about what the habitat does if we do certain things. This is a good step.’

Says Kowalski, ‘Overall, it is a lot better for our states to be working together toward a common goal rather than working against each other.’

Ament is excited about the progress: ‘We've had plenty of critics, as you can imagine. Some are my neighbors, I think. But what you have to understand is that we can't just do away with the ESA.’

At the same time, establishing the certainty that water use will continue unimpeded was imperative for Colorado. After all, the stakes are high.

The South Platte is already the most populated river basin in Colorado. It also embraces the largest number of irrigated acres. Its taxing load will only get heavier, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative. SWSI estimated population growth and future water demand in Colorado's eight major river basins for the period between 2000 and 2030. If its findings are accurate, we can anticipate 2.8 million new faces in Colorado by 2030. The majority will live, work, play and thirst in the arms of the South Platte basin.

' … like it belongs to them'
The endangered whooping crane has been called ‘King of the Marsh’ by one of the wildlife biologists most closely associated with ongoing recovery efforts.

‘The bird is so tall, and absolutely a brilliant white with beautiful plumage,’ says Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator at Aransas (Texas) National Wildlife Refuge. ‘It has such a royal presence.’

At 5 feet tall, with a 7-foot wingspan, the whooping crane is the tallest bird species in North America. It is also one of the most imperiled.

The majestic birds annually migrate from Aransas to Canada. Protecting the historic stopover along the Platte River in central Nebraska is the focus of the three-state agreement between Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

Stehn is charged with coordinating whooping crane recovery out of Aransas. Afraid of heights, Stehn braves the skies once a week to fly over the cranes' wintering habitat along the Texas Gulf coast and take an aerial census. Just last week, he counted a record 262 birds, up from 237 last year at this time.

‘Still, when you look at history, 262 is only a thimble-full,’ says Stehn with audible concern. ‘Anything can happen.’
Whooping cranes, endemic to North America, are thought to have numbered close to 1400 in 1870. By the 1920s, some biologists were beginning to realize they were incredibly rare. The whooping crane's numbers dwindled to an all-time low of 15 birds in 1941, due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1967, they were listed as endangered under the predecessor to the 1970 Endangered Species Act.

Today, only one wild migratory flock remains. The birds winter along 35 miles of the Texas Gulf Coast, largely in the

Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges. There they stake out territory in the marshes, feeding primarily on blue crabs to shore up for the long journey ahead. In the spring, they fly 2,500 miles north to breed in the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

Whooping cranes live an average of 25 years in the wild. Breeding pairs mate for life and will lay about 2 eggs per year. A good pair will return to the Gulf with one chick in tow every other year. At that rate, Stehn points out, even under the best conditions recovery is going to be slow.

The goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery plan for whooping cranes is 1,000 individuals and 250 breeding pairs maintained for 10 years. At that point, the species could be reclassified as threatened.

The goals for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock are adjusted if other flocks can be successfully established in the wild. Currently a non-migratory flock in Florida and another that migrates following ultralight aircraft between Florida and Wisconsin total about 100 birds. These flocks are considered experimental and are comprised of birds re-introduced from captive breeding programs.

Some have pointed to the whooping crane as a symbol of conservation in this country.

‘It was so rare, absolutely on the brink of extinction,’ says Stehn. ‘We almost lost it, but people stepped in.’
Still, Stehn worries about the species' future. As a single population with low numbers, the birds are vulnerable to potential catastrophes ranging from disease to an oil spill along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway that flows right past Aransas. Stehn also mentions migrational hazards like power lines and wind turbines, both continually erected even on wildlife refuges.

Habitat loss along the 150-mile wide migration corridor continues to be a key threat.

Says Stehn, ‘I'm worried that at some point these numbers that are slowly increasing are going to taper off. You can't recover whooping cranes without habitat.’

Each fall, Stehn greets the returning whooping cranes as they descend on Aransas to re-stake their territorial claims.

‘Kind of like my kids are coming home,’ says Stehn.

‘The thing that really strikes me about whooping cranes is when I see one standing in the marsh, that marsh looks like it belongs to them. They've been coming here for tens of thousands of years. We should do everything we can to allow it to continue.’

And if flying helps, Stehn laughs, then his excitement about working with cranes trumps his fear.

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