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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.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Rising Waters

By Dan MacArthur

States Agree to Increase Platte River Flows for Struggling Fish and Birds

After more than a decade of frustrating and yet persistent negotiation, agreement is growing nearer on a plan to recover four threatened or endangered species along Nebraska's Platte River.

The portion of the central Platte extending from Lexington to Chapman has been designated as critical habitat for survival of the endangered whooping crane and interior least tern in addition to the threatened piping plover. The lower Platte River from its confluence with the Elkhorn River to the Missouri is designated as critical habitat for the endangered pallid sturgeon.

The need for a cooperative, comprehensive approach to developing a federally-mandated recovery plan became apparent as fractious conflicts quickly arose.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion wanted as much as 417,000 acre-feet more water in the Platte River each year for threatened and endangered species, specifically to offset the effects of new and existing water diversion projects. But water users resisted these federal demands—demands based on what they considered to be shaky science that failed to address recovery of the species as a whole.

By 1994, officials agreed that a basin-wide approach was needed to limit further conflict and meet the needs of both imperiled species and water users. Subsequent negotiations in 1997 resulted in a ‘Three States Cooperative Agreement’ to address Endangered Species Act issues affecting water development in the Platte River Basin.

A non-governmental group called the Platte River Endangered Species Partnership was charged with designing the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. A governance committee was formed to develop details of a plan for the first increment of the recovery program. This 10-member committee includes representatives from Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, North and South Platte water users, downstream water users, environmental and avian interests.

The Platte River recovery program is aimed at meeting Endangered Species Act mandates by ensuring that future water diversions from the river won't threaten the four species' existence. It also strives to assure that additional species won't be listed, and that current and future water users won't face additional demands for more water or habitat—at least for the 13-year term of this agreement.

At this time, the partnership's proposal is to incrementally increase flows in the Central Platte River by 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet annually. This is a substantial amount, given that the current flow of the South Platte River at the Colorado state line averages some 403,000 acre-feet per year, according to data collected by the Colorado State Engineer (2003). The partnership also plans to eventually protect, restore and maintain 10,000 acres of habitat in central Nebraska.

Dan Luecke, a Boulder-based consultant to the National Wildlife Federation, represents the environmental community on the governance committee. He says he expects the final Environmental Impact Statement due out later this year to largely endorse the partnership's proposal, which he regards as ‘an important first step.’ However, he believes more water and habitat may be needed in the future.

In the first phase of the agreement, each of the three states would cooperate to supply some 80,000 acre-feet of water. In Wyoming, this would involve restoring the full capacity of Pathfinder Reservoir. In Nebraska, 100,000 acre-feet in Lake McConaughy would be earmarked as an ‘environmental account’ to store water dedicated to recovery of the species. Colorado has agreed to implement its Tamarack Phase One Plan. This project takes water from the river during times when junior water rights are available—primarily during the winter. That water is temporarily stored in shallow underground aquifers where it gradually and predictably makes its way back to the river when water is scarce—primarily in the summer. This initial step would provide 10,000 acre-feet annually to the recovery program.

The remaining 50,000 acre-feet per year needed for the first phase would come from Water Action Plans developed by each state. These plans include measures such as conservation (e.g., canal lining) and additional managed groundwater recharge programs.

Luecke is optimistic the water and land provided in this first phase of the agreement will tangibly benefit species by producing wider, shallower river channels, increased wetlands and bigger buffer areas. That belief, however, has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is scheduled to release its final biological opinion in October 2005.

Allen Berryman, who heads Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District's Engineering Services Branch and represents South Platte River water users on the committee, is convinced the partnership's efforts will come together this year.

The biggest catch is the cost of the recovery program, which has risen from an original estimate of $75 million to more than $175 million today. This would be split evenly between the states and the federal government, with Colorado and Nebraska each responsible for 40 percent of the states' cost and Wyoming paying 20 percent, over a period of 30 years.

However, there is concern that the recovery program could still be derailed by legislators in the three states chafing at its high price tag. In Colorado's case, many feel that the state is unlikely to be able to pony up its share, given its current budget distress. That means the costs would have to be borne by every Coloradan who uses Platte River water, especially municipal customers served by major providers like the Northern water district and Denver Water.

Berryman said he is reluctant to predict precise costs because it is still unclear how many South Platte water users will participate in the recovery program and what share of the cost they will bear. He did, however, note that there are some three million water users in the South Platte Basin who in some way could share Colorado's total estimated cost of $2 to $3 million a year.

‘They're going to have to convince all the water users in the South Platte that it's a good deal,’ says Luecke. Berryman, too, is convinced it's a price water users must be prepared to pay to balance the need for species' habitat, if they want to maintain control of their water.

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