Platte-Republican diversion proposal makes waves in Nebraska

Bill Taddicken, left, works to protect wildlife on the Platte. Bill Bose, right, farms along the Republican. (Photos by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 2, 2019 - 3:29pm

A proposal to divert water from the Platte River to the Republican River is making waves in Nebraska. Supporters say the plan would help farmers in the Republican Valley and would help the entire state. Opponents worry about effects on fish, wildlife, and other downstream users on the Platte.

On a muggy, late June morning, Bill Bose crunches on gravel toward his pickup truck. Bose is showing a visitor around his farm near Orleans, Nebraska, on the Republican River.

“We do a little bit of everything. I mean, we farm irrigated ground and dryland ground, and run about 400 head of cows,” he says.

Like many Nebraskans, Bose says he depends on water to make a living. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a farmer or you’re a storeowner in a small town or you work in a factory in a big town. Water is Nebraska. I mean, we need it,” he says.

Bose supports the proposal to divert water from the Platte River, in central Nebraska, to the Republican River, in the south. That’ll help him keep irrigating his crops, and not having to stop because there’s not enough water flowing down the Republican into Kansas.

When Nebraska fell short of that goal last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to pay Kansas $5.5 million. Scott Dicke of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District, which regulates irrigation along this stretch of the river, says diverting water from the Platte makes sense. “This is a piece of the puzzle that gets us to help farmers here. It also helps the state of Nebraska and all the state citizens that have to pay taxes that went to pay for the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court,” Dicke says.

But outside the Republican basin, there’s resistance to the diversion proposal.

To read the Platte-Republican diversion proposal, click here.

Alongside a windswept Platte River, Bill Taddicken talks about what migrating sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes need to protect themselves from predators. “Cranes roost in the river. And what they want is an unobstructed view – anywhere from 700 to 1,000 feet channel is what current science on the species says they require,” he says.

Taddicken is director of the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary, dedicated to preserving habitat for the cranes and other birds. He’s not reassured by proposal supporters’ promise that they’d divert water only when there are excess flows in the Platte. “Some people have an opinion there’s excess water in the river. But for the past 13 years of the Platte River Recovery Program, we have never met our water goals,” he says.

That recovery program reflects an agreement 13 years ago between Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming and the federal government. It sets targets for how much water should be in the river. In the 10 years for which figures are currently available, flows fell short every year.

 But for certain periods within those years, flows exceeded their targets. And that’s when supporters of the proposal would divert the water.

Their case is now before the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Anthony Schutz, a water law expert at the University of Nebraska College of Law, says one key question could be whether the diverted water is being used, in a legal sense. “When we take this water out of the Platte and put it in the Republican, is it going to be used for anything? Regardless of whether or not that use is beneficial, is it going to be used? Is it going to be consumed?” Schutz asks.

Map showing route of proposed diversion from Platte irrigation canal to Republican (Courtesy CNPPID)

Critics say the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, whose canals would transport the water to the Republican basin, would not be using it for the benefit of its constituents. But Schutz points out  Nebraska law allows transferring water between basins if it’s for a “beneficial use.” And it specifically defines beneficial use as including interstate compact purposes.

That’s a law Jeff Fassett, director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, will be following when he decides on the proposed diversion..

“One of the questions the director has to answer is whether or not the interbasin transfer is for a beneficial use, as defined. It seems to me that that language of interstate compact is fairly powerful language, at least in terms of what the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District would argue,” says Schutz.

At a hearing last week, Central, along with the Tri-Basin and Lower Republican Natural Resources Districts, made that argument in favor of the project. They were opposed by groups including the North Platte, Central Platte, and Lower Loup NRDs, as well as the Nebraska Public Power District.

In an interview, Jeff Shafer of NPPD said the utility objects because the proposal could threaten the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, putting NPPD’s license to operate its North Platte hydro station at risk.

Back at his farm along the Republican River, Bill Bose says farmers like himself have already made major changes to conserve water, and the proposed diversion would help people. “You want to be a little careful that your endangered species aren’t the people that are paying the bill at some point in time,” he says.

And on the Platte, Bill Taddicken of the Audubon Society says it’s a complicated issue. “The socioeconomic issues revolving around water are what make it so hard. And that’s why, y’know, ‘Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’,’” he says.

That fight over the Platte-Republican diversion proposal continues. Director of Natural Resources Fassett is expected to make a decision later this year. After that, the issue could end up in court.

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