One of the biggest users of the Platte doesn’t actually take water out of the river. It’s used by wildlife—especially migrating birds. Most Nebraskans are familiar with the annual spectacle of millions of birds roosting in the central Platte on their way north. But few know how much work occurs year round to maintain this quality habitat, especially for endangered species. For our in-depth report “Water Demands on the Platte,” NET News looked at how the river is being managed for wildlife.
Brice Krohn, habitat manager for the Crane Trust, leads the way through a dense thicket along the banks of the central Platte River until we arrive at a huge machine. The Trust uses this agricultural disk—like a mechanized hoe with big, rotating metal blades—to uproot thick stands of invasive weeds, shrubs and young trees on the river’s edge. Krohn said the plants’ deep roots cause problems because they keep sandbars in place, and suck a lot of water out of the river.
“We’re going to help Mother Nature by going in and disking, tearing up the roots on some of these plant species, which will let the vegetation to die and sand will be more able to move around. If they stay there and grow, it would channelize the river,” Krohn said.
Deep channels aren’t good for birds. They prefer a shallow, braided river with bare sandbars, “Cranes like a wide river, wide field of view, unobstructed view. They feel safe from predators when they’re roosting overnight in wide, shallow channels,” Krohn said.
And this in prime crane territory. Millions of birds spend a few weeks here every spring, resting and fattening up on the surrounding grasslands and fields before continuing their migration north—as they have for thousands of years. But more recent demands from irrigators and cities have substantially changed the river. Krohn said today’s flows are only about a quarter of what they were historically, “The old premise was a mile wide and a foot deep. So if we look now we’re sitting at, in some spots, 100 yards wide and three and four foot deep,” Krohn said.
That powerful, much bigger river used to scour vegetation from the banks and channel—even more than it did during the recent flood that swept down from Colorado. Other factors played a role, too.
“Historically, we know fires came through the area, we know the river was a broader scheme, bison used to graze through here,” Krohn said.
The Crane Trust is hoping to mimic those impacts on about 10,000 acres of habitat on the big bend of the Platte. In addition to tearing out trees and other plants, nearby landowners graze cattle on the banks. And the Trust is reintroducing its own small herd of bison. They also burn certain areas, and use pesticides. Krohn said without these efforts, we’d be losing more habitat every day.
“If we don’t do anything today for it, the way the river is today will not be here for future generations,” Krohn said.
But the Trust isn’t the only group working on the river. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program formed as a way to avoid lengthy court battles between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska over water rights and endangered species. The program is a collaborative effort between those states, the federal government, water users and conservation groups. Executive Director Jerry Kenny said it works to protect land and water for the threatened and endangered species in the Platte Basin: the whooping crane, interior least tern, pallid sturgeon and piping plover.
“The river wasn’t able to take care of itself under the constraints that we imposed upon it. At least to create the habitat that we think the species need—we need to step in and help restore that,” Kenny said.
The six year-old program manages about 10,000 acres of habitat along the central Platte. And they’re working on getting more water back in the river. Some is contributed by the three states. Another method is leasing Platte river water—using federal funds—from irrigators who switch to groundwater. They get the additional water in the river at certain times when the species need it—like during whooping crane migration—through what Kenny called “retiming:” You store water in a surface water reservoir when it’s a time of excess; you release it when it’s a time of shortage.
They’re working on a new reservoir with Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District to do that. Another way to get more water is paying people to use less of it. Kenny said that’s harder to quantify, and admits the program has been criticized by the community for spending a lot of money “on just a few birds.” He disagreed, “It’s not just for benefit of species, it's for the benefit of people who live in basin as well.”
He said the program’s work to help endangered species protects rights of existing Platte water users, and streamlines the approval process for new water projects. They’re also studying the best way to manage land and water for species, like at their Fort Kearney property, where they’ve converted cropland to a wet meadow.
Kenny said it’s one of two sites they have heavily instrumented to investigate wet meadow hydrology: “How can you make a wet meadow wet, and how do you keep a wet meadow wet?” Kenny said.
The Crane Trust is interested in some of those same questions. And they’re using cameras to help answer them. Crane Trust Science Director Mary Harner said wet meadows are some of the first habitats to disappear when river hydrology changes.
“We’ve lost a lot of these wet meadows and associated biodiversity they support along Platte River,” Harner said.
They’ve set up a series of cameras to track how and when the birds use that habitat. Harner said that’s valuable data that’s hard to gather without disturbing or influencing the birds. She’s been working with the Platte Basin Timelapse team, which also has cameras along the central Platte, to create videos for her research.
Kenny said the Platte Basin Timelapse project provides qualitative monitoring to blend with their other data. They help fund it because he believes it’s a great way to teach the public about the natural and manmade forces that shape the Platte—and the species that depend on it.
A time-lapse video of a wet meadow crane habitat at Mormon Island, in central Nebraska. (Video courtesy of the Platte Basin Timelapse project)
Editor's Note: Funding for NET News’ “Water Demands on the Platte” is provided by “Penn State Public Media” and its “Water Blues – Green Solutions” local reporting initiative.