"The three big things we're thinking about are structure (we want unfragmented landscapes), function (we want healthy grasslands), and process (we want to use water sustainably)," said John Heaston, Platte River Program Director.
For most of us, the Platte River provides the water we drink. It nourishes our crops, and its rich floodplain grasses feed our cattle and livestock. The Platte’s deep sand and gravel deposits help drive our economic engine. Its rich floodplain and abundant wetlands provide recreational opportunities. The character of the Platte gives us a sense of place and identity. Its history establishes our state as the crossroads of America.
It is not only people who rely on the gifts of the Platte. The 80-mile stretch known as the Big Bend Reach is a vital fall and spring stopover for birds migrating between North and South America. The broad river, wet meadows, and generous food supply in the “pinch in the hourglass” help sustain millions of migratory birds including sandhill cranes, ducks and geese — as well as shorebirds federally listed as endangered, such as the interior least tern and piping plover. Several nests have been built by bald eagles along the Central Platte. Read about a recently completed wetland restoration project.
The future of this generous river is in doubt. Challenges to the Platte include drought, invasive vegetation choking out the main channel, and growing competition for water up and down the system. The Nature Conservancy has been working along the Platte for three decades.
With the start in 2007 of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, a compact among Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska, we now have a historic opportunity to secure a much healthier future for the Platte River. After 12 years of discussion and compromise among the states, federal agencies, water users and municipalities, the agreement is based on the belief that a basin-wide cooperative effort is the best approach to help resolve endangered species issues while allowing water uses to continue.
The Conservancy is actively engaged in the Recovery Program, helping to make more water available in the river at times when wildlife can use it, and to provide more acres for habitat along the river. With combined resources contributed by the states and federal government of $317 million over the next 12 years, these efforts to shape and facilitate the Recovery Program’s actions will have dramatic, large-scale and lasting impact on the Platte’s ecosystem.
Platte River Program Director John Heaston hopes that technology will provide keys to better river management. In the months and years ahead, Heaston's team plans to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping to incorporate existing data about hydrology, location of species of concern, general vegetation structure, and other sources to pinpoint and prioritize future work. "We can take advantage of this information and better know what's needed in an average year - or when there's flooding or a drought," he said.