The background and our objection to a proposal to transfer water from the Platte River Basin to the Republican River Basin
On December 28, 2020, Audubon Nebraska submitted a legal objection to a proposed transfer of streamflow from the Platte River Basin to the Republican River Basin. If approved, this “interbasin transfer” would divert water from one overused river to another, resulting in few long-term benefits to either basin - but many ecological costs for both.
The application to divert water from the Platte River and transfer it to the Republican River was first filed with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources in April of 2018 but was dismissed following objections by Audubon Nebraska and a number of other concerned entities. A revised application has now been submitted by Lower Republican Natural Resource District(NRD) and the Tri-Basin NRD, and just as before, objections to the application have been filed. As the application and objections move through the lengthy, back-and-forth, review process, Audubon Nebraska will be keeping a close eye on developments.
The proposed transfer would divert up to 10,000 acre/ft. from the Platte River just east of the city of North Platte, NE, and send it south through a series of irrigation and hydropower supply canals. Eventually, the water will reach Turkey Creek, a tributary of the Republican River, through which it will flow into the State of Kansas.
Both the Platte and Republican River basins are short on water supply but high in water demand. Nebraska has the highest reported number of irrigated acres in the nation and communities within both river basins rely heavily on the local agricultural economy. But demand for water along both rivers stretches beyond the Nebraska state line and formal water-sharing agreements with neighboring states are in place along each.
Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and the federal government have invested millions of dollars and decades of work into increasing streamflow in the central Platte River, which is critical habitat for the endangered and threatened species such as the Whooping Crane and Piping Plover, as well as other important species including the Interior Least Tern and the Sandhill Crane.
Proponents of the proposed interbasin transfer claim that only water that is not held under an approved water right will be diverted from the Platte River, but it must be remembered that there are benefits to having water in a river beyond fulfilling state-approved water rights and this stretch of the river is already either over-appropriated or fully appropriated. Platte River stream flows also support quality of life for surrounding communities through the provision of: clean drinking water; recreation, wildlife viewing, and hunting opportunities; and recharge for groundwater aquifers where water can be “banked” – saved during times of plenty and withdrawn during times of drought.
Over the years, people representing a diverse set of interests have learned that they could work together and improve conditions along the Platte River in order to benefit wildlife and ecology, as well as the economic wellbeing of people living in the watershed. Although challenging, these collective efforts have been successful and approval of the interbasin transfer would put the accomplishments of these long-standing efforts at risk.