Species conservation, Platte River effort necessary to conserve species, protect water rights
On Feb. 28, the Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) released their draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the proposed extension of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP).
The program, which includes Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska water users, three states, the federal government and environmental and conservation organizations, proposes to extend the First Increment of PRRIP by 13 years, allowing for continued compliance for water related projects with a federal nexus under Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The PRRIP has its roots in ESA consultations for water-related projects in the 1970s and 1980s, says Brock Merrill, BuRec Platte River Program coordinator.
“There were a number of jeopardy opinions completed for water-related projects, which determined that those projects would detrimentally impact the endangered whooping crane and its habitat in central Nebraska,” Merrill explains. “One of those projects was Grey Rocks Reservoir.”
As a result, in the late 1980s, BuRec and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) began working together with Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming to examine the ESA issues at stake with regards to water related projects in the basin.
“In 1994, three governors and the Secretary of the Interior entered into an agreement to explore ways to address ESA issues while still allowing water use and development to continue,” Merrill continues. “Everyone thought a collaborative program was the best way to proceed, and in 1997, they signed another cooperative agreement to develop the program.”
Development of PRRIP took 10 years, and the process involved an environmental impact statement and associated ESA consultation and biological opinion, program documents and more.
“In late 2006, the Governors and Secretary of the Interior signed another cooperative agreement to implement PRRIP, and the program started Jan. 1, 2007,” Merrill says. “The First Increment of the program was scheduled to run for 13 years through Dec. 31, 2019.”
Inside the program
The progress of the PRRIP First Increment is measured through achievement of 10 milestones, which were supposed to be achieved by 2019 for ESA compliance.
“Eight of the 10 milestones have been achieved, and the two outstanding milestones have to do with the program’s Water Action Plan and Nebraska’s depletion plan,” Merrill says.
The first milestone, the Water Action Plan, requires PRRIP to implement projects capable of reducing shortages to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows in the Central Platte River by an annual average of 50,000 acre-feet. To date, approximately 10,000 acre-feet of that goal has been met.
“The other part, Nebraska’s depletion plan is the responsibility of the State of Nebraska,” Merrill adds.
Since two of the milestones in the First Increment had not been met, the program’s Governance Committee, a team representing all stakeholders in PRRIP, proposed an extension to continue to achieve the milestones, reduce shortages to target flows and complete enough scientific investigation to determine the needs of species as it relates to the Central Platte River.
“Today, we have three projects that provide around 10,000 acre-feet of water on an annual average basis right now, so we have more work to do to achieve the water milestone,” Merrill explains. “Then, we will conduct scientific work to see what the water needs of ESA-protected species are along the Platte River.”
“We want to get our goals for the Water Action Plan finished and continue our scientific investigations, as well as maintain the habitat that has been acquired for the benefit the target species,” he summarized.
The extension proposes an additional 13 years for the First Increment, moving the end date to Dec. 31, 2032.
Both a draft EA and FONSI have been released to the public for comment.
“The draft EA discloses the potential effects of extending the program,” explains Merrill. “Really, the Extension isn’t any different than the original First Increment, and we are continuing the same projects. Our goals, targets and management structure have not changed either, so the EA discloses these impacts.”
The FONSI essentially determines a program extension will not have a significant impact warranting the need for an Environmental Impact Statement.
“Comments will be accepted on these documents until April 14,” Merrill adds.
Merrill also emphasizes a series of public meetings will be held to provide opportunity for comment and the opportunity for the public to ask questions. Meetings will be held on March 14 in Kearney, Neb. and March 15 in Grand Island, Neb. Additionally, a public meeting will be held on March 20 at the Goshen County Fairgrounds in Torrington and March 21 at The Ranch Events Complex in Loveland, Colo.
“Our public meetings will be held from 6-8 p.m., with a presentation at 6:30 p.m.,” Merrill says. “We will utilize an open house format that is informal to help facilitate discussion with and questions from the public regarding the Program and the proposed extension.”
Merrill says the PRRIP provides a benefit ranchers and farmers who utilize water from the North Platte River and its tributaries.
“We’re continuing the same activity that we’ve been doing for the last 13 years,” he comments. “PRRIP allows people who irrigate with direct flow rights from the North Platte and its tributaries and people who rely on storage from federal reservoirs to continue to divert water.
“The program allows BuRec to operate our projects as we have over the past 100 years since we built Pathfinder Reservoir, so we can deliver water to irrigation districts and water users associations and the farmers and ranchers they serve. This program protects that ability,” Merrill adds.
Further, Merrill notes, “It’s always good for people to know what’s going on around them, and public support for programs like PRRIP helps BuRec to address things that impact water users. It’s important for water users to be aware of regulatory actions that might impact them.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.