The lower Platte River: Flowing just under the radar, part 2

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Last month Rodney Verhoeff laid the background for the Nov. 6 Second Biennial Platte River Summit, beginning Prairie Fire’s focus on the lower Platte River. This month Verhoeff discusses the land and water uses in the valley. In a future issue, we will present a different perspective on the lower Platte by Frank Albrecht, a board member of LPRCA and assistant division administrator for the Realty and Environmental Services Division of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

By Rodney Verhoeff

Traversing its way through eight counties in Nebraska and braiding its way past 24 communities, this dynamic river system crosses rural landscapes, flows past tree-lined bluffs, and bisects the Omaha-Lincoln metro corridor on the way through eastern Nebraska to its mouth where Louis and Clark stopped on their historic journey. Frequently cutoff from upper stretches of the Platte River because of low base flows near Columbus, the lower Platte River receives much of its base flow from the Loup River and Elkhorn River Basins. Rarely, if ever in recent history, has this stretch of the Platte gone dry. In fact, flooding is often more of a concern from spring rains and wintertime ice jams. Flow (discharge) can range from an average of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to nearly 16,000 cfs annually. Compare this to flow (discharge) just upstream of the lower Platte stretch (near Duncan, Neb.) that ranges an average of 286 to 3,700 cfs, with a particular emphasis on the lower values in recent years. This year was quite exceptional with the many spring storms and resulting high precipitation and runoff into the lower Platte River. Although high flows sound good for providing adequate water supplies, creating a continuous river channel for movement of fish and other aquatic species, and scouring unwanted vegetation and debris, they can also be problematic because of flooding, seasonal loss of sandbar habitat, and increased transport and distribution of noxious weed seeds further downstream.

Some of the most obvious characteristics of this stretch of the Platte River are the “braided” channels, sandbars and vegetated islands. Truly, the old adage “a mile wide and an inch deep” still applies to many portions of this lower reach. Love them or hate them, airboats are the best way to expeditiously move around on the lower Platte through these braided channels and shallow depths. In fact, airboating is so popular that Nebraska has the second largest airboat contingency, only eclipsed by the Florida Everglades group. Canoeing, although also quite popular, can be challenging and can require a considerable amount of portaging over sandbars and around debris. However, for those wanting a good workout and wonderful scenery, the lower Platte offers miles of paddling. In fact, the lower Platte River is designated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission as a state water trail. 

Although a great portion of this river is still in a very natural state, some areas near communities and in proximity of infrastructure such as roads and bridges have been modified considerably. As an example, levees built in the early 1900s to help reduce flooding impacts and direct water and ice flows away from residences and infrastructure create a more engineered and channelized appearance. Prior to the advent of levees on this stretch, flows in the Platte could spread out into its broad floodplain as needed during high flows. By design, levees now restrict this flow from spreading out and create a “flushing” effect, working to move water quickly downstream. However, problems can arise when ice jams and other debris clog the system and are held in tight or are constricted between the levees on both banks. Because of encroachment into the floodplain, levees are necessary to protect development and important infrastructure, as well as save lives. In recent years, as levees have been rehabilitated or modified, a variety of conservation measures have been required to help mitigate and offset habitat loss and channel modification due to the levees and to reconnect the river to its floodplain.

The two largest municipal water systems in the state, Lincoln Water System (LWS) and Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD) water system, have their well fields or major portions of them in the lower Platte River Basin. This equates to over 50 percent of Nebraskans getting their drinking water from this area. During the flood of 1993, two of Lincoln’s water lines were damaged by the ice-induced flooding and several bridges were damaged, including I-80. This event certainly raised awareness of the need for cooperation to protect and manage both natural and anthropogenic resources in the region. At the same time, it also reminded us of the power of Mother Nature and our responsibility to respect these powerful forces.

The exceptional biodiversity in the Lower Platte River Corridor is a direct result of the diverse, high-quality contiguous habitat found in the region. Wet meadows, Todd Valley playas, remnants of hickory-oak forests, sandstone/limestone bluffs, grasslands, marshes, sandbar formations and cottonwood-willow-dogwood stands all represent components of this rich landscape. The National Audubon Society has even named the Schramm Bluffs area in the corridor as one of their prestigious “Important Bird Areas.” Looking at the river itself, over 53 species of fish have been identified, including the endangered pallid sturgeon, an ancient species with a long snout and an armor-plated appearance. Sandbar formations provide nesting habitat for the threatened piping plover and endangered least tern, two bird species found throughout the corridor. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has designated the Lower Platte River area as a “Biological Unique Landscape” or BUL because of its potential to offer some of the best opportunities for conserving the flora, fauna and important habitat in Nebraska. This designation came as a part of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, a statewide effort to design a “blueprint” for biological conservation in the state. Whether referencing individual species such as bald eagles, mink, whitetail deer, channel catfish, river otters or the Blandings turtle, or describing the broader ecological communities and the many interactions between species and the natural environment, the lower Platte River is a biologically rich landscape deserved of special considerations and protections.

According to Nebraska Department of Economic Development statistics, the Lower Platte River Corridor has five of the top tourist attractions in Nebraska, resulting in $30 million in annual revenues. Additionally, the two state parks in the area, Mahoney State Park and Platte River State Park, and the six recreation areas attract nearly 3,000,000 visitors each year. The area also boasts several premier golf courses, a wildlife safari, the Strategic Air & Space Museum, boat ramps/marinas, youth camps and a myriad of other attractions. As the population continues to increase in the area, and as the economy chugs through tough times with higher fuel prices, people will continue to look for less expensive recreational opportunities and options that are closer to home. The lower Platte River offers an affordable yet very enriching and engaging option right in our own backyard.

Two major industries rely heavily upon the Lower Plate River Corridor and the resources found there. Agriculture has long been a major player in this area with thousands of acres of highly productive farmland including the Todd Valley area, a paleo (ancient) Platte River channel, where the land is some of the most productive in the world. The prevalence of this industry in the region and its associated good stewardship is a major reason for the high quality of natural resources and retained rural characteristics despite tremendous development pressures. Many agricultural landowners are looking to conservation easements to help protect their properties and ensure they stay in agriculture or open space for perpetuity. Several organizations such as the Nebraska Land Trust, the NRDs and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) offer these voluntary easement programs as one option for landowners.

Aggregate mining represents another big industry in the region, producing sand and gravel, cement and crushed limestone. Because of these vast aggregate deposits along the entire Platte River Valley in Nebraska, these materials are plentiful and contribute to our economy to the tune of nearly $160 million annually. Most of the cost associated with projects requiring aggregate is related to travel costs, and having a nearby source drastically reduces costs for projects such as expanding I-80. But what do you do with the aggregate pits when finished? In many cases, housing goes up, while in a few cases the area is rehabilitated into wetland habitat or recreational lands. Along with the housing comes concern related to wastewater (where does it go?) and water supply (where does it come from?). The Lower Platte River Corridor has over 4,000 septic systems, many located in sandpit communities that individually may not pose a threat to water quality but cumulatively can create concern. To proactively address all of these issues and develop a reclamation plan prior to commencement of mining operations, a collaborative partnership known as PACE (Planning-Aggregate-Community-Environment) was formed between mining companies, governmental agencies, and special-interest and conservation groups. 

Over 55 percent of Nebraskans live in and adjacent to this basin, which is projected to have 80 percent of Nebraska’s population growth by 2010 (2000 U.S. census), all of this in an area that accounts for only 5 ½ percent of the total land area in Nebraska. With nearly 1,000,000 people relying upon the lower Platte River area for basic needs, the importance of this area for just people, not even considering the value for all of the flora and fauna that call the area home, becomes obvious. Just as we rely upon these resources for our activities, we also have a great responsibility to take care of all of these resources and implement appropriate management initiatives and protection strategies. What will the area look like in 10, 25 or 50 years and will we be proud of what we left the next generation? Growth and development will happen. However, employing new sustainable strategies, low-impact development (LID) designs, and utilizing green infrastructure approaches are important. We must also have buy-in from all levels, but particularly from the local jurisdictions and general public to lead the charge. We have a grand opportunity right in front of us to maintain and improve this river system and maintain local control. But this opportunity is not available forever—it is here and now.

I will soon be continuing on my career journey from the LPRCA to my next stop in Boise, Idaho, but I feel compelled to tell the story of the oft-forgotten portion of the Platte River— the lower Platte—because it must be told and because it holds a special place in my heart and mind. This is a critical time for the lower Platte River and a chance for all of us to be proactive to stave off the environmental, political and legal issues that besiege so many other rivers. Although not grammatically correct, I frequently reference the lower Platte River with a capital ‘L’ (as in Lower Platte River) because it is truly distinct and deserves its own consideration and careful analysis rather than being treated as just the lower portion of our designated state river in Nebraska. Although this river flows just under the radar and rarely receives the attention of other rivers or stretches of the Platte, it also deserves to be protected and given the same reverence as our other rivers.

Lacking the myriad of litigation, interstate compacts, management decrees and legal/policy wrangling, the “forgotten Platte,” as some call it, doesn’t always make the headlines, but it is a complicated system with complex hydrology and hydrogeology, multiple and often competing interests, diverse habitats and landscapes, and an area that is seeing unprecedented development and growth. Yet, it remains a healthy river system, supporting not only human needs and activities but also a variety of flora and fauna, several of which are threatened and endangered. However, the cracks are beginning to show, and the now is the time to make that stand to keep the river basin thriving, diverse and sustainable.

The lower Platte River is at a crossroads—a pivotal moment in history where we can shape the future of this basin. Ten years from now, we may be looking to restore, reclaim and fix all of the problems. Other stretches of the Platte River are already engaged in a multi-state “recovery” program that has cost millions of dollars to develop and will cost as much, if not more, to implement. It is much more efficient, cost-effective, and, quite frankly, more prudent to be proactive rather than reactive and crisis-oriented. This cannot happen without the involvement of all stakeholders—local jurisdictions, landowners, the general public, government, special-interest groups, private businesses—using a “bottom-up” approach that empowers all of us and offers opportunities to make a difference. What will be our legacy for this basin?

 

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The lower Platte River: Flowing just under the radar

The lower Platte River: Flowing just under the radar, part three

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