Thinking Like a Watershed An Ecosystem Approach to Preserving the Platte River

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Prairie Fire welcomes back Brian “Fox” Ellis to our pages. He brings us an important theme in regard to the Platte River basin. As a nationally known storyteller who often appears at meetings and conferences in the persona of John J. Audubon, Charles Darwin, and other famous naturalists and scientists, Ellis delivers his message in a conversational rather than scientific format, and his message is one that Prairie Fire is eager to help him promote.

By Brian “Fox” Ellis

Please, I invite you to contemplate an entangled stream bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, there are birds singing on the bushes, a multitude of insects flitting about, worms crawling through the damp earth, and this river cuts through layers of fossil plants and ancient sea beds… reflect with me on these elaborately constructed forms, all have been produced by the laws of nature acting around us… There is a grandeur in this view of life, Power breathed into a few forms or maybe just one, and while this planet has gone on cycling according to the fixed laws of gravity, From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are still being evolved. —Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

There is grandeur and power in this view of life, this rich and tangible sense of connection, this awareness that the natural world in all of its diversity is brimmingly filled with beauty.

So, borrowing a prompt from Darwin, I invite you to imagine a maze of rivers, a map of North America with its rich tapestry of ecosystems still intact.

If you could draw a 310-mile line anywhere in North America with the goal of connecting as many ecosystems as possible, where would you draw that line?

You just might draw the thin blue line that is the Platte River. It is a direct link between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi Delta, the western conifer forests and the eastern hardwoods of Bellefontaine Forest; it rolls through the gradual transitions to desert, shortgrass, and tallgrass prairies; stretching in either direction, it links the northern bog to the southern cypress swamp. There are southwestern desert species and glacial-carved valleys holding remnants of boreal fauna.

But the Platte River is much more than a thin blue line. It is a vast watershed that includes an even greater flowing current of an underground aquifer that supplies drinking water to much of Nebraska’s residents. It is where migrating birds link between the Gulf of Mexico and the northern tundra. Shorebirds that travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic stop here to rest and refuel. It is home to a dazzling array of flora and fauna including a two-hundred-million-year-old species of paddlefish that swam America’s great rivers in the time of the dinosaurs.

It is also a river through time. The layers of human history are equally amazing. Many thousands of generations of humans have lived richly in this valley. From the Neolithic makers of the Clovis point who would jump bison off a cliff for smoked meat, bone tools, and tanned hides to the Mississippian Mound Builders, one of the most advanced cultures in human history, who built an empire with trading routes from the Rockies to the Appalachians. The French fur trappers were the first to map the Platte almost three hundred years ago. The riverboat trade built great fortunes. From the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery to the Long Expedition, the Sante Fe, Mormon, and Oregon Trails, The Platte has long been a highway of commerce and exploration. Even today the United States Geological Service considers the Platte River one of the most important watersheds in America because the Platte and its aquifer waters a major portion of America’s breadbasket and beefsteak! From trout fishing on the south Platte, elk hunting on the north, to crane watching on the middle stretch, the Platte River has a well-earned reputation as a great recreation destination.

It is also one of the most endangered rivers in America, choked with silt, strangled with dams, drained by irrigation, laced with deadly chemicals, and swarming with invasive species of fish. Whereas the eagle and white pelican populations have rebounded, the number of songbirds and shorebirds has plummeted.

What can be done to return this once pristine waterway to its former glory? Some would argue that America’s rivers are beyond repair. Is there something to be learned from ongoing efforts on this one river that can have a positive impact on other major watersheds? I would say yes, as long as there are folks like you and me who care, who pay attention, who are willing to act, then there is hope.

Thinking Like A Watershed

Drawing from the well of wisdom in Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a critical first step is to change the way we look at any river. Thinking like a watershed, moving beyond the thin blue line on a map, seeing the entire ecosystem and its innumerable parts and their relationships is the key to understanding both the root of the problem and possible solutions. Like the fine-tuned pocket watch of a riverboat captain, all of the parts need to work and work together to ensure success.

A diverse group that includes some unusual allies are working together as part of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program: the US Fish and Wildlife Agency; US Bureau of Reclamations; Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; Colorado and Wyoming departments of wildlife; USDA; The Audubon Society; The Crane Trust; The Nature Conservancy; Ducks Unlimited; private land owners; and many others, too many to name. They are beginning to piece together a watershed approach to the long-term health of the river.

This consortium has four areas of emphasis including land acquisition, water management, adaptive management, and program administration and outreach. One goal was to purchase and protect ten thousand acres from willing sellers, and this number was exceeded in their first phase. They have also helped to create easements and work with federal and state officials to provide consulting with private landowners. Within the realm of water management, their goal is to better regulate both peak and low flows so there is water for agriculture and wildlife. Adaptive management is most intriguing because it provides the scientific research and basis for making decisions based on good data. They have funded studies on whooping cranes, pallid sturgeons, interior least terns, and piping plovers, the four target species. They are also monitoring geomorphology, in-channel vegetation, and water quality using LiDAR and aerial photography. Their outreach has included a broad array of public programs and partnerships with Nebraska Educational Television, the Lincoln Children’s Museum, Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, and dozens of presentations and exhibits at community events. Added up together, the Platte River Program is working from Denver to Cody to Omaha in a watershed approach that has become an internationally recognized model for river recovery well worth the time to research more thoroughly at www.platteriverprogram.org.

To continue and join in this great work, the important first step is to understand what once was, then to explore the history of the demise, and then using this knowledge to make better choices, to take action for future generations.

Flood Pulse

Like many rivers, the Platte River once had annual flood cycles. Before locks and dams regulated the flow, every spring the river would rise up over its banks, depositing rich alluvial fill onto the broad floodplain. For thousands of years Native American farmers have harvested rich crops dependent on this annual flooding.

Early in the summer the water would recede, only to flood again the following spring.

This annual flood cycle was not only important for farmers but also for the plethora of animals that inhabited the valley. With the rising waters of spring the islands would be scoured to prepare for the annual migration of sandhill cranes. The cranes come to the platted river because the scoured islands offer a refuge from predators and the surrounding floodplain is a rich bounty of food for them to fatten up before they continue their journey to the north.

Many species of fish depend on that cold, oxygen-rich snowmelt each spring because it is also rich in nutrients. And the high water gives the adult fish more room for spawning, a place to lay eggs in water that soon grows too shallow for large predators yet is deep enough for the small fry.

And with more migratory birds, more fish, and more food for small game, the larger predators once thrived in the abundant forests. The annual flood cycles were the foundation of the food cycle.

The History of the Demise

In Greeley, Colorado, along the South Platte, they proudly proclaim that they were one of the first irrigation districts in the state. This is fine and good for the farmers in the region who were and are still able to make a living growing crops in what would otherwise be a dry, desolate shortgrass prairie. Stephan Long of the Long Expedition, for whom Longmont, Colorado, is named, mistakenly called western Nebraska and eastern Colorado the Great American Desert. Yet dams, canals, and irrigation have allowed this region to become a major part of America’s agriculture bounty. The Army Corps of Engineers also got into the dam building business with the goals of providing recreational lakes, controlling flooding, and large reservoirs of water for irrigation. And more recently, with the tremendous growth of the center-pivot irrigation systems, we are draining the aquifer much faster than it can replenish itself. This has created an otherworldly series of large green circles visible from space. This has also lowered the water table so that surface water rivers like the Platte are literally drained dry each summer.

All of this has created a legal nightmare of fights for water rights: urban versus rural, long-held family farms versus newer corporate farms, wildlife needs versus human needs. Much ink has been spilled on these vitally important water wars. A detailed history and explication of the various arguments would require much more column space than this article would allow, except to say this: Maybe this history of controversy and demise could be better understood if we could stretch our empathy and understanding to begin thinking like a watershed. A watershed awareness would have room for the agricultural history and natural history, human migration patterns and crane migration patterns, fish and frog life cycles, and corn and hog nutrient cycles.

A Call to Action

This watershed awareness, this newfound empathy, can also instill in us a need to do something, a call to action. This knowledge can help us to make better choices and motivate us to want to act on behalf of our kin with whom we share this watershed. It quite literally begins in our backyard and leads to the Whitehouse.

Pause for a moment and think about your relationship to your watershed. If a drop of rain fell on your house, how would it get to the sea? Where does your drinking water come from and what other life forms has it watered on its journey to your bloodstreams? We all live downstream from someone. How does their choices impact us? Who lives downstream from us? How do our choices impact them?

This kind of work can begin with the recognition of a problem, first opening our eyes to the problem, then thinking “someone ought to do something about that,” and then realizing that you can be that someone! Or it can begin with a daydream, a sense of vision, and then mapping out the concrete steps to make our dreams come true. Allow me to share an example of each.

First, recognizing the problem: In my backyard two smaller creeks come together to form a small tributary of the river. Looking downstream, I saw a huge erosion problem in several neighboring yards that cut away a huge chunk of one neighbor’s yard every spring. Knowing that the state and federal government has some matching funds for erosion control, I talked to the city about helping us get a small matching grant. Then I talked to my neighbors about sharing costs based on how many feet of stream bank was on their property and how much landscaping they wanted done. Knowing that whatever they spent would be matched, every one of them joined the effort. Working through the city, we found a landscaper who was eager to get such a large project, and he cut us a deal, so together we saved literally tons of topsoil from silting the river on an annual basis. We also saved the city and each other a chunk of change on work that needed to be done to save our backyards from washing away.

But my favorite call to action starts with a dream: I often daydream about a greener neighborhood, a greener city, a greener world. I learned a long time ago that many great ideas begin with a daydream, but it is crucial that we take small steps and map out a course of action to make dreams come true.

I hate to mow. I love prairie flowers, and the birds and butterflies that they attract. The first thing I did in my new yard was plow up the grass and plant native flowers and trees. Out front it is a more formal garden for my neighbors to admire, and out back it is truly wild! My neighbors did admire my flowers, so I gave them some. I regularly dig a root ball, cut it in half, and will even plant it for them if they like. They like. Now, whenever I walk my dog, I see native prairie flowers in several yards. But I like to think big… So, I mapped out my neighborhood. I worked with a local school to plant a butterfly garden, helping students learn about native wildflowers and sending every student home with a small six-pack of six species. We also planted about fifteen species of native trees on the school grounds. Now there is a demonstration garden at school and hundreds of plants spread around the neighborhood. But I like to think big… So I approached a local hospital about creating a walking/exercise path around their campus, landscaped with several native habitats, forests, prairies, and a wetlands where the parking lot runoff collects. I wrote signage that uses quotes from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac to help folks reflect on their relationships between human health and environmental health. But I wanted to go big… So I approached the city arborist about organizing Arbor Day celebrations. Every year for several years I organized a week of celebrations in which we visited ten schools, two a day, starting with a performance of Tree Tales for the whole school, planting a few large trees on the grounds, giving every student a small tree to take home, and then organizing some hands-on science for the fourth-grade classes so they could learn more about tree planting, tree care, and the importance of native plants in streamside stabilization and watershed renewal, helping them to think like a watershed. We planted more than ten thousand trees in three years… and I do mean we, because my daydream would not have worked had I not reached out to neighbors, the city, environmental groups, community leaders, and fellow educators.

Thinking Like a Watershed not only gives us a newfound knowledge and a greater sense of empathy but also gives us the courage to see these folks as allies we can work with to make a difference.

Please, I invite you to take a moment and think about your relationships within your watershed. Look around your neighborhood for a problem you can do something about, or better yet, allow yourself to daydream about the long-term health of the Platte River. What is your vision? What are the first few small steps you can take to make this dream come true?

Immigration in Nebraska