The Governance Committee of the Platte River Cooperative Agreement

Water Issues

Under the Cooperative Agreement, a proposed basin-wide Program to benefit endangered species is being developed and refined. If adopted as proposed, the Program will be implemented in phases and will include measures to enhance river flows (see “Program Components: How the Agreement and Program Work” for details).

Q: What are the water goals of the proposed Program?

A: During the first increment of the proposed Program (10 to 13 years), the states will address the impacts of all surface and ground water projects existing as of July 1, 1997, by providing 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of water per year on average in times when flows are less than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) target flows. The long-term goal is “sufficient water” for four target threatened or endangered species. That amount will be determined as the Program progresses through independent “peer review” of past and future studies and in response to new information developed by implementing the Program and monitoring its results (“adaptive management”).

Each state will mitigate any future depletions that reduce flows compared with FWS’s target flows. Mitigation is intended to be within the state where future depletions occur according to plans in the proposed Program. The state must avoid increasing mitigation burdens on other states and mitigate or compensate for any adverse effects on the Program’s three water re-regulation projects.

Q: Where would the water come from?

A: The first 70,000 acre-feet of the 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet goal will come from three water re-regulation projects: an environmental account in Nebraska’s Lake McConaughy (the “Nebraska Plan”), the Tamarack Project in Colorado and the Pathfinder Modification Project in Wyoming. These water projects will work together to store water and return it to the river when flows are less than targets. They put no additional water in the river — they just change the timing. The remaining water will be developed through water supply and water conservation projects involving willing participants.

Q: How would the re-regulation projects be operated for the Program?

A: Program water from all sources will be closely coordinated and will take advantage of the location of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s Lake McConaughy. Under the Nebraska Plan, Central will contribute water to an environmental account and additional water will be provided from the Tamarack and Pathfinder Modification projects and other water projects. Central will then release environmental account water as requested by the Environmental Account (EA) manager appointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, unless an event such as flooding or equipment failure prevents making releases. This approach gives the EA manager flexibility to make efficient use of the environmental account water by taking into account actual conditions in setting priorities for the year and in calling for day-to-day releases.

Q: What kinds of additional water supply and water conservation projects could become part of the Program and how would they be selected?

A: As part of the Cooperative Agreement, the states have contracted for a broad water conservation/water supply study, which will be used — along with input from the public — to develop a prioritized list of potential water conservation and water supply projects. Third-party impacts (negative and positive) are also being examined. The study is looking into additional water re-regulation projects, conservation practices, the voluntary retirement of irrigated lands and the development of additional storage sites for enhanced river management.

Q: Would anyone be forced to conserve water for the Program?

A: No. The study will be used to determine which water users are interested in voluntarily participating in specific incentive-based projects.

Q: Would existing water rights be affected?

A: Water rights would not be condemned because of the Program. In addition, modeling of the impact of the environmental account in Lake McConaughy shows irrigation shortages can be avoided even in the case of a prolonged drought. Although retirement or transfer of water rights for existing irrigated lands could be an option to help meet the water goals, water rights would be retired or transferred only if the owner agreed and was compensated and other water rights are not adversely impacted.

Q: Would Nebraskans be able to sell water rights to the Program?

A: Currently, water rights can be legally transferred or sold in Nebraska only if the new owner puts the water to the same kind of use as did the transferor. A water right originally granted for irrigation can be transferred to other irrigated land, but not converted to municipal or instream uses. Nebraska is revisiting that policy and changes in Nebraska law have been proposed in the state legislature.

Q: Would restrictions be put on using groundwater?

A: Existing groundwater users, like existing surface water users, are “grandfathered” — that is, their historic depletions will be allowed to continue under a future Program. But under the proposed Program, the impacts on target flows of groundwater uses begun after July 1, 1997, must be determined and their impacts mitigated by the state where they occur. The Cooperative Agreement’s water committee is helping the states determine which new groundwater uses have impacts, but it is up to the states to decide how to address any impacts. The Program itself will put no restrictions on new groundwater use.

Q: Would releases from the Environmental Account in Lake McConaughy to meet “target flows” aggravate out-of-bank flooding downstream?

A: No. Generally, target flows are much less than the capacity of the river. Other than “pulse flows,” the highest recommended target flow is 2,400 cubic feet per second (cfs), in contrast with Platte River channel capacities of 8,200 cfs and above.

Q: What are “pulse flows”?

A: “Pulse flows” are natural high flow events now occurring that the FWS would like to preserve. They include very high flow events (above 12,000 cfs and, in come cases, above 16,000 cfs) that last a few days and do cause out-of-bank flooding, as well as more moderate 3,000-3,600 cfs events lasting for a week to a month.

Q: Will releases be made from the Environmental Account in Lake McConaughy for pulse flows that could aggravate downstream flooding?

A: No. The Environmental Account manager may occasionally use the Environmental Account to enhance naturally occurring longer, lower flow pulses to make them more like the recommended 3,000-3,600 cfs “pulse flows,” but will never use Environmental Account water to create short duration, very high flow events. The Nebraska Plan forbids releases from the Environmental Account that would cause or aggravate flows above the flood stages as established by the National Weather Service. This means that releases, in combination with other North Platte flows, cannot exceed 3,750 cfs (flood stage on the North Platte at the city of North Platte). Releases, in combination with other Platte River flows cannot exceed 8,200 cfs (flood stage for the Platte River at Grand Island), or flood stage at any other official measuring point along the river. There are no plans to augment flows to or near the capacity of the river. Bank overflow will occur only because of natural high flow events.

Q: Will releases from the Environmental Account in Lake McConaughy aggravate rising water table problems downstream?

A: In some areas, the current water table is already higher than in the past and may still be rising. Environmental Account releases are not yet being made, so current conditions are not caused by the Environmental Account. Other potential factors such as changes in municipal pumping practices and heavy precipitation in recent years may contribute to the problem. The Water Committee may also be using the data collected to explore the potential to use nuisance groundwater to produce instream flows.

Q: Will Program water from upstream reach the habitat areas?

A: Yes. For any proposed Program to be successful and for the upstream states to be willing to provide water for the Program, each state must protect such water to be sure that it reaches the habitat area, which is basically between Lexington and Chapman, Nebraska. Each state has committed to review its laws and make any necessary changes and each has affirmed that current laws provide such protection for water from all or most sources. Program water will be tracked through the system to demonstrate that water from upstream did reach the habitat areas.

Q: Where can the general public make its views known and obtain information on the latest developments?

A: The general public can make its views known and obtain information on the Cooperative Agreement and Program by contacting Governance Committee members and subcommittee chairs, attending committee meetings, contacting Dale Strickland, the Governance Committee’s executive director (toll-free phone number: (877) 634-1773), or checking the Governance Committee’s web site at