Each spring, the skies over Nebraska's Platte River fill with birdcalls. Ten million ducks and geese, half a million sandhill cranes, and many other birds—big and small—fly in to eat and rest during the long migration to their northern breeding grounds. This seasonal gathering of birds along the central Platte is one of the world's great wildlife spectacles.
The Platte River starts as two tributaries high in the Rocky Mountains, one of which flows down across Colorado (through the city of Denver), the other through Wyoming, to finally meet in Nebraska. In Nebraska, the river becomes wide and shallow, filling with sandbars that make an excellent habitat for the many birds that live here or visit each year. Eventually the Platte empties into the Missouri River, which will meet up with the Mississippi. The Platte is one of many rivers that feed the mighty Mississippi.
The tributaries of the Platte River pass through all kinds of environments—some with virtually no people, such as Rocky Mountain wilderness and the high plains of Wyoming—and some with hundreds of thousands of people, such as Denver, Colorado. Platte River wells and surface water projects irrigate millions of acres of farmland and more than three million people get their drinking water largely from the Platte or nearby wells. Millions of dollars are spent each year by birdwatchers who come to witness the wonder of the spring migration in Nebraska, and by river rafters and kayakers enjoying its spring flows in Colorado and Wyoming.
The central Platte River in Nebraska is a critical nesting site and a stopover point for birds migrating through the Central Flyway en route to their summer breeding grounds, some as far north as northern Canada and the Arctic. More than 300 bird species have been observed here and 140 bird species nest here.
As many as 500,000 sandhill cranes, as well as small numbers of the endangered whooping crane, pass through the central Platte region during their migration. They prefer the river's shallow waters and open sandbars as places to rest free of predators. They find food in the river's wet meadows and surrounding farmland. The endangered interior least tern and the threatened piping plover nest on the Platte's sandbars, and millions of geese and ducks—such as common mergansers, mallards, pintails, and snow geese—also migrate through the region. Other wildlife found in the central Platte River valley include bald eagles, mule deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and jackrabbits.
Dams and Water Diversions
From the time the first settlers moved to the prairie surrounding the Platte, people have been altering it in some way—draining its wetlands and altering its flows with wells, dams, and surface water projects throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Now that agriculture has replaced much of the prairie, and big cities have sprung up along Colorado's Front Range, there are many demands on the waters of the Platte. People hold valuable water rights that give them legal access to the Platte River's water, and the use or removal of water from the river adversely affects wildlife and the riparian corridor. In addition, much of the Platte's water is lost to evaporation as it passes through arid country. There does not seem to be enough water to go around.
Today, as the North and South Platte flow down from the Rockies, their waters are diverted to dams, reservoirs, and other water control structures. The water is managed for irrigation, water supply, flood control, electric power generation, and even recreation (kayaking and rafting).
As a result, water flows in the central Platte have fallen dramatically and the river has shrunk to a fraction of its historic width. Reduced water flows have changed the river's surrounding vegetation. Sandbars on the Platte River typically had very little plant life because the plants were scoured away by spring floods. But now dams and water diversions are decreasing flood disturbances and giving trees and shrubs the room to grow. As a consequence, roosting birds like plovers and sandhill cranes are losing their historic habitat on sandbars.
Nebraska Water Science Center, United States Geological Survey
Platte River Recovery Implementation Program
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