Bringing the Magic Back to the Platte

Can one of the country's most colorful rivers be restored?

  • Les Line
  • Apr 01, 2000
"If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water," the Nebraska-born anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote, and he had the Platte River of his youth in mind. In The Immense Journey, Eiseley's first collection of nature essays, he recounted a summer day around 1930 when he was hunting bones and artifacts along the Platte's shore and gave in to an urge to shed all his clothes, lie back in the shallows and let the flow of the river carry him away.

"Eiseley remembered that as he bobbed into the main channel of the wildly braided river, "I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and sprouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea."

"Water and sand. They are essential elements of any story about the Platte, whether the emphasis be on the river's natural history or its human history. In the days when prairie schooners sailed along the broad valley of an unfettered Platte, a diarist wrote of "water so completely filled with glittering particles of micah and isinglass that its shining waves look to be rich with floating gold." In a sense it was gold, for sediments carried downriver from the Rocky Mountains and High Plains over a span of two million years had built a gentle landscape that was richly clothed in native grasses.

"Those alluvial riches would cause the magic to be drained from the river as another kind of gold--kernels of field corn--became the crop of choice for farmers who settled in south-central Nebraska in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Once, the Platte's channels, more than a mile wide in places, were scoured of vegetation every spring by a fresh surge of grit-laden snowmelt. Sandbars were as ephemeral as prairie flowers. Today, the sediment collects in submerged dunes behind 15 major dams, the largest of them on the North Platte and its tributaries. They hoard the Platte's water for diversion into canals that irrigate a half-million acres of cropland.

As a result, much of the Central Platte or Big Bend reach, which hosts one of the world's great wildlife spectacles--the annual coming of awesome numbers of sandhill cranes--is choked into narrow, deep channels between sandbar islands overgrown with willows and cottonwoods. River bottom roosting sites for the lanky, rusty gray birds are at a premium, as is habitat for whooping cranes (the sandhills' larger and ultra-rare relatives) and other migrant and resident wildlife. There's a complex, controversial plan in the works to address those problems, but the improvements will be incremental, not monumental. And that's assuming all the parties involved agree on how to proceed, by no means a given.

The Great Platte River Road

Think of the Platte as three distinct rivers that together collect the drainage from a 90,000-square-mile basin encompassing large areas of Wyoming and Colorado and most of Nebraska. The North Platte and South Platte rise in nearby alpine parks in the Colorado Rockies but course 665 and 450 miles, respectively, before they converge near the city of North Platte, Nebraska. The main stem then rambles eastward another 310 miles before adding its flow to the Missouri River south of Omaha. It is this segment that history remembers as the Great Platte River Road.

This year, if you leave Omaha on a Monday, nosing your steel-and- plastic wagon onto the westbound lanes of Interstate 80 and covering 600 miles a day (with an eye cocked for police), you can reach Sacramento on Wednesday. Easy. One hundred and fifty years ago, if you nudged your canvas-and-wood wagon onto the westbound lanes of the Great Platte River Road, covering 15 miles a day (with an eye cocked for Indians), you could reach California's gold-mining precincts in four and a half months. Hard.

Like I-80, which follows the same track, the Great Platte River Road was a divided highway, but with the river as its median. On the north side of the valley, pioneers leaving Council Bluffs, Iowa, or Omaha followed the Mormon Trail. On the south side, wagons launched from Independence or St. Joseph in Missouri traversed the Oregon Trail. Between 1840 and 1866 (the year the Union Pacific Railroad reached North Platte on its way to Promontory, Utah) some 350,000 pilgrims headed west from the Missouri settlements alone. They left diaries filled with harrowing and heroic stories. And graves of loved ones who perished along the way, often from cholera. And their names carved into sandstone landmarks like Courthouse Rock. And wagon wheel ruts carved deeply in the sun-blanched tableland.

Dams and Corn

By the mid-1860s, early settlers had dug the first irrigation ditches to siphon water from the Platte. By 1890 more than 2,000 diversion canals were in place. And in 1909 the first of the big dams, Pathfinder, blocked the North Platte in Wyoming where it was joined by the Sweetwater River, a major tributary. Though diminished, spring floods still scoured the watercourse when a young Loren Eiseley haunted the banks of the main stem. But by 1970, with the last dam and a huge irrigation system in place, peak flow on the Big Bend section had declined by nearly 70 percent since the first measurements were made near Kearney in 1915.

"The once-open river described as 'a mile wide and a foot deep' by westward-bound travelers now more closely resembles a braided woodland," wrote biologists Stephen Rothenberger and Charles Bicak in their 1993 book, The Platte River: An Atlas of the Big Bend Region.

The University of Nebraska-Kearney scientists also reported that by 1980, 44 percent of the Big Bend floodplain was planted in corn, compared to 22 percent in 1911. "Corn is a warm season crop and an intense water user," the authors explained. "The agriculture economy of the Big Bend region depends heavily on this crop, and unless water use efficiency were to improve dramatically, water in the Platte River will continue to be a precious commodity." How precious? Irrigated land in south-central Nebraska produces an average of 145 bushels of corn per acre, while dryland farming yields only 65 bushels.

An estimated 500,000 sandhill cranes also depend on the crop, although the birds were coming to the Platte in spring long before farmers planted the first rows of corn. The cranes flock to the central Platte from their wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico. The lure is the river itself a safe place for the birds to roost at night after a day of fattening up on corn or, during earlier times, the seeds of prairie grasses and forbs. It is safe because the water is so shallow that a crane can stand on its toes with its heels in the air and have an unobstructed view for a thousand feet in every direction. After a month or so at this crucial stopover, the birds fly north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.

It's anyone's guess how many cranes used the Platte in pre-settlement times or where they congregated. Fur traders mentioned seeing flocks of cranes in the early 1800s, according to Paul Johnsgard, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln ornithologist. But the wagon train diarists who recorded rumbling herds of bison and other natural marvels reached the central Platte more than a month after the birds had flown north.

"Nobody tried counting cranes until the 1940s when Walter Breckenridge [a noted naturalist and artist from Minnesota] found some 20,000 sandhills in the Grand Island area," Johnsgard relates. "When I wrote the cranes book in the 1970s, the estimate was 200,000. Now it's half a million." He adds, "There has to be a close causal relationship between the amount of corn and the amount of cranes."

Fields Full of Cranes

Many farmers are happy to see their fields full of cranes in the spring because the birds remove 95 percent of the waste corn lying on the ground, according to University of Nebraska-Kearney researcher Joseph Springer. "Since field corn is the result of careful hybridization, he stated in The Platte River: An Atlas of the Big Bend Region, "self-planted corn is not generally viable. Although it may grow into a mature plant, it will produce few or no seeds." To farmers, it's a weed.

But there's a new twist that concerns wildlife biologists. "The amount of waste corn available to the birds is about 50 percent less than 20 years ago," says Paul Currier, executive director of the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust. "Farmers are using more efficient machinery to harvest corn and the cranes also have competition from increasing numbers of snow geese." In response, Currier says, sandhills are flying as far as 12 miles from the river to find food, when they would normally forage within 3 to 6 miles of the Platte.

Sandhill cranes, of course, are not the only wildlife of note along the Big Bend. Endangered whooping cranes also use the river (along with its adjacent wet meadows) as a rest stop during their migration north from Texas each spring. The majestic whoopers--snow white and red-crowned, standing five feet tall and stretching seven feet from wingtip to wingtip--are among the world s rarest birds. Only about 180 wild whoopers still survive, and several of them stop in the area to rest and feed before resuming their journey to nesting grounds in northern Canada. Imperiled piping plovers and interior least terns also depend on the Platte. In early summer, these birds build their nests on mid-river sandbars scrubbed clean of vegetation by spring floods. But with reduced river flows, there are fewer such nesting spots available for plovers and terns, both of which are on the federal Endangered Species List.

Conservation organizations such as the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation are attempting to protect and restore critical habitat for these species. The Trust, an umbrella group that the National Wildlife Federation helped found in 1979, has reclaimed more than 24 miles of open river channel by clearing trees and other vegetation from sandbars and banks, encouraging erosion of river islands during high flows.

Go with the Flow

But conservationists' ultimate hope is to bring some of the magic back to the river by significantly increasing the flow of water in the Big Bend during critical periods. Three years ago, the governors of Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt signed a cooperative agreement designed to lead to a water and habitat conservation plan for the Platte. In addition to protecting an additional 10,000 acres of critical habitat beyond what is currently held by private groups, water would be left in the river or held in reservoirs in environmental accounts managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The agency could order releases to ensure adequate flows for roosting cranes, help clear sandbars in spring or prevent summer fish kills caused by shallow, overheated water.

The states weren't being altruistic--they wanted to avoid drawn-out fights with environmentalists over the Platte's dams, many of which must have their operating licenses renewed periodically by the federal government. After lengthy negotiations, state, federal and conservation group representatives agreed to a goal of releasing an additional 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of water a year, about 10 percent of the river's total flow but only a third of what FWS has said is necessary to restore the degraded watercourse. When (or if) a final management plan is approved, it will be phased in over a decade or more. "What's slowing down the process is trying to figure out where to get water with the least pain and most benefit," says Duane Hovorka, executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate. "The states are dragging their feet because no one wants to be the first to offer water."

No one believes that the plan can (or should) re-create historic conditions and bring back spring floods that once transformed the placid river into what Loren Eiseley described as "a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges." But over time, if the three states and special interests can maintain the fragile spirit of compromise, the Platte could be a more hospitable place for cranes and terns and plovers and assorted other species.

Field Editor Les Line has watched sandhill cranes slide into their Platte River roosts at sunset and has flown over the North Platte to its source in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Protecting the Platte

The National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming are seeking to safeguard critical habitat for imperiled species such as least terns in the Central or Big Bend reach of the Platte River. The groups want to protect at least 29,000 acres of land and increase the river's flow by at least 130,000 acre-feet a year.

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