Historical accounts often cite that the Platte River flowed a mile wide and a foot deep across the central plains of Nebraska. The channel was braided, shallow, wide, and mostly unvegetated. Spring runoff brought large flushes of sediment, forming sandbars in the channel, while herds of bison grazed the banks, keeping it mostly unvegetated. The sandbars and shallow waters made the central Platte a perfect resting spot for whooping cranes and nesting spot for piping plover and least terns. 

Today, things look a little different. As people settled in the West, they found other uses for Platte River waters. With the growing presence of upstream dams, municipal diversions, and irrigation operations, the River became more channelized. High spring flows ceased to exist and vegetation encroached on the sandbar habitats. The River no longer provided ample nesting, reproductive, and migratory habitats that the species once relied on. In particular, four species were federally listed as threatened or endangered: the whooping crane, the interior least tern, the piping plover, and the pallid sturgeon.

A Story of Collaboration

The states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming faced a decision point. Projects across the Platte Basin – especially along Colorado’s front range – struggled to comply with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This prompted the water users to pursue a programmatic approach to compliance. After nearly a decade of negotiations, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) was established in 2007 through a collaborative agreement between Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming along with the Department of the Interior, water users, and environmental groups. PRRIP was formed with a shared goal of assisting in the recovery of the target species, while also providing a shared approach to ESA compliance for water users within the Platte River Basin.  

Colorado’s Role

The North and South Platte Rivers have been a center point in Colorado’s booming economy along the front range and agricultural production on the eastern plains and in Jackson County. PRRIP acts as an ESA compliance tool for the existing and new water users in the basin by offsetting depletions and implementing restoration measures in the critical habitat. Colorado has contributed significant resources, including financially, to the program. Colorado also contributes by operating a series of recharge ponds at the Tamarack State Wildlife Area that provide, on average, 10,000 acre-feet of water to the habitat in Nebraska during times of shortages. In return, the programmatic approach to environmental permitting has allowed Colorado water users to successfully permit over 150 projects since the creation of PRRIP. PRRIP is vital to allowing Colorado water users to continue to pursue their water projects while decreasing the regulatory burden on the individual users.

Successes of Adaptive Management

PRRIP practices the unique approach of adaptive management, a technique in which program officials test hypotheses under the guidance of experts around the world and apply the information to improve management decision making. This approach has been central to the success of PRRIP as it has allowed program officials to revisit their understanding of how the river processes work and what approaches can be taken to best achieve program goals. PRRIP is the first of its kind to complete one full cycle of adaptive management.

PRRIP was initially authorized for a 13-year First Increment that expired in 2019. During the First Increment, the program defined milestones to achieve that included reducing the annual shortages to target flows by 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet and protecting and maintaining 10,000 acres of habitat in Nebraska. Nearly all milestones were met in the First Increment, however, the program still needed more time to obtain additional water. PRRIP partners successfully pursued an extension of the First Increment that authorized the program for an additional 13 years to give them more time to do so. 

In addition to water and habitat successes, the target species have been on an upward trajectory. The whooping crane had once declined to only 16 individuals in the 1940s. Today the whooping crane population is around 500, and a record 120 cranes were observed in the PRRIP associated habitat in the spring of 2018. The interior least tern and the piping plover have also experienced an increase and stabilization of population numbers. In 2021, the interior least terns were federally delisted due to recovery. 

Next Hurdles

Although PRRIP has celebrated many successes, its partners continue to improve management for the betterment of the species. The program is actively pursuing additional water supplies to meet their water objectives, including options like reregulation and water conservation projects. The pallid sturgeon continues to be a challenge for the program, but the partners are committed to furthering their understanding of recovering the fish species. In addition, through the program’s adaptive management approach, Colorado and the program partners continue to learn from our management actions and adapt to ensure the success of the PRRIP.

By Kara Scheel, Endangered Species Recovery Program Manager for the Colorado Water Conservation Board