U.S. Water News Online
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Nebraska Department of Water Resources (NDWR) is still weighing testimony -- pro and con -- on the state Game and Parks Commission's request for an instream flow right on the Platte River.
A coalition of irrigation groups, utilities, and natural resource districts is contesting the request. This opposition, as well as the need to collect scientific evidence on river flows needed to sustain fish and wildlife, has carried the issue past the original 22 days of testimony.
According to Don Blankenau, NDWR's legal counsel, the department will probably not decide on the issue before January 1998.
"It's a very, very important case," said Stan Staab, general manager of the Norfolk-based Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District and the secretary-treasurer of the opposition coalition. "We're talking about a water right that will affect 44,000 of the 77,000 square miles in Nebraska," he said.
The Game and Parks Commission filed three years ago for a state water right to reserve the remaining flows in the Platte -- those not already used for irrigation and other uses -- to maintain fish and wildlife habitat.
The agency cited dramatic losses in habitat for species that include the endangered whooping crane.
The coalition opposes the request, maintaining the commission is asking for too much water and that it would preclude future irrigation and flood-control projects in the Platte, Elkhorn, and Loup River Basins.
At attempt by Gov. Nelson to get the two sides to negotiate a compromise and avoid the expense of a legal battle failed.
Experts for both sides have presented evidence in support of their views to Michael Jess, head of the water resources department. One study appears to show that sandbars and brush are taking over significant portions of the Platte streambed in key areas.
Such incursions mean less of the shallow, open water that is safe habitat for the migrating cranes and fowl. However, a competing study allegedly shows that, while some areas may be degrading, other areas are actually improving.
But according to Dr. Paul Johnsgard, a naturalist and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Platte is in trouble. Johnsgard, the author of several books about birds and the Platte ecosystem, said that during his 35 years of observing the river, habitat has only disappeared. It has never grown.
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