The proposed Platte-Republican Diversion project would divert water from the Platte River in order to boost water levels in the Republican River. The Platte-Republican Diversion is the most recent in a long line of similar proposals put forth in Nebraska since the 1930s that attempt to solve one river’s problems with another river’s water.
These plans have unintended consequences. They harm wildlife, inhibit recreation and reduce the corresponding economic boost communities along the river receive from hunting, fishing and floating. And invariably, they introduce new problems. The Platte-Republican Diversion -- like similar plans before it -- is short-sighted, ill-conceived and potentially damaging.
The latest diversion attempt has veiled the request with misleading terminology of “wasted water” or “excess water." Each river basin has a supply of surface water that is legally designated for a variety of beneficial uses, including irrigation, hydropower and municipal and industrial use, and some erroneously believe that anything left over has no value.
For a river system, there is no such thing as wasted or excess water. The Platte River already has challenges related to a multitude of federal and state protected species, in part because management of this system has dampened the necessary peak flow events, which let the river do its own work. The river needs those few days of so-called excess water flows to transport sediment, create depth and form habitats.
Water is always used by some type of aquatic species and is always performing some type of ecosystem function. Using terms like “wasted” or “excess” water shapes peoples’ views and understanding of rivers and streams in ways that threaten the sustainability of these systems for fish and wildlife.
Additionally, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is very concerned with potential movement of invasive species from the Platte River to the Republican River. Several invasive species, which are not yet found in the Republican River, have been documented in the Platte. These species include silver carp, white perch, grass carp and bighead carp.
Invasive species can degrade functional ecosystems and cause millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure. They displace desirable game fish and ultimately reduce the influx of tourism dollars into local communities.
New invasive species will find their way into the Republican from the Platte via this project. Who will be responsible for controlling them? Who will ultimately incur the costs? The further transfer of many of these unwanted species would be next to impossible to reverse.
The potential for introducing new invasive species to Harlan County Reservoir and eventually to downstream reservoirs in Kansas is a serious concern as well, and one that could result in additional disputes and tension between the states.
If the Platte-Republican Diversion is approved, it would be the first surface water interbasin transfer in Nebraska. It would set a potentially destructive precedent that would be hard to reverse, creating new long-term ecological risks, while Nebraska would still need to take supplemental water management actions to meet the Republican River Compact.
The diversion would exacerbate an already burdened Platte River system, and create new risks for the Platte and Republican River systems, recreational users, and fisheries and wildlife.
We need a solution that does not rely on the myth of excess or wasted water. We need a solution that does not solve one problem while creating a web of new ones. Instead of cobbling together a plan that relies on one river to solve the problems of another, we need to instead tackle the difficult work of addressing Nebraska’s water shortage issues for long-term sustainability.