KEARNEY — A wet 2019 delayed construction work throughout Nebraska, including a Platte River Recovery Implementation Program water project southwest of Elm Creek.

At Tuesday’s PRRIP Governance Committee meeting in Kearney, program civil engineer Kevin Werbylo said the completion date for the project on the south side of the Platte River was moved from May 1 to Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.

“Given the conditions the contractor had to deal with, they did a nice job and the engineers did a nice job,” Werbylo said.

The project fits program goals to reduce depletions to Central Platte target flows and to protect, restore or maintain land used as habitat by threatened and endangered species — least terns, piping plovers and whooping cranes.

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The basinwide plan allows entities in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming with federal licenses, permits and/or funding to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Department of Interior is the other major participant.

The Elm Creek project will help meet an immediate goal to reduce by 120,000 acre-feet the annual depletions to target river flows set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the protected species. Water held in shallow detention cells on the broad-scale site will seep into the groundwater that eventually reaches the adjacent Platte River.

Platte water will be diverted into Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District’s Phelps Canal at times when flows exceed targets. According to PRRIP 1995-2017 data, that most commonly occurs in December and January.

A new pipeline built as part of the project links the canal to the 416-acre site where earthen berms up to 6 feet tall create eight shallow cells to temporarily hold water at depths of 12 inches or less.

Werbylo said the project budget is $4.3 million and there is $480,000 left to pay.

Dirt work needs to settle and vegetation is being established, he said, so it will be late spring to mid-summer 2020 before any water deliveries are made to the broad-scale project site.

PRRIP Executive Director Jason Farnsworth told the Hub that even if the original construction schedule had allowed the project’s use this fall, there would have been no diversions because of already high groundwater.

Sandpit options

Farnsworth also said designs should be completed by mid-October for an above-ground “slurry wall” project at a nearby retired sandpit.

It would be a pilot project to determine if retired gravel pits can be repurposed to temporarily hold diverted river water for later releases back to the Platte to meet target flows. At the March Governance Committee meeting, he said, “On a per-acre-foot basis, this is very expensive water.”

Committee members — representatives of the three states, U.S. Department of Interior agencies, water users and wildlife conservation organizations — decided in March to have JEO Consulting Group of Lincoln finish project designs that were 90 percent done and then set them aside for possible future consideration.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Werbylo said it could take a year to get required permits, if it’s decided to move ahead with the project.

Farnsworth said a possible alternative for the site is developing more nesting habitat for least terns and piping plovers.

“We’re gonna use this property,” he said, but it may be a year or two before it’s determined how it will be used.

Land habitat goals

The other major PRRIP goal is to protect at least 10,000 acres of habitat land in bridge segment complexes between Lexington and Chapman.

The acres goal has been met, but program staff continue to review owned properties to determine if they are producing desired results for the target species and to watch for opportunities to purchase land along the Platte that better fits the focus on habitat areas.

Some less valuable properties have been sold to help finance new larger acquisitions, Farnsworth said.

On Wednesday, Governance Committee members reviewed two possible land acquisitions.

Farnsworth told the Hub they approved buying a 400-acre tract near Chapman that fits with an existing habitat area, but tabled the second land option to gather more information.

He said land purchased from now on will count toward an additional 1,000 land habitat acres required in a proposed 13-year extension of the initial program, which expires Dec. 31.

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