KEARNEY — Legislation to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program for 13 years is making its way through the U.S. Senate and House, but program officials don’t know if Congress and President Trump will approve the legislation by the end of the year.
“The intent is to push hard,” PRRIP Executive Director Jason Farnsworth told the Kearney Hub on Tuesday during a break in the Governance Committee’s quarterly meeting at program headquarters in Kearney. “The (bill) sponsors are pushing hard with the intent of having the legislation passed by the end of the year.”
The program’s inaugural 13-year increment expires Dec. 31. Federal authorization extends to September 2020. The extension would run through 2032.
The innovative program involves the U.S. Department of Interior, three states — Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming — and stakeholders that include irrigators and environmental organizations in a basinwide effort to meet water and land habitat needs for four species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
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The species are whooping cranes, interior least terns and piping plovers in Nebraska’s Central Platte River and pallid sturgeon in the Lower Platte.
Without the program, projects with federal licenses, permits and/or funding, including Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and Nebraska Public Power District, would be required to have individual ESA compliance plans.
For the PRRIP extension, Senate bill S990 was introduced April 2 by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and House bill HR3237 was introduced June 12 by Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse.
In a June 6 letter to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House committees reviewing the bills, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon described the Platte Program as “a marquee example of a proactive, collaborative approach to providing benefits for endangered species and their habitats while allowing for the beneficial use of our states’ waters.”
Governance Committee Chairman Harry LaBonde, director of the Wyoming Water Development office, said a program amendment approved by the three governors and secretary of interior is a separate, but parallel part of the process.
He said the first step is for the three state attorneys general to finalize a single document for the governors to sign that then will be sent to the Interior Department secretary for his signature.
In answer to a question about if that process can be completed before the federal legislation is finalized, several committee members recalled that state-Interior secretary approval came first when the PRRIP was approved originally.
A focus for the extension is to complete the first phase goal to reduce shortages in annual Platte River target flows for key habitat areas by an average of 130,000-150,000 acre-feet.
Farnsworth said Tuesday an immediate goal for the extension period is to get to 120,000 a-f as soon as possible and then determine with scientific studies if the additional 10,000 a-f is necessary to meet the protected species’ habitat needs.
The number now is 114,120 a-f with current and underway construction projects. Farnsworth said four other projects under consideration or being designed could save another 20,000 a-f.
“We’re close,” he said. “We have options to get us there ... it looks like we will be able to get to 120,000 acre-feet within budget.”
In related business, the Governance Committee approved by consensus new agreements with CNPPID, NPPD and Central Platte Natural Resources Districts for existing projects that divert water into irrigation canals at times when Platte flows exceed targets for wildlife habitat. That water seeps into groundwater that eventually benefits the Platte River.
Farnsworth said current agreements expire at the end of 2019 and the new ones have a standardized payment formula and first-year payment from the program of $32.87 per acre-foot.
Different agreement terms were requested: CNPPID, 2023; CPNRD, 2024; and NPPD, 2025.