LINCOLN, Neb. — A $317 million plan to manage water use and wildlife habitats along the Platte River won't jeopardize three birds and a fish it is designed to protect, a federal agency said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services issued a "biological opinion" of the proposed Platte River Recovery implementation Program.
The opinion — required under the Endangered Species Act — lets the plan advance to the next stage of approvals, according to Jim Cook, an attorney representing Nebraska's interest in the three-state plan.
The program is meant to protect four endangered and threatened species while allowing ongoing water uses in the Platte River basin.
The plan — developed over a dozen years by officials from the federal Department of Interior and the states of Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming — was released about a month ago.
"The bottom line is, the Platte River program gets a passing grade with respect to the rare species it is designed to benefit," said Duane Hovorka, executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.
The Platte River in central Nebraska has been a major stop for migrating whooping cranes, and is home to the piping plover, least tern and pallid sturgeon.
The two branches of the Platte start in the Colorado mountains and merge in Nebraska.
The North Platte runs through Wyoming.
The river supplies water to about 3.5 million people, irrigates farms, generates electricity and provides recreation and wildlife habitat.
Drought and more wells drawing groundwater have lowered reservoir levels in Nebraska, where there are more people with rights on parts of the Platte than there is water.
The plan intends to address the low water levels while protecting wildlife habitats.
Key components in the plan include providing 10,000 acres of suitable habitat along the river in western and central Nebraska, and increasing river flows by about 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of water a year.
An acre-foot of water is enough water to supply one or two families for a year.
The plan would be implemented in phases, with the first lasting about 13 years.
An estimated $157 million of the cost would come from the Interior Department and the rest would come from the states: Colorado plans to pitch in $24 million in cash, and Wyoming $6 million in cash.
The remaining $130 million is being contributed with water and land credits: The three states must together contribute 80,000 acre-feet of water, an estimated $120 million value, and Wyoming and Nebraska will contribute about 26,500 acres of land, a $10 million value.
Before implemented, governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming and the secretary of the interior must approve the plan. Officials say they'd like to see the plan in place by Oct. 1.