U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



December 3, 1996

Bob McCue 308-382-6468
Sharon Rose 303-236-7905

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion Provides Better Habitat for Wildlife While Protecting Existing Irrigation Water Supplies

The Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's preferred alternative for relicensing of Kingsley Dam and the North Platte/Keystone Diversion Dam and related facilities, while addressing many of the environmental concerns regarding endangered species, is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered whooping crane, least tern, pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover. The Service also believes that the Commission's alternative would result in the destruction or adverse modification of federally designated habitat along the central Platte River that is critical for the survival of the whooping crane.

In addition to a draft jeopardy opinion by the Service, biologists have presented the Commission with two reasonable and prudent alternatives for the proposed relicensing actions that it believes will avoid the likelihood of jeopardy. The first reasonable and prudent alternative (RPA-I) is a stand alone alternative that relies only on actions by the licensees for implementation. RPA-I would not impact the quantity and timing of irrigation water compared to present operations. The second RPA (RPA-II) would rely on a future basinwide program that would serve to compensate for the effects of water projects throughout the Platte River Basin.

Implementation of the Fish and Wildlife Service's reasonable and prudent alternatives would not only protect federally listed species and their habitats along the central Platte River, said Ralph Morgenweck, Director of the Service's Mountain-Prairie Region, but it would provide regulatory certainty for the licensees and protect the historic quantity of water available for irrigation. In addition, the Service would facilitate efforts to implement a basinwide program. Under either alternative, water reregulation and habitat restoration by the licensees would begin upon license renewal, ensuring immediate action to improve Platte River habitat conditions critical to the needs of the species dependent on the Platte River, Morgenweck added.

RPA-I is a stand alone alternative that relies only on actions by the licensees. Computer modeling shows that full deliveries of irrigation water would be available for historic drought conditions. RPA-I would include:

  1. An environmental account, similar to the one being discussed in basin-wide program negotiations, would be established in Lake McConaughy and managed by the Service. (An environmental account would include a set amount of water stored in Lake McConaughy and used only for fish and wildlife. There would be a certain amount allocated each year and it would be stored until it is needed at the habitat areas downstream during certain times of the year. This water could not be used for any purposes other than fish and wildlife.)
  2. Baseflows would be established for the Platte River at the Overton gaging station based on hydrologic conditions, such as wet, transitional, and dry (as defined in the Nebraska Plan), and would improve flow conditions for fish and wildlife.
  3. Impacts to recreation at Lake McConaughy would be relatively minor. During May through September, the percent of time the levels at Lake McConaughy would be between 3,240 feet and 3,265 feet above mean sea level would be reduced approximately 4 percent as compared to present operations.
  4. A water conservation program would be required to achieve a net annual water savings of 10 percent. At least 50 percent of the net saved water would be dedicated toward improving irrigation drought protection and the remaining 50 percent would be credited to the environmental account. The water conservation program would be phased in over 10 years.
  5. The licensees would restore and manage in perpetuity, suitable riverine and adjacent non-wooded wet meadow-wetland habitat in four habitat complexes totaling approximately 8,800 acres. These complexes, located along the central Platte River downstream from Overton, would be phased in over 15 years.

As a result of RPA-I, instream flow wildlife habitat shortages should be reduced by an average of 80,000 af/year (compared to the proposed action which only reduced instream flow shortages by about 12,000 af/year), resulting in improved fish and wildlife habitat conditions .

RPA-I would result in generation of more power on average over the year compared to present conditions, but less dependable capacity for hydropower at Kingsley Dam. The economic cost over 30 years (of the 40-year license) of the decrease in capacity and increase in generation is estimated to be $2.8 million to $8.4 million. The comparable cost of the Commission's proposed action was approximately $3 million. These changes are not substantial when compared to total hydropower benefits or total project value. A study by Bureau of Reclamation economists estimated the economic value of the projects to be approximately $556 million to $806 million. In addition, this study showed that the projects could sustain fish and wildlife mitigation costs in excess of $100 million. Because estimated costs of implementing RPA-I is considerably less than this, the Service's reasonable and prudent alternatives are economically and technologically feasible.

RPA-II would make the proposed relicensing action an integral part of a future Platte River Recovery Implementation Program for restoring habitat and providing enhanced instream flows for the benefit of federally listed species along the central Platte River. This program would involve all three basin states (Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming), the Department of the Interior, and water user and environmental interest groups. Efforts are underway currently to develop and implement a cooperative agreement to begin such a program.

The agreement would be in place for about 3 years, during which time an analysis would be done under the National Environmental Policy Act to explore alternatives for the program and analyze impacts of the proposed program. The final NEPA document would identify a preferred alternative which would serve as the reasonable and prudent alternative for water projects in the Platte River basin. The program participants would sign another agreement implementing the preferred alternative before the program could be begin.

During the 3-year agreement period the licensees responsibilities under RPA-II would include:

  1. An environmental account similar to the one described under RPA-I.
  2. The participation of the licensees in developing and implementing a basin-wide water conservation plan.
  3. A 2,200-acre habitat complex which includes at least 2 miles of river channel provided by and restored by the licensees.
  4. An operational regime which is currently being developed.

RPA-II would only go into affect if there is a signed cooperative agreement before the licenses are issued. Otherwise, RPA-I would go into affect. If, at the end of the 3-year period of the cooperative agreement, no basinwide program is established, the licenses would provide that RPA-I would become effective. If a basinwide agreement is reached, the licensees responsibility under the basinwide program would be included as conditions of the licenses.

If a basinwide program (RPA-II) is terminated at a future date, the Service recommends that the requirements of RPA-I become effective under the licenses and credit be given for relevant fish and wildlife contributions up to that time. Also, the Commission would be required to reinitiate formal section 7 consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

On February 14, 1996, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requested initiation of formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a proposed action for relicensing hydroelectric projects owned and operated by the central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and the Nebraska Public Power District. The projects are located along the North Platte, South Platte, and Platte Rivers in a seven-county area of southcentral Nebraska. The affected action area includes a 77-mile reach of the North Platte River from near Lewellen to the confluence with the South Platte River, a 34-mile reach of the South Platte River from the Korty Diversion near Paxton to the confluence with the North Platte River, and a 314-mile reach form the confluence of the North and south Platte rivers to the mouth of the Platte River at the Missouri River confluence.

The projects being relicensed consist of an elaborate and complex system of storage reservoirs, canals, and powerplants with operations that are closely coordinated and cannot be operated independently. The two projects have five hydroelectric powerplants and supply water to 15 canals and about 215,000 acres of cropland annually. Kingsley Dam is the largest water storage facility in the Platte River basin area.

As required under the Endangered Species Act, a Federal agency is to formally consult with the Service after it has been determined that a proposed action may affect federally listed species or designated critical habitat. The Service is then required to issue a biological opinion which provides detailed information as to how the proposed action affects federally listed species or designated critical habitat. In a biological opinion, the Service is to provide reasonable and prudent alternatives to the proposed action that, if implemented, would avoid the likelihood of jeopardy or adverse effects.

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