Opinion: #Nebraska’s proposed #RepublicanRiver Basin transfer could reshape #Kansas resources — The Kansas Reflector

A Blue Heron hunts the banks of the Republican River. (Shawna Bethell)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

I’m not a fish person. They aren’t even on my radar until my nephew catches them, cleans them, and fries them up into a fabulous meal with hushpuppies and slaw. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the role they play in both our natural ecosystems and in the Kansas economy via the sport fishing industry. I understand, too, that both hang in the balance depending on decisions being made north of our state border.

Kansas River Basin including the Republican River watershed. Map credit: By Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4390886

Under the Republican River Compact, Kansas is considered both an upstream and downstream state. Born on the eastern [plains] of Colorado…the Republican River flows east across the plains, tipping our northwest corner before entering Nebraska. There the river continues eastward until it drops south again, re-crossing our border and eventually emptying into Milford Reservoir before finally meeting up with the Smoky Hill River in Junction City to create the Kansas River.

The 1934 compact was supposed to ensure allocations of water for each state through which the river flows. However, historically, both Colorado and Nebraska have — at times — overused their shares.

In an effort to prevent such occurrences in the future, entities affiliated with water and irrigation districts in Nebraska made a 2018 application to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to transfer water from the Platte River Basin to the Republican River Basin to meet the requirements of allocation. The application was denied due to objections by interested parties, including those of Kansas’ then-Gov. Jeff Colyer, who cited the negative effects of invasive species to our waterways should an inter-basin transfer move forward.

The plan did not die, however, and a revised application was filed. Met again with objections, Nebraska conducted a hearing in July 2021, where it again gathered testimony from concerned parties. According to the agency’s legal counsel, Emily Rose, there is no set date for a final decision.

Like her predecessor, Gov. Laura Kelly also objects to the inter-basin transfer. According to Reeves Oyster, a spokeswoman for the governor: “There are too many potential impacts to the health of our state’s vital natural resources.”

Oyster also said that “as it stands right now, this is a matter that first needs to be addressed in Nebraska. We hope our neighboring state will make the right decision, but should the transfer gain any traction, we will respond and engage accordingly.”

I should hope so.

“Our most pressing concerns are Silver and Bighead Carp and White Perch,” wrote Chris Steffen, aquatic nuisance species coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. “All three species have proven in Kansas to be incredibly detrimental to the waters they invade and are located within the Platte River near the proposed point of diversion.”

According to Steffen, other states that have seen an influx of these species have experienced declines in their sport fish populations of more than 80%. If the species were allowed to take hold in Lovewell and Milford Reservoirs, it could risk the state’s $210,000 fishing industry. Aside from economics, changes to the river’s ecosystem could affect critical habitat for species such as the Shoal Chub and the Plains Minnow, which are already deemed threatened in the state.

“Kansas Wildlife and Parks has been working diligently to prevent the spread and limit the impact of aquatic invasive species,” Steffen wrote. “This project would undermine those efforts and place our natural resources at risk.” 

Last spring I traveled to Nebraska, where I spent a morning at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary that sits along the Platte. Eagles and herons hunted the shallows, while the songs of meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds pierced the air.

According to Audubon’s website, the Platte River is also critical habitat for endangered and iconic species, including the piping plover and the sandhill crane, and like the Kansas department, they and their partners have invested heavily to preserve their state’s natural resources. Reducing water flow via a transfer would alter the ecology of nesting grounds and food sources relied upon by both native and migratory birds. Although the sanctuary is not in Kansas, as residents of the Plains, we need to recognize that the entire eco-region and its wildlife are treasures to protect.

In that light, I encourage our current administration to stay informed and ready to engage as they have said they would. Not only for the state’s economic benefit, but for the assurance that the progress we’ve made so far in preserving and protecting our natural assets is sustained and encouraged hereafter.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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