A plan designed to help Nebraska meet waterflow obligations on a shared river may cause irreversible harm to the waterways it’s supposed to protect, including those in Kansas, according to officials in Kansas’ wildlife agency.
Officials in Nebraska, however, say the threat caused by Asian carp and other invasive fish species is under control ... for now.
The proposal before bureaucrats in Lincoln, Neb., would clear the way for a historic diversion of water from the Platte River into the Republican River via the 25-mile Turkey Creek tributary, marking the first time Nebraska has artificially connected two rivers, according to the Omaha World Herald. But the problem, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, is that connecting the two rivers could result in the migration of several harmful species of fish and plant-life into Kansas waterways, including one of the most prestigious catfish and bass fisheries in the state -- Milford Reservoir.
The Republican River feeds into both the Milford and Lovewell Reservoirs before joining the Kansas River near Junction City. Milford is world renowned as a monster catfish location, but is also a major bass destination, with the state-record smallmouth bass (6.88 pounds, Frank Evans Jr. in 2010) among the many lunkers plucked from its waters. The reservoir is even set to host the 2018 Bassmaster College Series Classic Bracket from Aug. 14-16 -- a national event with the winner qualifying to compete in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic.
The reservoir’s bounty isn’t limited to just a few species, however, as it produces excellent walleye, wiper, sauger, white bass and crappie offerings. David Barnes, of Wamego, also set a state record where the Republican connects with the reservoir, taking a 62-pound smallmouth buffalo while bowfishing on the pristine waters in 2016.
“The State of Kansas opposes this project because invasive Asian Carp and White Perch in the Platte River could enter the Republican River (along with other nuisance species) if the two rivers are connected,” the state said via a news release. “As a result, the project could severely impact Kansas’ sportfish and native aquatic species, water-based recreation, tourism and the state’s fishing economy. There is no evidence that those two species currently live in the Republican River.”
The silver carp, one of the most notable species of Asian carp, are infamous for leaping up to 10 feet in the air when boats or other personal watercraft pass over them in the water, causing a potential danger to boaters, and can grow to exceed 40 inches in length and 50 pounds in weight. In June 2014, Kansas anglers Max Dick and Bill Zimmerman told The Capital-Journal they had caught an 80-pound silver carp in the Delaware River -- a 94-mile-long river fed by the outflow from Perry Reservoir that feeds into the Kansas River, which connects with the Republican River roughly 80 miles to the west.
The state contends these hefty “flying carp” not only pose a physical threat to boaters but also threaten Kansas’ $210 million recreational fishing industry, as both the Asian carp and the white perch compete for space and resources with other sportfish such as bass, crappie, catfish and walleye.
“They are prolific breeders, grow fast and can quickly become the predominate fish species in a lake or river,” the KDWPT said in its release. “In other states, some lakes with Asian Carp have experienced sportfish population declines of more than 80 percent with corresponding damage to their fishing and tourism economies.”
Similarly, the agency says white perch overpopulate easily, can produce stunted fish populations in reservoirs and can even clog cities’ water-intake systems in the event of a die-off. In addition, the KDWPT says white perch will eagerly eat the eggs of sportfish.
The agency added that some threatened species of fish in Kansas may be endangered by the ecological changes that could take place if the two river systems were connected.
“Changes to the Republican River could also impact critical habitat for the Shoal Chub and Plains Minnow, which are threatened species in Kansas,” the release said. “Both species release their eggs into flowing water where they would be susceptible to being eaten by White Perch.”
John Thorburn, manager of the Tri-Basin Natural Resources District in Holdrege, Neb., says that the perceived threat of an imminent invasion may be overexaggerated, however.
“To our knowledge, the Asian carp have not been detected in the portion of the Platte that we would be diverting water from,” Thorburn said. “There’s a diversion dam at North Platte, Neb., that takes water into Central Nebraska Public Power’s canal system, and there have not been any detections of Asian carp or the zebra aquatic mussels (another invasive species) at that point in the river or upstream in the river.
“That is a potential problem and something that Central (Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District) is working with the (Nebraska) Game and Parks Commission to try to prevent from becoming a problem -- and something we’re very sensitive to, ourselves, as well. The Game and Parks Commission regularly surveys the canal system looking for these invasive fish, and so far, again to my knowledge, they haven’t detected anything.
“The issue of invasive plants has been raised, too,” Thorburn added. “The phragmites and saltcedar. They’re out there in both the Platte and Republican basins already, and we’ve been working in the natural resources district to try to control those for more than a decade.”
Thorburn says the state also might be able to stem the tide of a possible invasive species threat when the canal system is constructed.
“The project, when it’s constructed, would have a diversion gate, so it would be a controlled flow,” Thorburn said. “There are, as I understand it, ways to protect those sorts of diversions from invasive species traveling through there, but we’re going to follow whatever recommendations the state game and parks commission would make in terms of addressing an invasive species problem, if or when they occur.”
Ron Kaufman, director of information services with the KDWPT, was asked about Thorburn’s comments about invasive species not being present in that portion of the Platte River.
“Well, that would be news to me,” Kaufman said. “I would need to check that out. I’m kind of going off what our fisheries biologists have relayed to me, so I’m not the expert of what particular species is where. My first reaction is, nevertheless, at some point if there are Asian carp in the Platte River, they’re liable to spread, even if they’re not in that particular section just yet.”
Tim McCoy, deputy director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, confirmed Thorburn’s claim that Asian carp haven’t been spotted so far in the area, but agreed with Kaufman that the situation could change at any time.
“Currently there are not Asian carp at the diversion point,” McCoy said. “The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission does have long-term concerns that Asian carp may continue to move upstream in the Platte and eventually reach the diversion. Once that happens, movement through the canal system and to the location of the interbasin transfer could create a pathway into the Republican River.”
While the move by Nebraska could affect bodies of water in Kansas, Kaufman said he was unaware of any sort of veto power the state of Kansas would have to prevent the project. At this point, the state is recommending concerned Kansans to contact the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer sent a letter dated Aug. 8, 2018, to Jeff Fassett, director of the Nebraska DNR, expressing his objection to the plan.
In the letter, Colyer said that “an overwintering population of both silver and bighead (carp) were documented in Turkey Creek” among other sightings in the area, citing 2017 samplings by the Nebraska Department of Game and Parks.
The entire letter can be viewed at https://tinyurl.com/y9gaza39/.
Water in the Midwest has long been a highly sought-after commodity, with states perpetually caught in a political tug-of-war over the usage of shared waterways.
The Ogallala Aquifer, an underground reservoir that runs through eight states from South Dakota to Texas, is perhaps the most notable case of water-access disputes between states. Another is the Republican, which runs through three states: Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. Because of its shared status, an interstate compact was put in place on Dec. 31, 1942, to ensure each state works together to manage the river’s waterflow. Disputes between the states about the percentage of water used are common and have gone as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, as the river is vital to the agriculture and ecology of the three states.
“It’s very much of a challenge, especially in a case like the Republican River that’s essentially fed by rainfall runoff,” Thorburn said. “You know, it’s not like there’s snowfall melting in the mountains that we rely on in the Republican, so the flow varies so much from one year to the next. We’ve had to become very careful irrigators and water users in Nebraska to make sure we don’t use more than our share and stay in compliance with the compact.”
The proposal to connect the two rivers was developed by the Tri-Basin NRD and the Lower Republican NRD with the goal of meeting Nebraska’s obligation to Kansas and Colorado in maintaining streamflow. Water would flow from the Platte through a canal owned by the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District into Turkey Creek.
The Omaha World reported that a study by the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pegged the potential economic impact of the project in the Republican basin between $14.2 million to $33 million. Thorburn said the district also did a feasibility study on the project to determine if the area could meet the needs of the state.
“The feasibility study was generally focused on whether the project would be economically cost effective and whether water was available to satisfy the proposed water right, and in both cases we found, yeah, it is an economically competitive project and, at least at certain times, there would be water available for us to divert from the Platte River,” Thorburn said. “Now, there are a lot of restrictions on that, because there are endangered species in the Platte River that need water, and so there are (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service target flows to protect those species, as well as existing water rights for a variety of purposes.”
In addition to endangered species, the Platte River also is a vital migration area for the sandhill crane, which could mean a battle from conservationists over diverting resources from such an ecologically important area.
“We would only be able to take water when all of the existing water rights and all of the endangered species target flows are met, and we’ve actually taken an additional step of saying, ‘Because we’re taking out of the Platte basin, we would keep ourselves essentially last in line for taking water in relation to needs within the Platte basin,’ “ Thorburn said.
Regardless of which direction the Nebraska DNR takes, it’s likely that the debate over water usage is far from over.