There we were, 21 environmental reporters, freelancers, students and professors, all huddled and shivering in an unheated blind on the Platte River.
We were waiting in the breezy, 20-degree cold for thousands of lesser sandhill cranes to return from feeding in the corn fields and roost for the night on protective sandbars. Each spring, the cranes leave their southwest wintering spots and stop in central Nebraska to rest and eat before heading out to their Arctic nesting grounds.
Time passed. Our fingers and toes numbed but cameras and binoculars remained ready. We watched the bright orange sun sink below the horizon, the sky darken into night, the moon rise and the stars slowly appear overhead. Still, the cranes defied their nightly ritual and remained overhead, squawking to one another and showing no interest in resting. After almost three hours, we left the blind, cold, hungry and a little disappointed the birds had not landed.
That's how it is with wildlife. You never know. Each night is different, our guides told us. Those of us who had seen the spectacle before knew it was true. But that night's late roosting surprised even the experienced guides. The birds finally settled past 9 p.m., well after we and everyone else had left the blinds at the National Audubon Society's Lillian Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary near Gibbon, Neb.
Our group had descended on Nebraska's Platte River valley March 23 and 24 for the "Platte River at the Crossroads" conference. The conference committee of local SEJ members, chaired by Carolyn Johnsen, pulled together a program of experts who covered a full range of Platte River issues, starting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) on Thursday morning and ending in Grand Island on Friday afternoon.
The regional conference was co-sponsored by SEJ and UNL's College of Journalism and Mass Communications. The university's vice chancellors for research and academic affairs provided financial support, keeping the event affordable for journalists.
A diverse batch of speakers told us in great detail about underlying issues of the three-state Platte River Cooperative Agreement and the soon-to-be-released management plan. The agreement was signed by Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming in the early 1990s to combat loss of endangered species habitat, dwindling water supplies and increased legal battles over water.
The Platte River Valley and its neighboring Rainwater Basin host about 12 million nesting and migrating cranes, geese, ducks and other water birds every year, said Paul Johnsgard, author and ornithologist at UNL. The area he calls the avian Serengeti represents "one of the most spectacular concentrations of migratory birds to be found anywhere in the world."
But continued loss of water – due to overuse and drought – is damaging the Platte River's unique character. The North Platte in Wyoming and the South Platte in Colorado converge in central Nebraska to flo east as the Platte and empty into the Missouri River.
Historically, the river had many channels and flowed wide and shallow. Each spring, floods and ice would flush the river, destroying vegetation and altering sandbars, channels and flow. Today, low spring and yearly flows have created a narrower and deeper river lined in places with trees and shrubs.
A big lesson learned at the conference is this: water is scarce and undervalued in the arid west and needs are great. Irrigation (up to 75 percent of the Platte River's water), recreation, municipal use, power plants, industry and wildlife compete for the limited river water and its groundwater counterpart in the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer.
Watering crops takes the heaviest toll in agricultureheavy Nebraska, which is sec- ond only to California in irrigated acres, according to Ann Bleed, acting director, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.
The new cooperative agreement is a step towards balancing use of the limited water resources. Under it, the states, along with the Department of Interior, were to develop a basin-wide management plan to restore wildlife habitat for endangered and threatened species – the whooping crane, piping plover, least tern and the pallid sturgeon – while meeting human water needs. After 15 years of haggling and more delays than can be counted, the Integrated Management Plan for the Platte River came out this spring.
"The river in itself is in a stage of jeopardy. We are at a critical point," said Steve Anschutz, Nebraska field supervisor, US Fish and Wildlife Service. Other animals not yet listed are also declining, such as the plains top minnow and the Platte River caddis fly.
The 13-year program, if approved, will provide 80,000 acre feet of water to increase spring flows, protect and restore 10,000 acres of land for habitat and mandate research and monitoring using adaptive management. Current water users would retain their rights, dams and other facilities' licenses would be renewed and new monitoring would begin.
But the plan is drawing criticism. Conference speakers representing government agencies, environmental groups, a law firm, farming interests and power districts voiced a range of concerns and pointed out numerous problems with the plan. Most worrisome are funding, program delays and changes, regulatory uncertainty, questionable wildlife benefits, lack of trust among participants, fair sharing of resources and increased federal oversight.
The management plan is still a long way from getting off the ground, though. The Department of Interior just approved the completed final draft document in May. The required environmental impact statement, the record of decision and the US Fish and Wildlife's biological opinion are expected soon. After all of the federal approval, the three governors must approve the plan, and Nebraska is in an election year. Then, Congress can appropriate the money. Start date may be as late as fall 2007.
After leaving the blind and grabbing dinner and a few hours sleep, we returned to Rowe Sanctuary to watch the birds lift off for their daily corn feed. We walked back to the blind in the predawn dark and seven degree temperatures. Not far away, thousands of the red-headed, gray-feathered critters stood in the shallow water and on the sandbars protected by the flowing river. Later, shortly after daybreak, the birds took off. The raucous, deafening chatter filled the air as their silhouetted bodies blackened the sky overhead.
Wendy Hessler is a freelance writer based n Omaha, Neb.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006
•"Endangered and Threatened Species of the Platte River." Committee on Endangered and Threatened Species in the Platte River Basin, National Research Council, 2004. http://fermat.nap.edu/catalog/10978.html
•"Platte River Odyssey," University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Collection of stories from the year-long series published in the Lincoln Journal Star. $10 from Judy Yeck, attn: Platte Report, UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications, 147 Andersen Hall, P.O. Box 8804433, Lincoln, NE 68588-0443. For questions, contact Carolyn Johnsen at 402-472-5840 or email@example.com.
•Rowe Sanctuary: www.rowesanctuary.org/
•Crane Cam, down until 2007 spring migration:http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/cranecam/