I was born and raised in Aurora, Nebraska, with the seemingly inherent knowledge that the Platte River was the closest and one of the most important water features of our community. Throughout the years, I went on school field trips to the Platte where we would talk about the significance of the water system so close to us. Those discussions became increasingly complex as we aged simultaneously with the river. We discussed the water cycle, attempted to examine the organisms that depend on the wide river, and splashed around in the shallow water, careful not to step into a steep drop off.
Growing up, I gained knowledge about the importance of water and the Platte River for my community, but I did not fully understand its significance for knowledge and understanding are two different things. I knew that the water that I used was important; however, I did not understand the importance of the journey that water took to reach my community or its impacts on other communities near and far. I recognized that water is essential for life, but I didn’t appreciate how much influence our lives have over the water and its path.
This lack of understanding later piqued my interest. Why didn’t I know where my water came from or what factors influenced it on the way to the tap above my kitchen sink? Why do I have such easy access to water? What makes me so positive that when I turn on the faucet water will always pour out? When attempting to find a topic to write about for my first story with the Platte Basin Timelapse project, these questions kept popping up in my head. I realized that these questions all have a similar theme: the path of water and water security. While I was considering these questions and their themes, transbasin diversions were brought to my attention, and I thought, “What better way to understand than to research such a prominent and important phenomenon that affects me and others all around the globe?” Okay, okay, maybe I didn’t initially think that. However, after a short time researching the topic, I began to understand just how influential these water networks are, and this made me ask the aforementioned question.
Transbasin diversion, also commonly called an interbasin transfer, can be described as the removal of water from its natural watershed for use in a different drainage basin. They are used primarily for the alleviation of water scarcity and the generation of hydropower. Interbasin transfers can be found all over the globe, and there are thousands of transbasin diversions in the United States alone. While not all are major transfers, they are used to provide water to cities in semi-arid to arid climates as well as for agricultural production. Some major cities would not be sustainable in their current forms without transbasin diversions, such as Denver and Los Angeles. While interbasin diversions are currently being constructed in order to meet the demands of large and growing cities, this wasn’t always the case. In the recent past, these transfers were designed to sustain agriculture in arid regions. However, with the growth of large cities in these regions, more and more states are transferring water rights from agricultural purposes to urban uses.
If you asked me when I was in grade school, high school, or even a year ago what transbasin diversion is, I doubt I could have given you a correct answer let alone explain how it impacted me. I definitely could not have given an example of an interbasin transfer, such as the Colorado-Big Thompson (C-BT) or the proposed Platte to the Republican River diversion. But now that I am slightly more conscious of where my water comes from and I’ve researched the topic, I know that the C-BT was one of the most complex projects undertaken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency which oversees water resource management throughout the western United States. The C-BT consists of over 100 structures integrated into a trans-mountain diversion system; the system diverts volumes ranging from 220,000 and 260,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado River headwaters on the western side of the Continental Divide to the Big Thompson drainage, a tributary of the South Platte River. For reference, 220,000 acre feet is equivalent to over 71 billion gallons, and 250,000 acre feet is equivalent to over 84 billion gallons of water. The C-BT also includes six power plants that generate power from the water flow as it provides supplemental water for agriculture and municipal users on over 720,000 acres of Colorado’s northern Front Range in northeastern Colorado and a stretch of the eastern plains along the South Platte.
While the CB-T has been an established interbasin transfer for many years now, there is another proposed diversion in the Platte River Basin. If approved, this would be the first transfer in Nebraska, although several have been proposed before. The proposed Platte-Republican Diversion project would divert “excess water,” meaning water that has not been appropriated within our human system, from the Platte River over the Platte-Republican divide in south-central Nebraska and run it south into the Republican River via Turkey Creek. The Republican River originates in the high plains of northeastern Colorado and flows eastward 453 miles through southern Nebraska and northern Kansas before merging with the Smoky Hill River to form the Kansas River. Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado all share the water that flows through the Republican watershed. The proposed transfer system would be constructed in order to help ensure Nebraska’s compliance with a 1943 interstate compact that allocates certain percentages of the Republican River’s flows to these three states. In dispute over the states’ rights to the river, in 2015 Kansas won a case brought before the Supreme Court which required Nebraska to pay Kansas for overuse of the water. High tensions among the three states are somewhat understandable as these states are located in a semi-arid climate and have economies that are heavily reliant on irrigated and water-intensive agriculture. One of the main reasons for water shortages in the Nebraska portion of the Republican River Basin was rapid and largely unregulated groundwater well development from the 1940s through the 1990s as Nebraska did not implement statewide regulations limiting groundwater development in fully appropriated river basins until 2004, something Colorado and Kansas had done shortly after the 1943 compact was signed between the three states.
While the proposed interbasin transfer would allow Nebraska to stay in compliance with the three-state compact, several conservation organizations have raised concerns, saying there isn’t extra water in the Platte. In fact, the Nebraska Natural Resources Department has designated the Platte River, and its tributaries the North and South Platte Rivers, as the only rivers in Nebraska that are over-appropriated. This means that there is more demand for the water than the river can provide. Conservation organizations claim that the water that flows through the river is essential for providing habitat for endangered bird species, including the whooping crane, interior least tern, and federally threatened piping plover. The river also famously stages the spring migration of the midcontinent sandhill crane population. Opposition doesn’t solely come from conservation groups, as there have also been formal or legal objections from several other public and private entities such as the North Platte Natural Resources District and Cozad Ditch Company, to name a few.
A trio of Whooping Cranes gather on the Platte River to rest and catch a meal. The species is highly endangered and uses the Platte River as a stopover during their spring and fall migrations. Photo by Michael Forsberg.These are valid concerns considering there can be devastating consequences in the basin or aquifer of origin. Diversions have a consumptive use of 100% because excess water cannot return to its natural source by gravity flow. In the case of river transfers, this can be harmful to instream flows, wetlands, water quality, riparian habitat, and aesthetic qualities. Additionally, not only are aquatic habitats affected but, as the National Academy of Sciences has documented, there are terrestrial consequences as well. This can include soil erosion, blowing dust, and tumbleweeds. As not all diversions happen to rivers, in the case of groundwater export, portions of the earth’s surface may give way; this phenomenon is called “subsidence” and has caused the earth’s surface to drop nearly thirty feet in some locations. An astonishing example of this can be seen in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley in California, where over-pumping caused a permanent elevation change of more than one foot in about 5,200 square miles and some areas have subsided by as much as 28 feet.
In the case of the proposed Platte-Republican Diversion, not only is there opposition by those in the basin of origin, but there is also opposition from those the transfer is intended to benefit. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism warn that connecting the two rivers in this way could lead to the migration of several harmful species of fish and plant-life into Kansas waterways. The state said in a news release that “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.” And “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.”
While the environmental impacts are apparent, there are also real human and social impacts to consider. The public reaction to large-scale water diversion is often that of protest, as people tend to have a very strong sense of water protectionism, especially if they interact closely with the water in which they depend upon for survival. There is also a false sense of “infinite water” in the communities receiving water transfers. As Christine A. Klein of the University of Florida Levin College of Law discusses in her paper, “Water Transfers: The Case Against Transbasin Diversions in the Eastern States,” the introduction of a plan to increase the volume of water via a transbasin diversion is often accompanied by calling the provided supply “new water.” This implies that somehow new water can be created, which defies the actual limits of the earth’s finite water supply. It does not indicate that this water is being transferred from one place to another, but rather that it is completely new. The language surrounding transbasin diversion tends to focus on the demand side of a supply and demand system. The language and attitude provide a sense of water security that is more illusory than real and provides a disconnect for the consumer from where the water is actually coming from.
At this point in my research, I was asking myself, what are the alternatives to diversions? There has to be another option, right? While water conservation efforts are on the rise, they can only do so much to reduce the water needs of large and growing cities located in arid and semi-arid regions. The much bigger issue is the water that is required for water-intensive agriculture which many state economies depend upon in these regions. Other than water conservation efforts implemented on city-wide, industrial, and individual levels, there aren’t currently any alternatives that can provide the water volume that these cities, farms, ranches, and regions already depend on.
Cities within the boundaries of the United States are not the only ones reliant on water from diversions. Many other countries around the world have relied on these transfers to supply their cities with water when local resources are strained. This is especially prevalent in South Africa, where 65% percent of the country receives less than 500 mm of rain annually and 20% receives less than 200 mm; this is approximately half of the global average. For reference, Phoenix, Arizona’s, average annual precipitation is about 200 mm, according to U.S. Climate Data. Not only is there little overall rainfall that depends heavily on the seasons, but on average only about 9% of that rainfall ever reaches the river due to high evaporation rates and only four percent of that has a chance to recharge aquifers.
The areas with the most rainfall are located in the highest parts of South Africa’s landscape where only 8% of the country’s land area supplies 50% of the runoff. Most of the major centers of economic and social development of South Africa are located in areas where water is not naturally found in abundance. Thus, economic activity in all nine provinces is already supported to some extent by water imported from elsewhere. In fact, the central Gauteng province, home to Johannesburg, upon which South Africa’s economy is centered, is the most dependent. The interbasin transfers by which the South African economy depends upon were built during Apartheid and have a combined transfer capacity equal to a little less than 8% of the total available surface water in the country. Consequently, they are finding it increasingly difficult to get the little water they have to the people.
In 2018, Cape Town, the most populated city in South Africa with 3.4 million residents, caught the world’s attention by announcing a “Day Zero” upon which the city would completely completely ran out of water and be the first major city to do so; at the height of the crisis, exacerbated by an extreme drought in the region, the dam levels were at 21.2% capacity with 10% of this unavailable for extraction. This “Day Zero” was estimated to be April 21st, then April 12th, which was then followed by April 16th. With an estimated population of 4.3 million requiring water, the city was forced to implement strict water usage reductions on the citizens and companies that occupy the city. With the water restrictions, the city was able to replenish their water resources and they announced that “Day Zero” was unlikely to happen even in 2019.
Transbasin diversions provide water to cities, agricultural producers, and natural ecosystems here and all around the globe. They provide a way for water-scarce areas to get relatively stable access to the essential resource that all life depends upon. In the United States alone, there are thousands of interbasin transfers and most of those occupy the western, more arid states. While transfers seem commonplace in the United States and beyond, there are several efforts to reduce water usage in order to reduce or eliminate the need for these diversions which impose dramatic changes to the water systems. South Africa has shown the power of such efforts, after coming back from “Day Zero” and pushing it off potentially indefinitely. While it is clear that transbasin diversions are an established part of our current water strategy, it is important to consider all aspects before setting the dependence on “new water” in the receiving basin and removing it permanently from the providing basin.
While we all depend on this vital resource to survive, we each have our own unique story and interactions with our water. For me, I knew from a young age that water was important, but it took a long time for me to start to truly understand the scope of significance water has on my life and those around the world. Although the Platte River has changed since my elementary school field trips in Aurora, Nebraska, it is still essential to me and the success of many agricultural producers and is home to entire ecosystems.
Today, as I work for the Platte Basin Timelapse project, my appreciation for the Platte River is not greater or lesser than my appreciation when I was a child- it’s just different. As a child, the river served as a place of wonder and a space to explore and play. It was a retreat from the long days of school and the sometimes blandness of the small town that was my home. Now, as a young adult, it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the excitement of childhood as well as a point of passion as I work to better understand it. More than ever, I understand just how connected everything is and that while those tunnel systems in the mountains, such as the Colorado-Big Thompson, seem far away, they are in fact closer and more connected to me and “my” water than I ever would have thought. Obviously, I have changed a lot since my childhood spent on the Platte, just as the river has changed in that time as well. However, this river and I will always be connected, for just as I am constantly weaving my own story into the work that I do regarding the river, the Platte continues to weave its story into mine.