Climate Change Nebraska

Colorado Construction Cranes May Harm Nebraska's Sandhill Cranes

Denver's booming population poses potential problems for farmers and wildlife dependent on South Platte River Basin

By: Brittni McGuire

The sun peeks over the horizon.

Construction workers in white hard hats and neon vests already are on the job. A steady spray of 10-penny nails fashions a geometric forest of white pine two-by-fours. A convoy of black-and-yellow cement trucks rumbles along a temporary road. Saws buzz and hammers crash, drowning out the chorus of birds singing softly in the dawn. Soon, yet another suburb will mushroom along Colorado’s Front Range.

Not far away, an alarm goes off.

A middle-aged account executive rolls out of bed, downs a glass of water, flushes the toilet, brushes her teeth, hops in the shower, makes a pot of coffee and turns off the sprinklers before heading to the office.

“People love the lifestyle and it’s an economic hub. So, I think the Front Range is going to continue to grow,” says Colorado State Sen. Chris Hansen. “It’s going to cause a huge amount of additional pressure on water resources.”

The 440-mile South Platte River is the lifeline for the explosive growth of suburban Denver.

“I remember looking out of my 10th-grade geometry classroom and seeing cows. This was 2004 or 2005. All this area is now completely engulfed in houses, miles and miles of suburbs.”
Lindsay Johnson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Ph.D. candidate, from Centennial, Colorado
A sandhill crane in flight.

A hundred miles downstream, a farmer sits quietly on his front porch. Hot cup of coffee in hand, he gazes out at his livelihood: 2,200 acres of cultivated land laid out neatly in row after row, broken only by the long metal arms of a vast center pivot irrigation system. The only sounds are the wind sweeping across the pipes, the water misting the fields.

“We enjoy a surface water right out of the South Platte River. And I also sit on top of a groundwater aquifer,” explains Marc Arnusch, a third-generation Colorado farmer with Austrian roots. “Those two water rights drive the production on our farm.”

The South Platte River is the lifeline for Arnusch and hundreds of other farmers who cultivate the soil of Eastern Colorado.

Marc Arnusch, a third-generation farmer, working on the Arnusch farm near Keenesburg, Colorado. Photo by Marc Arnusch
A sandhill crane in flight.

Four hundred miles downstream, a vast constellation of ancient birds hunkers down in the river’s moist sand bars. The volume of their calls slowly increase as more and more awaken from their slumber. Soon, the sun slips above the horizon, painting the sky in a glowing array of orange and pink. In that instant, hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes explode from the sand bars in all directions, drowning out all other sound, as they head to nearby cornfields and wetlands to fuel up for their long journey north. 

Later, as the sunlight fades and the moon rises, as hundreds of tourists ready their cameras, the cranes gracefully flutter back down to the safety of the sand bars, ready to do it all over again come morning. 

“Back in 1962, I was the only one bird watching out there. I like it much better than the morning because it tends to build up slowly, like a symphony kind of thing, developing complexities and so on. It’s just pure magic.”
Paul Johnsgard, Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor

“I could hardly wait,” 88-year-old Paul Johnsgard said in early March as the cranes began arriving in Nebraska. “I (spent) 11 months waiting for it.”

The Platte River has been the lifeline for the sandhill cranes for millennia.  

A sandhill crane in flight.

This is a story about a river basin stretching more than 1,000 miles across two states, a 15,000-year-old river dating back to the end of the last ice age. It’s about all the mountain-seeking suburbanites who need it to keep themselves clean and their yards lush, the farmers whose thirsty crops demand it and the ancient sandhill cranes who can’t survive without it. 

It’s a story about a daunting prediction in the most recent update to the Colorado Water Plan: By 2050, Colorado’s South Platte Basin, home to 70% of the state’s population, could experience a water shortage of 540,000 acre-feet — enough water to fill Lincoln’s 600-acre Pioneer Park to a depth of 1,000 feet, every year. A story about all of the studies suggesting various plans to close that stark water gap, plans to capture an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water, and what it means for Nebraska when that water doesn’t cross the border. 

It’s also a story about the dedicated Front Range farmers whose fields increasingly rely on the South Platte River and how their needs will be met if cities buy their water rights and water is prioritized for urban areas, hanging rural communities out to dry.

The Platte River south of Lexington, Neb. Photo by James St. John
The Platte River south of Lexington, Neb. Photo by James St. John

A story about the beautiful, gray-feathered birds with their graceful mating dance and what happens to them if — while en route from Mexico and the Southwest US to Canada, Alaska and Siberia — they arrive in Nebraska only to find the river but a trickle, the sand bars dried up, the visitors but a trickle, the eco-tourism dollars dried up. 

A story about the challenges to balance urban, agricultural and ecological demands for one river’s water — challenges that will only accelerate in the coming years as climate change carves out a new playing field and population growth overwhelms it.

In one sense, it’s a complex story that may come down to something very simple, something people cherish and mourn. For the thriving, modern city, the resolute, adaptive farmer and the ancient, migratory birds — life may be at stake.

A sandhill crane in flight.

A door covered by a mosaic of native Nebraska birds, prairie reflections and book covers opens to a small, crowded room. Amid shelf after shelf of books and stuffed birds in glass display cases, a soft voice calls out: “I’m over here!”

 

At a desk in an even smaller, more crowded room awash with books and keepsakes gathered over the years, sits an elderly man with wispy white hair, big glasses and a warm smile. He’s wearing a weathered gray crew neck adorned with two dancing sandhill cranes. Johnsgard, author of A Chorus of Cranes: The Cranes of North America and the World and nearly 100 other books, first began migrating to the Platte River to see the cranes when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. 

Paul Johnsgard, sandhill cranes expert, stands next to some of the books he has written from his 40-plus years of studying birds. Photo by Paul Johnsgard
Paul Johnsgard, sandhill cranes expert, stands next to some of the books he has written from his 40-plus years of studying birds. Photo by Paul Johnsgard

“Back in 1962, I was the only one bird watching out there,” remembers Johnsgard, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he taught for nearly 40 years. His favorite time to crane-watch is in the evening. 

 

“I like it much better than the morning because it tends to build up slowly, like a symphony kind of thing, developing complexities and so on. It’s just pure magic,” he said.

Every spring, about 600,000 sandhill cranes leave their wintering grounds as far south as Mexico to migrate to their northern breeding grounds, flying up to 500 miles in a single day. The Platte River, surrounding wetlands and most recently, vast cornfields, provide exactly what the cranes need as a pit stop midway through their journey. 

The cranes are omnivores — eating roots of aquatic plants, insects, frogs, snails and as agriculture began to alter the landscape they added waste grain, leftover corn after harvest, to their diet, too. 

Today, there are 15 crane species in the world — 12 of them endangered. Sandhill cranes are the most populous of the 15 — with estimates of 600,000 to 800,000, including all subspecies.

“We’ve got more sandhills than there’s probably ever been in history. But, they’re an important, I suppose, bellwether of the condition of the river,” Johnsgard noted. Any decline in crane populations, he says, may signal that the river is quickly deteriorating. 

Although Johnsgard was among the few observing cranes back in the ’60s, he’s now joined by thousands of bird watchers — from New Zealand, Australia, Germany —  from all over the world who congregate annually in central Nebraska to experience the sandhill crane migration. They come by the thousands and they spend millions year after year.

Among the best places to see the spectacle unfold is at Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska.

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)

Height: 3 to 4 feet

Wingspan: 5 to 7 feet

Weight: 6.5 to 14 pounds

Color: Plumage varying shades of gray and brown, black legs, red crown or patch on forehead

Lifespan: 20 to 40 years

Call: Rattling “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o”

Conservation Status: stable to increasing

Kar-r-r-r-o-o-o

Bill Taddicken, sanctuary director, says Rowe has been around for almost 50 years “giving a voice to the river and a voice to the cranes,” while also providing educational and some would say life-changing experiences for nearly 15,000 visitors annually, the bulk of which visit between late February and mid-April. 

What draws people? What keeps tourists coming back to see the cranes year after year? Taddicken thinks it has something to do with how people can relate to them. 

“Cranes dance, people dance,” he said. “Cranes are great parents, and people try to be great parents. Cranes mate for life and people attempt to do that, too.” 

But for most people, it’s the sound — that rattling kar-r-r-r-o-o-o amplified by hundreds of thousands of voices — that keeps them coming back. 

 

“That sound,” Taddicken said, “has been on this Earth for millions of years, and people, for some reason, it just soaks right into their soul.”

The ecotourism that follows the migration each spring from late February to mid-April contributes more than $10 million to the local economies as tourists flock to hotels, restaurants and museums during their stay in central Nebraska. Tourist spending also makes up about a third of the Rowe Sanctuary’s annual budget, which helps fund its conservation work to protect sandhill cranes and their habitat. 

Rowe Sanctuary and the Audubon Society, in partnership with organizations like the Crane Trust and The Nature Conservancy, also does a lot of boots-on-the-ground conservation work directly with the land. While it is important to maintain the crane habitat, Taddicken said the ecotourism side of things — engaging the public in conservation efforts — is just as important. 

“It raises awareness to the public,” he said. “Without the tourism piece, people wouldn’t support protecting the river. I really don’t think we would have the kind of political protections we already see on the Platte without it.”

"I've come to realize over the years how important these types of nature experiences are for people and connecting themselves back to the natural world. And we lose so many of them. Too often we have to say, 'You should have seen the bison migration, or you should have seen the passenger pigeon.' And the last thing I want my kids or grandkids to ever have to say is, 'You should have seen the great migration of cranes on the Platte River.'”
Rowe Sanctuary Director Bill Taddicken

Back in the ’60s, Johnsgard thought the Platte River might well be a lost cause. 

 

“There was no protection really,” he said. “I thought the Platte in my lifetime would be gone.” 

However, a great deal of progress has been made, he said, in protecting one of the last ecologically-rich rivers in Nebraska. Although if the Platte ever goes dry, he said, the cranes will be in tough shape. 

“But the people in Colorado don’t think much about that, I guess,” said Johnsgard.

A sandhill crane in flight.

Denver is among America’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. As of July 1, 2019, the population of Greater Denver was 2.97 million — making it the 19th-largest metropolitan area in the country. If you slim down to just Denver County, with a population of 727,211, you’ll find this: It grew by 21% during the past decade with 127,386 newcomers now calling it home. 

“I remember looking out of my 10th-grade geometry classroom and seeing cows. This was 2004 or 2005,” said Lindsay Johnson, who grew up in Centennial, Colorado. “All this area is now completely engulfed in houses, miles and miles of suburbs.”

Denver and its surrounding suburbs get water from nearby snowmelt-fed rivers and streams, including the South Platte. A 2011 study by The Water Research Foundation found that 50% of water used by the average single-family household is for exterior purposes like watering gardens and lawns. The other 50% was used indoors, including 12% to flush the toilet, 11% for showers and 8% for the faucet. And according to Denver Water, households are using 50 gallons of water per person each day inside their home, not including water used outside. 

So where will the water come from to support Denver’s explosive growth? A recent Denver Post article revealed a plan cobbled together by Colorado officials to construct three new reservoirs northeast of Denver to capture an additional 150,000 acre-feet of Nebraska-bound water — enough to fill 240,000 Olympic-size swimming pools — and pump it back to the booming metro suburbs. 

“It’ll be, you know, 20 to 30 years before the first spade of dirt is turned over,” said Dave Aiken, a professor of environmental and water law at UNL.

Another recent plan, a feasibility study by the South Platte Regional Opportunities Water Group (SPROWG) aims to provide some potential solutions to bridge that water-shortage gap and meet both the municipal and agricultural water needs of the future. The recommended plans could capture up to 400,000 acre-feet of water from the South Platte River annually, according to the study.

Colorado State Sen. Hansen remains optimistic despite the predicted water shortages. 

 

“We can figure it out, but it’s gonna entail some big investments, some tough choices and some shared sacrifice,” he said.

While the SPROWG study aimed to meet the guidelines to protect Nebraska’s endangered species set by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Jesse Bradley, interim director of Nebraska’s Department of Natural Resources, expects more.

The SPROWG study suggests four scenarios to bridge the water gap. Graphic by the Sterling Journal-Advocate

“I don’t think they’ve yet analyzed all the potential impacts on Nebraska,” Bradley said. “So, that would be something we would expect, future communication with Colorado, if this were to move forward.”

But Colorado doesn’t have an unlimited open tap to the river. The 1923 South Platte River Compact between Colorado and Nebraska requires Colorado to maintain a flow of at least 120 cubic feet per second into Nebraska. Legally, Colorado can capture and use any excess water as long as it maintains the required flow rate. 

That legalism, however, doesn’t sit well with some on the Nebraska side.

Ecologically, there is no such thing as excess flow “because even massive flows like we saw last spring provide habitat, they allow the river to move in different directions, create new channels,” said George Cunningham, conservation chair of the Nebraska Sierra Club chapter.

In addition to the 1923 compact, other measures in place to protect the river as an ecosystem include the Endangered Species Act and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.

But for now, until a plan is devised and implemented to bridge the water supply gap for urban areas in the basin, cities have relied on a practice called urban buy and dry. This practice involves cities buying out agricultural water rights, giving farmers no choice but to switch over to cultivating less water-reliant crops — or sometimes even leave their land. 

A sandhill crane in flight.

The family of Marc Arnusch immigrated to the United States from Austria in the 1950s, planting their roots in Prospect Valley, Colorado, where the family farm is now located. 

Like most farmers along the Colorado Front Range, Arnusch relies on an irrigation system fed by the South Platte River and underground aquifers to provide his crops with the water they need. The Arnusch farm produces seed for cereal grain, wheat and barley for local breweries and corn and alfalfa for nearby dairies on 2,200 acres of irrigated and dry land. 

Farmers harvest the season's wheat crop at Arnusch Farms, located in Prospect Valley, Colo. Photo by Marc Arnusch

As someone active in Colorado politics, Arnusch says “the buy up and dry up of agriculture is the lowest hanging fruit.” Many times, he notes, it’s the easiest and least expensive way for cities to get access to more water — but at a high cost for farmers.

“We basically hollow out our rural communities by moving the water from those areas to the benefit of the urban corridor” is the way Arnusch puts it. 

To keep the state’s rural communities from disappearing, Arnusch said Colorado needs to balance water use and the economic benefits that come with water rights.

As the Colorado South Platte River Basin, where Arnusch’s farm lies, faces unprecedented water shortages in the coming decades, he said the rural areas will be hit the hardest.

“It’s a reality we live with continually,” says Arnusch. “We may not see the concrete, asphalt and rooftops encroaching on our land, but we will feel the effects of development elsewhere when the demand becomes too great to maintain the ownership and control of our water resources.”  

"We may not see the concrete, asphalt and rooftops encroaching on our land, but we will feel the effects of development elsewhere when the demand becomes too great to maintain the ownership and control of our water resources."
Marc Arnusch, whose family farms 2,200 acres in eastern Colorado
A sandhill crane in flight.

Each spring, the snowpack of the Rocky Mountains melts and replenishes the South Platte River. As the climate continues to change, the Rockies are expected to accumulate less and less snowpack and that snowpack is expected to melt quicker, resulting in unpredictable river flows. 

“With lower summer flows, it gets harder and harder for Colorado to meet the 120 cubic feet per second requirement that they have at the state line coming into Nebraska,” said UNL professor Aiken.

If the Platte River’s flows are depleted to meet Colorado’s water demand and from the effects of climate change, Taddicken isn’t sure what would happen to the sandhill cranes. 

Each year hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes congregate along Nebraska's Platte River during their annual spring migration. Photo by Carlee Koehler

“They have to migrate to be successful in their life cycles,” said Taddicken of the Rowe Sanctuary. “The river is a crucial piece of protection for the birds and a place to rest at night. Without (the river), it’s really hard to say what would happen to their migration path or whether the species itself would survive.”

Taddicken hopes the cranes will continue to thrive so future generations can bear witness to this natural wonder.

“Too often we have to say, ‘You should have seen the bison migration or you should have seen the passenger pigeon,’” Taddicken said. “And the last thing I want my kids or grandkids to ever have to say is, ‘You should have seen the great migration of cranes on the Platte River.’”

3 Comments

  • Donna Willey says:

    This influx of population has happened b/c of immigration, both legal & illegal, yet your writeup says nothing about that. I am a native Californian & I have seen my state ruined by over-population. They say we have 40 million people. I live in the eastern Sierra mountains and watch our water taken to water the horde of lawns in southern CA. Until Audubon is honest regarding the problems of bringing in hundreds of thousands of people from 3rd world countries and begins to stand w/ conservatives who have insisted on a wall on our southern border, who want legal immigration limited or stopped so that foreigners can assimilate, you wont solve your density problems around Denver. CA should be a warning as to what you don’t want to happen. A shot over the bow. I have no idea what the big draw is to live in Denver might be, but Audubon should address the problem of over-building, tract houses, loss of prairie, lack of water. Where are these huge populations coming from?

  • Pam Smith says:

    I wept when I read this piece. The photographs, the videos, the graphs, the details, the writing are all beyond amazing and so very important–award winning article. I am now a retired photojournalist (and bird watcher) and have had the Sandhill Crane migration on my bucket list for so very many years. I WILL make it there and hope I will never, ever say: “You should have seen the great migration.” I think your work will help make that a reality. Thank you.

  • Janece Mollhoff says:

    Brittni, this is beautifully written and expresses exactly the confluence of population with nature. Every one of those drops of water used for lawns and landscaping takes away from farmers and wildlife. If we could save that 50% of water per household with xeriscapes and native plants, growth becomes more sustainable. I grew up in Nebraska with the Platte River and love the cranes.
    Thank you.

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