The Platte River begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, then moves through the dry Great Plains of Colorado, Wyoming and Western Nebraska until it reaches the Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Nebraska. The North Platte and South Platte rivers join to form the Platte River near Ogallala.
Over most of its length through Nebraska, it is a muddy, broad, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom and many islands, which is called a braided stream. Its muddy water, many shallow channels and islands and ever-changing mud bars made it too difficult for even canoe travel; consequently, it was never used as a major water transportation route. During long, hot summers, the Platte River is an oasis for wildlife, including pronghorns, mule deer, jackrabbits and remnant populations of prairie dogs and burrowing owls.[soliloquy slug=”pr-3″]The Platte River has a long history of serving people’s water needs. In time, settlers would plow millions of acres of prairie and drain vast wetlands in and around the Platte. Later, irrigation canals, dams and water projects would be built to provide water for thirsty crops and growing cities. The 1900s would see the drilling of thousands of wells ecologically connected to the Platte River.
Although the Platte River remains a unique wildlife resource, decades of development have dramatically changed the quality and quantity of its habitat. Pioneers described the Platte River as a mile wide and an inch deep. The river’s broad, barren channels once stretched for miles, giving migratory birds protection from predators. The Platte’s sandbars were an important nesting ground for shorebirds. Today, wells and surface water projects irrigate millions of acres of farmland. More than three million people in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska get their drinking water largely from the Platte or nearby wells.
Despite the impact of development, the Platte continues to provide crucial habitat for a number of species of animals, including several that are threatened or endangered.[soliloquy slug=”pr-2″]Each spring, more than eighty percent of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes settle in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley during their migration South. Along with them come millions of migrating ducks and geese in the neighboring rainwater basins. As they have for centuries, hundreds of thousands of these Sandhill Cranes come to the Platte River Valley each spring to rest and restore themselves. During their stop in Nebraska, cranes gain nearly twenty percent of their body weight. Depending on the weather, the cranes begin to appear in late February or early March””with the last few birds leaving in early to mid-April.
The shallow braided channels of Nebraska’s Platte River provide safe nighttime roost sites. Waste grain in crop fields provides food to build up depleted fat reserves needed for migration. Nearby wet meadows provide critical nutrients and secluded loafing areas for rest, bathing and courting.