The Platte River is an approximately 310 mi. (499 km) long river in the Western United States. It is a tributary to the Missouri River, which in turn is a tributary to the Mississippi River. Platte River being one of the most significant river systems in the watershed of the Missouri, it drains a large portion of the central Great Plains in Nebraska and the eastern Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Wyoming. The river was highly significant in the westward expansion of the United States, providing the route for several major westward trails, including the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail. In the 18th century, it was also known among French fur trappers who explored it as the Nebraska River.
The Platte River is a braided stream that spans from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming to the Missouri River. It then pours into the Missouri River which leads into the Mississippi River and then into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Platte River is formed in western Nebraska east of the city of North Platte by the confluence of its two affluents, the South Platte and the North Platte Rivers, both of which rise in the eastern Rockies near the Continental Divide. It flows in a large arc, southeast then northeast, across Nebraska south of the Sandhills region, passing Gothenburg, Cozad, Kearney, and Grand Island. It is joined by the Loup River southeast of Columbus and flows east past North Bend then to Fremont, then south, passing south of Omaha and joining the Missouri north of Plattsmouth. Combined with the length of the North Platte, the Platte stretches over , with a drainage basin of .
The Platte River has three main stretches from the Rocky Mountains to North Platte, Nebraska from there to Columbus, Nebraska and the onto the Missouri River. It starts from ice melt in the mountains and then follows down to the plains of Nebraska where it is used to irrigate farmland. The Platte is stabilized by reservoir storage of flood water and return flow by ground storage and many small tributaries along the entire length of the river.
The Platte River is connected to many numbers of tributaries such as the North and South Platte Rivers which originate in the Rocky Mountains. From there it loses water on its way to the Missouri River: were it not for rivers such as the Loup, the Elkhorn and the Salt Creek, the Platte River would run dry due to evaporation and irrigation.
The Platte drains one of the most arid areas of the Great Plains and thus its flow is considerably lower than rivers of comparable length in North America. For much of its length, it is a classic wide and shallow braided stream. During pioneer days, the common humorous description was that the Platte was "a mile wide at the mouth, but only six inches deep." 49ers said it was "too thick to drink, too thin to plow". In western Nebraska, the banks and riverbed of the Platte provide a green oasis amid an otherwise semi-arid region of North America. The central Platte River valley is an important stopover for migratory water birds, such as the Whooping Crane and Sandhill Crane, in their yearly traversal of the Central Flyway.
This river has shrunk significantly in the past 70 years. This reduction in size is attributed in part to irrigation, and to a much greater extent to the waters diverted and used by the growing population of Colorado, which has outstripped the ability of its groundwater to sustain them.
The first European to discover the Platte was the French explorer Étienne de Veniard, sieur de Bourgmont in 1714, who named it the Nebraskier, an Oto word meaning "flat water". The French word for flat, platte, was later applied. The river provided valuable transportation for the French trade in furs with the Pawnee and Oto Indians
The Platte lay in a gray area between Spanish and French claims in the Great Plains. Joseph Naranjo, a black explorer, had also encountered the Platte, and later guided the Villasur expedition there to stop French expansion. Theirs was the deepest penetration of Spanish exploration into the central plains.
Ceded to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, the Platte was explored and mapped by Major Stephen H. Long in 1820. The Platte was used by American trappers, and the Great Platte River Road played an important role in westward expansion during the 19th century. It provided fresh water, game, and a clear path westward for the pioneers. Both the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail followed the Platte (and the North Platte). In the 1860s, the Platte and North Platte furnished the route of Pony Express and later for the Union Pacific portion of the first transcontinental railroad. In the 20th century, its valley was used for the route of the Lincoln Highway and later for Interstate 80, which parallels the Platte (and the North Platte) through most of Nebraska.
This is also why many or most of Nebraska’s larger cities are located on or near the Platte River such as Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney, Grand Island, and North Platte. There were also historical sites along the Platte River such as Fort Kearny and other fur trading posts mostly due to the ease and abundance of traveling along the Platte River.
Then in 1859 the first irrigation ditch was built to divert water from the Platte in order to be used in farming. There are also many reservoirs along the Platte River used to supply water for farming irrigation such as Swanson Reservoir, Lake McConaughy, and Plum Creek Reservoir.
Plants that occur often in the Platte River area are Big and Little Bluestem, switch grass, and cottonwood trees. Some of the more charismatic animals are white-tail deer, many types of catfish, Canada geese, and bald eagles. The Platte River has always been able to support many animals but recently due to urbanization and farming the ecosystem is being depleted.
There are also other policies currently in use. One of these that are being used to hopefully decrease the chance of waters becoming over appropriated is Platte River Cooperative Hydrology Study (COHYST) which is a product of the LB 962 bill. COHYST is a seven million dollar study of areas along the Platte River with goals to manage flows in the Platte River in order to benefit wildlife and determine whether or not areas are over appropriated.
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