Platte Basin Timelapse Project Creates New Look at River

Oct. 22, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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The Platte River is a major watershed for the plains, supporting people, agriculture and wildlife. For the past few years, a team has been capturing time-lapse images along the river. For our in-depth report “Water Demands on the Platte,” NET News looked into how those photographs are creating an innovative new look at the entire river basin.

The Platte River begins way up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where winter snowpack feeds a myriad of streams and tributaries. Most of them are hard to find, like Jack Creek. But you can see Jack Creek, because there’s a camera on the stream’s edge, taking thousands of photographs a year. [Editors note: See videos below]

In 2011, Nebraska conservation photographer Michael Forsberg and NET television producer Michael Farrell formed a team that began placing about 40 time-lapse cameras along the Platte River—from high on the Continental Divide where the water starts all the way down until it dumps into the Missouri River south of Omaha.

“Generally speaking our cameras are taking one photograph an hour of every hour of daylight. So when sun hits the solar panel, it wakes the system up, takes a picture, then it will send that picture to us,” Farrell said.

The cameras capture hundreds of thousands of photos the team compiles into video montages of a day, a month or a year. Forsberg said in a nutshell, “what we’re trying to do is bring to life what a watershed is, and show people that live within this big watershed where their water comes from.”

Forsberg said the idea for the project came from many years photographing the nature and wildlife of the Great Plains. Forsberg and Farrell recently co-produced a documentary on the region.

The camera has captured mule deer and elk that depend on that habitat and water source. But the open swath of rolling prairie is well within an urban setting. Wind turbines slowly turn above the homestead, and the Denver skyline is visible to the south. Forsberg said that’s why they have a second camera tracking the construction of a new suburban housing development directly south of the wildlife refuge.

“More people are moving into this area, which requires more water, and more conservation of that water. How are we all going to live in this place sustainably moving forward? So that’s taking a look at one of the key challenges—people. And growing urbanization,” Forsberg said.

That’s a challenge faced by Denver Water, Colorado’s biggest municipal water provider. It serves a quarter of the state’s population.

“Our biggest issue right now is if you look at projections out to 2050, we’re going to double the state’s population,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. “So every water planner in the state right now is focused on, how do you do that in the best way possible?”

About half of Denver Water’s supply comes from the South Platte River. Most is returned to the watershed and then makes its way to Nebraska. Fisher said in recent years, Denver Water’s conservation and recycling programs have allowed it to serve more customers while keeping overall water use in line. It’s also building more storage and seeking out new water supplies.

Back at Rocky Flats, time lapse team members are updating the cameras to upload the photos automatically to computers in Lincoln. Farrell said a couple cameras can capture even more imagery, “We have the ability to do things like a surveillance camera, that can pan, tilt and zoom, and send video imagery via the internet. It can be addressed and moved and focused remotely, through somebody’s laptop or desktop.”

The team can also set up additional, temporary cameras like the ones that captured recent flooding on the Platte. Forsberg said that flood is one of several dramatic shifts they’ve documented during the last two years.

“When we started the project in 2011 the bathtub was full. We had 240 percent snowpack in the mountains, record breaking rainfall in the plains in spring, everything was full of water. Then 2012 came, and water stopped. We had one of the highest drought years ever on record,” Forsberg said.

He views the cameras as an environmental monitor—capturing long-term change through brief moments in time in the years to come. Forsberg said the ultimate goal is to build awareness and a sense of community around the Platte River watershed and the Great Plains. They’re building an interactive website to let people create their own time lapse videos from the photos. They’re also talking to groups and conferences around the state, and plan to develop teaching materials. Photography is key, Forsberg said.

“Photography is this great international language because you don’t have to say a lot. You can show it. And hopefully that builds understanding in a way that wasn’t accessible before,” Forsberg said.

Nebraska water managers agree the photos are a useful way to illustrate hard data they’re collecting. It’s one thing to read a stream gauge statistic—another to watch the river fill its banks in a matter of hours, compressed into two minutes. Forsberg said he hopes the project brings the region’s dependence on the watershed home to people.

“The bottom line is we have this whole ecological infrastructure that underpins everything else that we do, and it’s all driven by water. And we have to take care of it,” Forsberg said.

The project is funded by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, and several private foundations including Nikon Camera.

NET is a partner in the Platte Basin Timelapse project. This is the first of an NET News special in-depth report, “Water Demands on the Platte.”

Snowmelt at Jack Creek, part of the Platte River headwaters in the Colorado Rockies.

One of the cameras is tracking the construction of a new suburban housing development just south of the wildlife refuge.

The team set up temporary cameras to document the historic flooding of the Platte River following heavy rains in Colorado. (All videos courtesy of the Platte Basin Timelapse Project)

Editor's Note: Funding for NET News’ “Water Demands on the Platte” is provided by “Penn State Public Media” and its “Water Blues – Green Solutions” local reporting initiative.