Joe Frank, Anchoring the Lower South Platte

Emerging Leader Award
Water Education Colorado’s 2018 President’s Reception


Joe Frank and his family prefer living in the wide-open plains of northeastern Colorado near Merino. A civil engineering graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, he’s been the General Manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District since 2004. This district extends along the South Platte River west of Fort Morgan through Sterling and Julesburg to the Nebraska state line. “Previously, as a consulting engineer, I’d been working on Front Range subdivisions, commercial developments and flood drainage plans,” Frank says.

Now Frank shepherds water use for farmers and ranchers intent on preserving Colorado’s rural way of life. A member of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, he’s a student of how Delph Carpenter put together the 1923 South Platte River Compact between Colorado and Nebraska. “Return flows from irrigated agriculture and cities along the Front Range produced a living year-round stream all the way into Nebraska that didn’t exist before.”

Between 1903 and 1910, nine irrigation districts came into existence down the South Platte from Kersey to Nebraska for conserving these return flows. They built off-stream reservoirs for diverting water into storage during late fall, winter and early spring for use in the lower South Platte reach during the irrigation season. Says Frank, “Carpenter showed Nebraska water users how they, too, could benefit from these upstream return flows. That’s why the compact entitles Nebraska, an 1897 priority, to use 120 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water between April 1 and October 15 and affords Colorado unrestricted use of the river above and beyond that.”

Created in 1964, the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District envelops the irrigation districts, ditch companies, towns and individual farms and ranches essential to maintaining a viable rural economy. Originally formed to partner in the proposed Narrows Reservoir project, it now acts to protect water users dependent on return flows and the storage of storm flows not owed to Nebraska. On their behalf, Frank is working for alternatives to drying-up downstream South Platte farms and ranches. “We don’t want a repeat of how lower Arkansas River ditches were picked apart for urban water supply.”

Frank embraces implementation of Colorado’s Water Plan, particularly its water-conscious landscaping recommendations and its call for completion of pending projects “such as Northern’s Integrated Water Supply Project and the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project.” He also appreciates the Colorado Legislature’s study of new cooperative urban-rural storage possibilities in the South Platte Basin. “We’ve had a lot of water leaving the state recently we could have put into surface and groundwater storage under the compact.”

He emphasizes how Colorado’s contribution to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program for endangered species operates through various recharge sites for timing return flows just above Nebraska. “The Tamarack Ranch State Wildlife Area and other nearby recharge projects protects water users present and future throughout the South Platte Basin, so they can exercise their water rights under this umbrella.”

Joe Frank’s wife, Kori, an experienced elementary school teacher, has been home-schooling their five sons, Matthew, Andrew, Tyler, Jacob and Caleb. This way the family can enjoy living on their 20-acre place close to fishing holes amidst the perennial seeps, rivulets and reservoirs of the eastern plains.

Translate »