Editor’s note: The following is the final of a three-part series on the Recreation page. The stories discuss the historic flooding that took place across the state in 2019 and how it affected wildlife, state parks and fisheries.
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Flowing from the Sandhills and fed primarily by groundwater, the Loup River and its tributaries don’t flood as often as rivers and streams fed by surface runoff. But under conditions such as seen in 2019, they do. On March 14, Loup River hit a record level at Genoa, cresting at nearly 7 feet above flood stage, washing out Highway 39 south of the town.
About 2 miles downstream of the highway, where the river turns north at George Syas WMA, floodwaters moved overland to the east. On the inside of the bend, massive cottonwoods and other trees were toppled by ice and water. Standing trees now carry scars where ice gouged their bark 8 to 10 feet above the ground. Sand was deposited across the bend, measuring 4 feet deep in places and splaying out across roughly half of the area’s 700 acres.
In the middle of the bend, Game and Parks staff, knowing a flood was coming, had moved equipment onto work benches in the maintenance shop, thinking it would be safe. During previous floods, water had reached depths of more than 2 feet in the shop and office. The new high-water mark is 44 inches above the floor. Flowing water undercut the base of a barn and damaged other outbuildings.
Floodwaters on the Loup continued downstream to the Platte. Near that river’s mouth at the Missouri River, floodwaters topped a levee on the south bank, flowed through two private sandpit lakes and then across Schilling WMA. For the rest of 2019, the Platte was carving a new course to the Missouri through the area. In January, that breach was closed, a move made to preserve the integrity of the Missouri’s navigation channel.
Schilling has flooded numerous times in recent years, most recently in 2011. Water had spilled into the office there three times, reaching a depth of 3 feet in 2011. In 2019, it was 7.5 feet deep. As was the case in 2011, water covered much of the area for most of the year, finally dropping below flood stage in November. Access roads on the area, including the main road leading from Plattsmouth 3 miles north to the mouth of the Platte, were washed out and massive amounts of sand were deposited on the area.
The same can be said for other wildlife areas popular among hunters and anglers on the Missouri, including Niobrara Confluence and Bazile Creek WMAs near Niobrara, and William Gilmour/Tobacco Island, Peru Bottoms and Langdon Bend, areas owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the southeastern corner of the state. A full assessment of the damage on those areas has yet to be completed, as most were inundated throughout the year.
Some access roads have yet to be repaired and cleared of fallen trees and debris on many wildlife areas that were affected, a fact that made access difficult for hunters this past season. Berms and water control structures on wetlands were damaged as well. The shops at Syas and Schilling remain closed and will likely be moved to areas that are not flood prone. The shop and outbuildings at Oak Valley WMA, which sits on Battle Creek and also suffered heavy flood damage in March, may also be moved to high ground. The total cost of all repairs is estimated at $2.5 million.
While wildlife was certainly displaced by flooding in 2019, populations are not believed to have been greatly affected. While some furbearers such as beavers and river otters may have perished when their dens were hit by ice, most birds and mammals are capable of moving to higher ground. The biggest losses may have been due to the harsh winter. In the western half of the state, a few mule deer deaths were documented following blizzards, and bobwhite quail didn’t fare well throughout the state. Wet conditions during May and June hampered nesting success for pheasants, quail and prairie grouse.
The flood and heavy precipitation appears to have helped some species, however. Threatened least terns benefitted from the increase in sandbars created on the Niobrara, Loup and Platte rivers. In the Sandhills, nesting success for ducks and geese was the highest it’s been in at least 10 years thanks to ample wetlands. Duck production was as high as it has been for decades in Rainwater Basin wetlands, where American avocets and cattle egrets were found to have nested for the first time on record.
The changes to the landscape on some areas may benefit some wildlife species in the years to come by creating a maze of early successional habitat. On riverine areas where sand and silt was deposited, a flush of sunflowers and other annual plants will flourish. Willows and cottonwoods will colonize sandbars and other areas where deposited. On meandering rivers like the Elkhorn, Cedar and Calamus, new oxbow lakes and wetlands were created where the river cut across a bend and made a new course.
Doing Their Job
The flooding that occurred last March in Nebraska was expected. The scale, however, was not. And as rivers crept out of their banks and topped and carved holes in levees, many people who assumed they would be safe found themselves stranded in their homes, some at risk of being swept away.
Game and Parks Commission staff, including conservation officers and fisheries and wildlife biologists, did what Nebraskans often do in situations such as this: they jumped in to help.
Using a variety of boats, staff braved rising waters, strong currents and high winds, dodging debris, fences and other submerged obstacles, to rescue 148 people, young and old, during the peak of the flooding, pulling some from rooftops and second-story windows. Numerous pets were given rides to safety with their owners. Staff helped evacuate several housing developments along the Platte, Elkhorn and Big Blue rivers.
Not counted in the above number were the residents moved from a nursing home in Wood River surrounded by floodwaters, and reuniting parents with children who were stranded overnight in a daycare in Fremont. In western Nebraska, officers helped rescue 20 stranded motorists on highways during the blizzard.
Work went beyond rescues. Staff helped evacuate some housing developments and fill sandbags ahead of advancing floodwaters, delivered medicine to those who needed it, ferried people to hospitals for dialysis appointments and to visit a cancer-stricken patient and more. In the days after, they used kayaks and airboats to rescue pets that were stranded when homes in Bellevue flooded while their owners were at work.
Levi Krause, a conservation officer from Louisville, spent four days using his air boat to help other first responders rescue 60 people and their pets, earning him an Award of Valor from the agency’s Board of Commissioners and the Law Enforcement Commendation Medal from the Nebraska Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Conservation officers shared the Lifesaving Valor Award from the Mead Fire and Rescue Department. All Game and Parks staff members who assisted in flooding efforts were recognized for going above and beyond the call of duty to keep people safe. Krause and others involved say they were simply doing their job, just like so many other first responders.
Record snowfall was recorded at many locations across Nebraska in early 2019. Cold temperatures in February kept most of that snow from melting, pushed the frost line deep into the ground and formed a heavy layer of ice on rivers. Then Winter Storm Ulmer arrived on March 13. The bomb cyclone brought blizzard conditions to western Nebraska, and warm temperatures and 3 inches of rain in eastern Nebraska. With the ground frozen, the rain and rapidly melting snow ran off into rivers and streams, sending a rush of water and ice downriver. Thirty stream gauges, including those on the Loup, North Loup, Wood, Niobrara, Platte, and Elkhorn rivers and several creeks, reached all-time record highs.
Total precipitation for 2019 was well above normal across most of Nebraska, and other Northern Plains states, with record levels recorded in some locations. That kept most rivers, including those fed by groundwater in the Sandhills, at levels well above normal throughout the year.
Runoff in the Missouri River basin above Sioux City nearly matched the record set in 2011, forcing the Corps of Engineers to release nearly more water than normal from Gavins Point Dam. These releases combined with high flows from other tributaries below the dam kept the river above flood stage in some locations for most of the year.
River levels remain above normal across Nebraska, raising the possibility of more flooding in 2020.