Editor’s note: The following is the first of a three-part series that will run each week 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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For many Nebraskans, 2019 was a tough year. Historic flooding in March sent nearly every river in the eastern half of the state out of its banks, washing out highways, bridges, dams, levees, farms and homes, and killing four people and countless livestock.
Flooding along the Missouri River in southeastern Nebraska continued throughout the year. More floods hit south-central Nebraska in July and the northeast in September. It is estimated that the flooding caused more than $3 billion in damage to infrastructure and property in Nebraska.
Publicly owned lands managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission were not spared. Of the 76 state parks and recreation areas it oversees, 28 were damaged by flooding. So were 67 of the state’s 289 wildlife management areas, several segments of the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, and numerous fisheries. The estimated cost to clean up and repair the damage adds up to nearly $19 million.
For some outdoor enthusiasts, the flooding meant looking for different places to camp, fish or hunt, as many areas were closed for extended periods, some the entire year. For Game and Parks, it meant $1.2 million in lost revenue from Park Entry Permit sales, campsite rentals and other activity fees.
The agency has worked to repair as much of the damage as possible, and has been formulating a plan to finish the work and return these resources to the condition that Nebraskans know and love. Paying for the repairs, however, remains a challenge for the agency, which is funded primarily by user fees. Those fees haven’t been able to keep up with the needs the agency has, not only for expansion of services, but also for maintenance of existing facilities. With help from the Nebraska Legislature in recent years, Game and Parks was beginning to make headway on a $76 million backlog in maintenance projects.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide considerable assistance, covering 75 percent of the cost of eligible repairs. It is hoped the Legislature will provide assistance as well. Getting that money in hand takes time. And with a considerable share still falling on Game and Parks, it will likely put some construction and maintenance projects that had been planned on hold. But the work will be done, because the resources, and the enjoyment they provide Nebraskans and visitors to our state, are worthwhile investments.
“The damage was major, but we were fortunate. No staff or visitors were hurt,” said Jim Douglas, director of Game and Parks. “Our staff worked long hours in dangerous conditions to evacuate several communities, staff worked hard to put affected properties back together, and hundreds of volunteers turned out to help clean up debris. We moved quickly to repair roads and other infrastructure, and upgraded electrical pedestals at several campgrounds. Our staff responded with agility and ingenuity, while keeping an eye on the future.
“This response reinforced a few things that have long been evident to me: our staff cares deeply about the resources we manage, the public cherishes our state’s parks and other outdoor resources, and Nebraskans, by and large, value the Commission’s work.”
When rain began to fall on melting snow in early March, water that rushed into the frozen Niobrara River broke up ice that was up to two feet thick and sent it downstream. The pressure of the increased flows and ice proved more than Spencer Dam, built in 1927, could handle.
When the dam breached on March 14, it unleashed a 10 to 15 foot wall of ice and water. Below the dam, the Straw Bale Saloon and a campground were erased, and the saloon’s owner, Kenny Angel, killed. Spencer Dam WMA, an area managed by Game and Parks and popular among catfish anglers, was scoured by flows, and the Highway 281 bridge washed out. As it continued to the Missouri River, the ice and water wiped out more bridges, businesses, homes and farms. South of Verdel, a river gauge measured flows at 123,000 cubic feet per second where flows are normally 2,000 cfs.
One of those bridges was located about 35 miles downriver on Highway 12 at Niobrara, where the river crested nearly 7 feet above previous record. Videos posted on social media of the 450-foot span of concrete and steel floating away on a river of ice illustrated the power of the flooding that was already happening, or soon would be, across eastern Nebraska.
A mile downriver, a historic steel railroad bridge that now served as a link on a popular trail running from Niobrara State Park to the village of Niobrara was swept away, as were other bridges and sections of trail. Due to repeated damage caused by flooding and the high cost, it is doubtful that the trail will be repaired.
With the highway closed, a commute between the park and town that took minutes now took hours, and the park struggled to find staff during the busy summer season. Damage to Highway 12 west of the park wasn’t repaired until May. With access difficult, fewer people visited the park and the village, and both lost business. When a temporary bridge was completed and the highway reopened in August, the town threw a party.
The Platte River crested at 4 feet above flood stage, an all-time record, on March 16 at Louisville. Fremont Lakes, Two Rivers and Louisville state recreation areas all sit on the banks of the Platte and were some of the most heavily damaged parks.
At all three parks, campsites were damaged by water, sand and ice, including Two Rivers, where ice sheared off electrical pedestals in the popular Cottonwood campground. Water rose high enough at Two Rivers to spill into the 10 Union Pacific caboose cabins, and roads were washed out both in the park and leading to it. At Fremont, several roads washed out, including the one leading to the Pathfinder Campground, forcing the construction of a new access road. Staff housing and shops were damaged at all three parks, as was the office at Louisville.
A new boat ramp and canoe and kayak launch at Louisville, part of the Commission’s Venture Parks initiative, was heavily damaged. New launches were also damaged upriver at Schramm Park SRA and Platte River State Park, as were railings and bridge supports on the Lied Bridge, another popular trail link. The bridge, owned by the Lower Platte South Natural Resource District and managed by Game and Parks, will remain closed until debris can be removed and damage fully assessed.
At Ponca State Park on the Missouri, flooding inundated the Riverfront campground and washed out a portion of the road circling it. It also turned backwaters on the park’s bottomland to flowing chutes, just as it did during the Missouri River flood in 2011, and damaged the boat ramp. Flooding continued into November and December on the Missouri in southeastern Nebraska. At Nebraska City, Riverview Marina SRA, where the campground was damaged and four feet of silt had to be removed from the shower house, remains closed. At Indian Cave State Park, numerous mud slides damaged the boardwalk and covered the road to the cave. While the road was cleared and reopened in November, repairs to the boardwalk remain. The boat ramp remains closed.
The reservoir at Willow Creek SRA rose 10 feet, damaging most of the campsites, destroying two fishing piers, damaging several breakwaters and, on the reservoir’s upper end, a causeway that is part of a trail that circles the lake and links to nearby Pierce.
On the Elkhorn River, the bottomland portion of Dead Timber SRA was inundated, washing out the campground and the road to it, both of which reopened in late summer.
On the popular Elkhorn River Water Trail, three access points maintained by Papio-Missouri River NRD between Bennington and Omaha were damaged by flooding and closed much of the year.
More than 300 volunteers helped Game and Parks staff on projects at several areas, including Louisville and Fremont, in the months after the flood, helping assure parks could reopen by Memorial Day.
There is still much to be done. Picnic tables, pit toilets, fire rings and other campground amenities will have to be repaired or replaced. Where campgrounds were under water for extended periods, damage to electrical service was costly as numerous service panels and pedestals will need to be replaced. In all, repair costs to the parks are estimated at $7.7 million.
That doesn’t include damage to the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail that spans much of northern Nebraska and was complete from Valentine to Norfolk. It was damaged in 170 locations, forcing the closure of five segments of the trail. Near Valentine, a 100-year-old box culvert in an embankment is failing and causing the trail to collapse. East of Long Pine, another embankment washed out. Near Neligh, Oakdale and Norfolk, the Elkhorn River caused significant erosion on the embankment. Bridge approaches were damaged at O’Neill and Neligh. The estimated cost of repairs for damage to the trail in 2019 is $7.7 million.