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The chronic buildup of sediment in the Niobrara River in northeast Nebraska landed the stream on the latest America's Most Endangered Rivers list.
American Rivers, a national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., said the Niobrara's No. 10 ranking calls attention to dam-related sediment and flooding that threaten communities, recreation and wildlife habitat.
The endangered rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that are facing a critical tipping point, said Eileen Fretz of American Rivers.
“We all need healthy rivers,'' she said. “They provide our drinking water, support the economies of our communities and promote public health and quality of life.''
At its confluence with the Missouri River, the Niobrara is increasingly threatened by sediment backing up in the Niobrara delta behind Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri, which creates Lewis and Clark Lake.
The silt buildup is so extreme that the overall level of the local water table has increased by several feet, causing flooded cropland and basements and impacting boating and other recreation.
As the sediment builds, the Niobrara is slowly flooding the seeps, springs, riparian forests, prairies and canyons that characterize the river, the report said.
American Rivers called on the Army Corps of Engineers to safeguard the Niobrara National Recreational River and nearby communities by improving sediment management within the Missouri River system and to prioritize funding for that in the corps' 2015 budget.
The corps has studied the problem for decades. Lewis and Clark Lake is expected to lose 50 percent of its water storage capacity by 2024 due to sediment accumulating in the reservoir, American Rivers said. It already has lost 30 percent of capacity.
Bob Olson of Niobrara, Neb., said residents have dealt with the issue since the completion of Gavins Point Dam in 1957. The village of Niobrara was relocated to a hilltop from the river bottom in the 1970s.
“Somehow we need to find a way to reverse this sediment issue while it is still possible to do so,” he said.
Mel Hansen of Niobrara said thousands of acres of farmland have been inundated and permanently lost to sedimentation.
“The river itself is in danger of gradually becoming a useless bog,'' he said.
Rayder Swanson of Niobrara said rising water tables twice forced his family to move to farmland on higher ground.
The family now owns 500 acres of river farmland that was once productive, but sediment continues to pile sand in the river from upstream. He said the land is “being ruined'' at an average rate of more than 200 acres a year.
Rick Spellman of Omaha, who owns property along the river, said the confluence area is the home of the Ponca and Santee Sioux Indian Tribes and Nebraska's third-oldest town. The lake named for explorers Lewis and Clark, who camped there, is being destroyed, he said.
Spellman said engineering technologies and sediment management solutions are available to reverse the buildup of sediment before it's too late.
“Time is running out,'' he said.
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