The Niobrara River is one of Nebraska’s jewels.
It is home to some of the state’s best fishing, canoeing and tubing, and, across north-central and northeast Nebraska, it is a lifeline for agriculture.
Unfortunately, a slowly building threat continues to gather near the Niobrara’s mouth into Lewis and Clark Lake, behind the Missouri River’s Gavins Point Dam. That threat is the silt, sand and other sediment that the Niobrara and other Missouri River tributaries carry into the lake behind the dam.
Because of the dam’s presence, sediment no longer naturally flows downstream. It needs help.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dams along the Missouri and the lake, recognizes the problem and has studied possible solutions. It is now considering a reasonable, short-term fix.
But time is of the essence, according to the recent reporting of The World-Herald’s David Hendee.
Good, useful land is being lost to displaced water while people wait for the corps to study whether using significant discharges of water would clear the lake bed of much of its sediment.
Taxpayers should pay attention, because, if this works, moving sediment with pulses of water would cost much less — and disrupt much less of the environment — than the more drastic step of draining and dredging the lake. Some estimates have said dredging would take years, cost millions and require more trains to move the silt and sand than can easily be imagined.
The corps says it expects to release the next part of its serious look at the water pulse idea over the next several weeks. But even if, as expected, the corps finds that partially emptying the lake and pulsing water through it could help, required impact studies will add years of waiting before the first work can be done.
Such is life in the labyrinth of competing interests and federal regulations that the corps calls home. It would be good for Midlands members of Congress to continue their work to monitor progress and see what more can be done to accelerate the federal response.
Hendee cited a new report from American Rivers, a national advocacy group that labeled the Niobrara one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country. While advocacy groups can sometimes get overly excited, the apolitical corps acknowledges the sediment threat.
Lewis and Clark Lake could lose half its designed water storage capacity to sediment by 2067, according to the corps. The lake already has lost about one-fourth. Local residents continue to lose acres of farmland to the displaced Niobrara.
While it is unlikely that the water pulse idea will solve all of the Niobrara’s problems, it would buy the river and its protectors some needed time.
One day soon, problems along the river will manifest themselves in ways that cannot easily be repaired, and addressing even part of the problem with pulses seems like the sort of measured approach that does the most good with the least harm — and at the most reasonable cost to taxpayers.