The glut of floodwater moving through Nebraska will be of limited value in easing the drought.
Instead it will provide a mostly local benefit to the South Platte and Platte River valleys.
About 90 percent of Nebraska is in drought, and most of the state has been struggling through a shortage of precipitation for more than a year.
Flooding will recharge the aquifer within the river valley and replenish groundwater in those few areas where water can be pulled out of the river, said Kent Miller, general manager of the Twin Platte Natural Resources District.
The other significant benefit will be a resculpting of the riverbed itself, he said.
The gains won't make up for the suffering the flooding has caused.
“We'll see some benefit, but I don't think there's a silver lining,” Miller said. “If we could have spread this volume of water out over a whole year instead of one week — yes.”
Bob Swanson of the U.S. Geological Survey echoed Miller's comments. The geological survey is the nation's independent scientific agency, and Swanson heads its Nebraska Water Science Center.
“It is interesting that right now we've got a flood in a valley a mile wide, and you go 5 or 10 miles north or south and we're still in drought,” he said. “It's not going to help outside the valley.”
Many people have been asking if the flood will restore water levels at Lake McConaughy. It won't. That lake is on the North Platte River, which is separate from the South Platte, where the flooding is occurring.
The flooding could benefit wildlife habitat because the floodwater will flow from the South Platte into the main Platte River, and from there it will surge through critical in-stream habitat in central Nebraska.
Before humans began restricting the flow of the Platte, the river flooded routinely, which cleared away vegetation and deposited sediment for sandbars and shallow areas of water.
Bill Taddicken, director of the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary, said the flooding could improve habitat along the river by clearing out overgrown vegetation in the dry riverbed and rebuilding sandbars and shallow water areas.
“The Platte River is basically starving for sediment in most reaches, and this has the possibility of re-creating that balance,” he said.
If vegetation gets scoured out and sandbars and shallow areas are restored, sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and other water fowl will see an immediate benefit during their next migration through Nebraska, he said.
Cranes like shallow, exposed reaches of a river because they provide protection from predators.
The sandbars could be a long-term benefit, while the scouring of vegetation may last for only the short term, Taddicken said. That's because the vegetation could begin growing back within a year or so.
Even so, organizations such as the Audubon and governmental agencies would save money if they could skip a year of manual vegetation clearing.
Another possible benefit: future flows would be higher because vegetation would no longer be pulling water from the river, Taddicken said.