A fish jumps out of Hansons Lake on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

Railroad repairs of flood-damaged bridges over the Platte River are being blamed by some residents of a nearby private development for causing new flooding in their Hanson’s Lakes neighborhood.

At issue are a set of roads Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway built into the Platte River to fix their parallel bridges heavily damaged by historic flooding in mid-March. Residents say the roads, immediately downstream of their homes, acted as dams and caused this week’s rising Platte River to back into their neighborhood.

Union Pacific and BNSF say federal protections of endangered species, in this case the spawning of the pallid sturgeon, prevented them from removing the roads as soon as repairs were complete. Union Pacific completed its repairs on May 14. BNSF completed its repairs on May 12.

But the federal agency that regulates construction in the nation’s waterways says there’s more to the story.


Zach Gale places a sandbag on top of a levee as rising waters from the Platte River threaten Hanson’s Lakes on Tuesday.

Neither Union Pacific nor BNSF Railway got the required permits to build the roads, said Thomas O’Hara, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha.

Nor did they properly build the roads, the corps has said. And once the unauthorized roads were installed in the river, O’Hara said, the corps couldn’t allow the roads to be removed in a manner that would violate two federal laws — the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Thursday evening, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they have told Union Pacific approval wasn’t needed to remove the causeway.

There’s little about this issue that the railroads and federal agencies agree on — except that now the roads need to be removed. BNSF began removing its road on Wednesday night, U.P. on Thursday morning.

There are three key points of disagreement:

Whether the roads were authorized: BNSF says a permit wasn’t required because the work qualified for an exemption under emergency provisions. The corps says a permit was required and the emergency provisions didn’t apply. U.P. says it got verbal permission from the corps and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and submitted a permit application. The corps says U.P. didn’t complete the permit process. U.P. says the corps didn’t rule on the permit until this week (the corps rejected the permit).

Whether the roads were properly built: According to the corps, neither railroad installed the proper amount of culverts to adequately allow water to flow through. BNSF responds that it went beyond the required culverts and notched the roads to allow water to flow through.

How long the roads needed to remain in place: Raquel Espinoza, spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said the railroad has asked numerous times for permission to remove its road, including as recently as last weekend, when heavy rains were forecast. She said the railroad was concerned that the road posed a flood threat.

“U.S. Fish and Wildlife told us in writing the causeway had to stay in place until June 30.”

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In its Thursday evening statement, Fish and Wildlife said: “While it would typically be our recommendation not to conduct river activities during the pallid sturgeon’s spawning cycle, in emergency situations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can and does exercise flexibility in the interest of human health and safety which is allowed for under the Endangered Species Act and thus we have communicated to Union Pacific that they do not need any authorization to remove the causeway and they have indicated they would begin removal immediately.”

Several major rail lines throughout the region have been damaged by flooding, raising significant issues not only for the transportation of goods, but also for the cost of doing so.

In terms of this week’s flooding, the Platte River rose above a levee near Hanson’s Lakes. Residents and contractors worked for two days to sandbag the levee and otherwise shore up flood protections.

In spite of those efforts, low-lying homes that had previously been flooded took on water again, said Don Kelly, chairman of the Sarpy County Board and the elected representative for that area.

“My sense is there would have been flooding if everything had been done right,” said Kelly, who has been to the site three times this week. “I think everybody was trying to do the right thing, but everybody was working inside their lanes, and sometimes those objectives don’t mesh well together.”

Residents are glad to see the railroads removing rock.

“The river has come down, that’s a good sign,” said Josh Tedder, who has property there and whose business, Tedder Construction, helped with the levee work. “The railroad is pulling the rock out of the river. That has to be helping.”

Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Phone: 402-444-1102.

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