It’s been a tough year for the locals at Harlan County Lake.
In a normal year, this sportsmen’s destination in south-central Nebraska would buzz with recreational activity.
But the lake on the Republican River 45 miles south of Kearney took a hit from the crazy weather of 2019.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held back water at the dam all summer to avoid exacerbating flooding downriver. Water from the lake flows into a river system that eventually reaches the Missouri River near Kansas City.
The 67-year-old lake swelled to its highest level ever, inundating beaches, low-lying campgrounds and some lakeside facilities.
“It was terrifying as it came up,” said Tami Kearns, operations manager for the Patterson Harbor Marina.
Now the locals are hoping to get things back to normal — or as close as possible.
Kearns’ facility survived with only minimal damage. There were some road repairs and other issues. But the marina and fuel pumps float, so they stayed in operation.
Reports of the high water scared off some would-be visitors, a hit to local marinas and businesses, she said.
The water level has since dropped about 4 feet from the record level set in July.
The pool elevation on July 18 was 1,958.08 feet, eclipsing the 1,955.66 feet set in April 1960, according to the corps.
The effects of that high water are visible all around.
The high-water mark is etched into the trunks of large cottonwood trees — they look like king-sized rain gauges.
The high water caused some dirt banks to collapse. Some remain unstable and teetering at the water’s edge.
Flotillas of jumbled driftwood sit stranded in disarray high on the rocky dam face.
Some normally dry creek beds around the lake are still swampy.
Larry Janicek, Harlan County Lake operations manager, said the goal is to draw down the water to a normal pool before the lake ices over.
Because the lake is used for irrigation, in the summer it is usually below its normal elevation.
Last week it was still high enough to cover some beaches and picnic tables.
The gates were closed because the dam was undergoing a rare periodic inspection of the stilling basin — that’s the area below the spillway.
The inspection is only done every 20 years.
Water was pumped out of the basin so engineers could inspect the cement, look for heaving and check the backside of the floodgates, he said.
Before the basin was drained, workers from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission shocked fish in the basin, collected the game fish and returned them to the lake.
Some big fish were discovered, including a flathead catfish in the 50-pound range, he said.
Once inspected, the basin will be refilled.
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He said the corps would like to draw the lake down as soon as possible before it freezes. Ice can cause complications on the lake and downriver, including carving away at the already damaged banks.
The corps can’t release water too fast, though, because of the capacity of the river downstream, he said. Too much water would impact downstream landowners, so it will take some time, Janicek said.
Although it’s hard to quantify, he believes that by withholding water last summer, the dam reduced flooding downstream.
“Even though we know the Missouri is flooding, it would be flooding, probably, a lot worse if it hadn’t been for all the lakes in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri,” he said.
He said it was fortunate the corps recently completed major repair of the floodgates.
If not for those repairs, the dam could not have safely held back as much water, he said.
Dam safety inspections in 2010 and 2011 had revealed gate defects at Harlan County similar to those associated with a gate failure at Folsom Dam in California in 1995.
The five-year, $31 million repair was finished in 2018.
Locals who live by tourism are looking forward to welcoming hunters, birdwatchers and hardy anglers this fall and winter.
Although launching boats was a challenge during the high water, it’s possible now. On a recent morning, anglers could be seen heading off in boats in search of walleye and wipers.
The high water is still a challenge for shore fishermen, but there is access for those who are willing to walk.
Kearns said the high water enhanced the fishing and should improve it over the long term. The high water created hiding places for little fish to grow bigger, she said.
Her cabins are all rented out for rifle deer season.
In the weeks and months ahead, the lake will come alive with snow and Canada geese and white pelicans, she said.
Already, a few bald eagles have arrived, she said. As many as 150 have been known to winter at the lake.
She recently spotted one snagging a fish by the dam.
Folks are hoping the weather settles down and gives them a break, she said. But she noted the blizzard that hit the Dakotas this month.
“Mother Nature’s not done with her dirty tricks,” she said. “We’ve all just been pretty fortunate at this point that she’s eased up. But who knows?”