Sarpy County’s newest recreation area and reservoir is almost ready for prime time.
The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District is putting the finishing touches on Prairie Queen Recreation Area, its first major dam site project in eight years.
The park, located outside Papillion by Werner Park, won’t open until March or April, but the work is substantially finished — trails are poured, the grass seeded, the pedestrian bridges built. And the park’s 135-acre reservoir, created by damming Westmont Creek, is full of water and growing fish.
The park has 335 acres of green space seeded with fescue, bluestem, wild rye and other native grasses. Wetlands were encouraged in low-lying areas to benefit waterfowl. A 4-mile trail loop connects to Lincoln Road, with walking and bike access to Werner Park.
“It’ll be a perfect place for families to get together — have a picnic, take in a ballgame,” said NRD board Chairman Dave Klug, who represents the area.
For now, though, Prairie Queen is closed to visitors. The NRD typically shuts down its recreation areas for the winter on Nov. 1, General Manager John Winkler said. Another winter will give the NRD time to find seasonal help and give the fish time to grow to a catchable size.
Prairie Queen took two years to build on a budget of $35.8 million, with $18.45 million of that cost funded by new bond debt. The project is coming in roughly on time and so far about $3.8 million under budget, said Amanda Grint, a water resources engineer at the NRD.
Beyond the site’s recreational potential, the dam is a key component of a flood control plan to reduce flows downstream, local officials said. The creek flows north from the spillway and joins Papillion Creek, which flows through the City of Papillion.
“(The dam) provides much greater flood protection for Papillion,” city spokesman Darren Carlson said.
Even with the added flood control, the city will need to raise bridges at 66th and 84th Streets and rehabilitate the levees protecting the city. But Prairie Queen will greatly reduce the cost and scope of those projects, Carlson said.
Prairie Queen lies between two existing NRD reservoirs — Wehrspann Lake and Walnut Creek Lake. Its average depth is 10 to 15 feet, with deeper sections about 40 feet down in the former creek channel, Grint said.
A portion of Cornhusker Road, once a two-lane gravel turnoff at 132nd Street, is now one of several breakwaters that slow waves and give shore anglers room to cast. There’s a boat ramp on the west side. A stand of trees remains in the lake bed, with lanes carved out for boat access. Other trees were cut, bundled and sunk for fish habitat.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has been stocking the lake with largemouth bass, channel catfish, bluegill, red-ear sunfish and black crappie, said Steve Satra, a program specialist in the commission’s fisheries division.
The reservoir was designed with underwater shoals, coves, gravel for spawning beds and other features attractive to fish, Satra said.
Eventually, the fishing will be good, Satra said. But when the park opens in the spring, “there’s not going to be a lot of fish ready to go home,” he said.
Prairie Queen will draw some traffic away from the Walnut Creek Recreation Area in Papillion, which will be a good thing, Winkler said.
“On weekends, you can almost walk across the water without getting wet — just stepping in boats,” he said.
Local officials hope Prairie Queen will spur development around Werner Park, which has been slow to materialize.
On a recent visit, fall sounds of rattling leaves and honking geese were joined by the rumble of heavy equipment moving dirt at North Shore, a housing development underway east of the park near a partially built elementary school that shares a name with the reservoir.
Along 132nd Street, the NRD has 46 acres of land that wasn’t part of the park design. The property could be sold off to a developer or incorporated into the park as green space.
Eventually, Prairie Queen will become part of Papillion. The city will assume management of the park in 2025 or whenever the area is annexed, whichever comes first.
The idea was for the NRD to build the park and provide basic amenities such as picnic shelters and restrooms, and Papillion can further develop the park when it takes over. That’s a ways off, Carlson said, so it’s too early to speculate on what that might look like.
But Carlson said Prairie Queen will be a boon to people in the area. The popularity of Walnut Creek, he said, is “an obvious example to follow.”
“I think you’ll see the same thing with Prairie Queen,” he said.