Legislative report says dams could mitigate flooding on lower Platte River

Consultant looked at 21 possible sites on tributaries, including the Elkhorn and Loup Rivers, and Wahoo and Logan Creeks

By: - August 30, 2022 5:45 am
Logan Creek

The Logan Creek, in northeast Nebraska, flows from north of Laurel to its confluence with the Elkhorn River near Winslow, north of Fremont. A consultant suggests considering damming the creek to mitigate flooding on the Platte River. Pictured is a stretch of Logan Creek near Bancroft that has a kayak launch. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A recent legislative study into developing a huge recreational lake between Omaha and Lincoln was careful to reassure residents of Ashland that it wouldn’t include damming the Platte River and flooding the town of Ashland.

That idea, part of past proposals to spur development between the state’s two largest cities, stirred up a flood of controversy.

But that doesn’t mean dams ought not to be considered elsewhere, a consultant’s report concluded.

A draft final report for the Nebraska Legislature’s special STAR WARS committee shows that while a dam near Ashland isn’t being considered, 21 reservoirs across eastern and central Nebraska deserve a look.

Platte River
The lower Platte River, pictured here near South Bend, flows past wooded bluffs en route to the Missouri River at Plattsmouth. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The report, issued in May after the Nebraska Legislature adjourned for the year, looked at how to mitigate flooding in the lower Platte River, from Columbus to where it flows into the Missouri River at Plattsmouth.

The consultant that prepared the report, Omaha-based HDR, homed in on 21 “potential sites” to build reservoirs on tributaries of the Platte River, such as the Loup and Elkhorn Rivers and Salt, Wahoo and Logan Creeks.

Funding for marinas, lodge, leveel

To be sure, the report doesn’t prescribe that any dams be built, and none of the dams were part of a $200-million legislative bill passed this spring to enhance recreation across Nebraska, as identified by the Statewide Tourism and Recreation Water Access and Resource Sustainability, or STAR WARS, committee.

The bulk of the money was allocated for building new marinas at Lake McConaughy and Lewis & Clark Lake, a new lodge at Niobrara State Park and a flood-control levee near Schuyler. But $20 million was set aside for further study of building a huge sand-pit lake near Linoma Beach in Sarpy County, with $26 million designated for possible future construction.

HDR’s report says more study would be needed before any reservoir construction could happen on the tributaries of the Platte.

State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, the Speaker of the Legislature and head of the STAR WARS committee, made similar observations, adding that consideration of flood mitigation was part of the committee’s charge but that further work on the tributary dams was not funded.

Future study

“While the Legislature may not focus on those projects in the future, any other entity, such as a natural resources district, that has an interest in improving our flood control mechanisms in that area will have a head start by virtue of the work done in this report,” Hilgers said.

Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said mitigation of flooding in the Platte is being addressed in the STAR WARS plan via the levee work in the Schuyler area and small dams being planned in the Wahoo Creek watershed in Saunders County.

Right now, Riley said, his department is preparing to begin a study of how the big lake might impact well fields operated by the Cities of Lincoln and Omaha along the Platte River for drinking water. After that, there will be a report on the feasibility of building the big lake itself.

In the past, even talk of damming up a creek or river in Nebraska has inspired howls of protests from those whose land or community would be displaced.

Big lake proposal
Backers of a 3,600-acre lake proposed between Omaha and Lincoln are eyeing a location in Sarpy County, north and south of Linoma Beach. Additional studies of the lake’s impact and feasibility will soon get underway through the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. (Courtesy of PlanPreservePlayNE.co)

Past objections led the STAR WARS committee to propose a way to build a huge recreation lake between Omaha and Lincoln without damming up the Platte, but instead, by pumping sand to create a  sand-pit lake of at least 3,600 acres to rival Iowa’s popular Lake Okoboji.

‘Best-value’ option

The HDR report says that such a sand-pit lake would have little impact to reduce flooding on the adjacent Platte. But it estimated that dams on tributaries could.

The “best-value option” named in the report was damming up Logan Creek, a tributary of the Elkhorn, at a spot about 65 miles northwest of Omaha, between the communities of Oakland and Lyons. A “relatively shallow” reservoir there, averaging 5 feet in depth, could reduce flows from a 100-year flood event by 12-14%, HDR estimated, and could have reduced flooding on the lower Platte during the “bomb cyclone” floods of March of 2019 by 7%.

‘Highest rated’ options

The “highest rated” reservoir options among 21 identified by HDR were:

  •  In the Elkhorn River watershed: Logan Creek near Oakland-Lyons; Elkhorn River before Norfolk; Union Creek near Madison.
  • In the Loup River watershed: Middle Loup River above Arcadia Wildlife Management Area; Middle Loup River near Dannebrog.
  • In the Salt Creek watershed: combined Wahoo and Silver Creeks; Rock Creek near Lincoln.

The report said the reduction of flood flows in a 100-year flood could be reduced by 25% in the lower Platte if the Oakland-Lyons dam was built, along with another dam on the Elkhorn River near Norfolk or on the Union Creek near Madison.

By contrast, the two next-highest rated options — dams on Loup River tributaries near Arcadia and Dannebrog, or dams on the Wahoo-Silver Creeks and Rock Creek — would combine to reduce 100-year flood flows on the lower Platte by 14% and 16%, respectively.

That a dam is being considered near Lyons caught the mayor of the farm town of 766 residents by surprise and prompted some joking from a local merchant there.

‘It’s nuts’

“I think it’s nuts,” said Allen “Steiny” Steinmeyer, who has a general store in Lyons.

“It’s going to take a lot of farm ground out of play. And where’s all the water to fill it?” he said. “Tell them to go look at the Logan right now. You’d be lucky to fill a thimble.”

Lyons Mayor Andy Fuston said it’s the first time he’s heard of anyone proposing to dam up the Logan Creek, which is known as “the dredge” in the Lyons area after it was straightened by a dredging project a century ago.

The reservoir envisioned by HDR would require a dam nearly 8,000 feet long and 37.7 feet tall. It would be designed to avoid disrupting U.S. Highway 77 and a BNSF railroad line that parallel the wide, Logan valley between Oakland and Lyons.  

Recreation?

Fuston guessed that opinions in Lyons would be split on such a reservoir. 

He added that such a proposal raises several questions: “Would it provide recreation? Would it help irrigate nearby farmland?”

A representative of the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District said that while the NRD is constantly looking for ways to mitigate floods, he was unaware of any proposals to dam the Elkhorn River, as was suggested in the STAR WARS report, but said that some smaller dams on tributaries of the Logan Creek have been looked at.

Curt Becker, projects manager for the Norfolk-based NRD, said damming the main channel of the Elkhorn would be very expensive and consume a large area.

He did say that the Lower Elkhorn NRD is looking at one project mentioned in the STAR WARS report: a dam on Battle Creek near the community of the same name, west of Norfolk.

When asked whether those living in the Lower Elkhorn NRD area, which includes the communities of Lyons, Oakland, West Point and Norfolk, would support building dams in those areas to reduce flooding far downstream on the Platte, Becker said he wasn’t so sure.

“Our charge isn’t to create flood reduction for outside of our district,” he said. “Our primary concern is this area.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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