New consultant hired to review plan to mitigate damage to Sandhills stream

By: - November 16, 2022 11:00 am
Snake River damage

More than a million tons of sand washed into the Snake River after a rancher dug a ditch in the fragile Sandhills in 2021 to drain a flooded pasture. This photo was taken in October. (Courtesy of John Sidle)

LINCOLN — Another consultant has been hired to review plans for repairing damage to a remote Sandhills stream, inundated two years ago by a deluge of sand from an unauthorized drainage ditch.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in an email earlier this month, indicated that a work plan to mitigate the damage — initially requested 17 months ago — still hasn’t been approved.

Approximately 1.6 million tons of sand and sediment washed into the spring-fed Snake River north of Mullen in 2020 after a local rancher, without authorization, dug a 2.5-mile-long ditch to the creek to drain a flooded hay meadow.

The deluge of sand turned a 3-mile stretch of the typically narrow and deep channel of the Snake River into a flat, sandy plain reminiscent of the Platte River.

Snake River damage
The Snake River in Nebraska’s Sandhills used to be a deep and narrow creek until more than a million tons of sand washed into it, creating a flat, shallow waterway. (courtesy of John Sidle)

Rancher Dick Minor of Gordon was cited by the EPA in June 2021 for the unauthorized discharge and was required then to devise a plan of action. In February, however, he was cited for failing to halt the ongoing erosion into the river, a remote site for trout fishing and canoe trips.

In a Nov. 2 email, EPA spokesman Ben Washburn said the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance had enlisted a contractor “with the expertise” to review Minor’s proposed work plan. The work has been described as complex by the EPA and the damage severe.

“We hope to have an implementable work plan soon and will share that publicly when we do,” Washburn wrote.

He said he could not identify the consultant and could not comment on who will pay for the consultant’s work. Washburn did not respond to a question about why the process has taken so long.

Depositing sediment into a stream without obtaining permission is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The influx of sand was evident 30 miles away, where the Snake River flows into Merritt Reservoir, southwest of Valentine.

Minor has previously said that the loss of production from the hay meadow was a financial hardship for his ranching operation. He also said he didn’t think the Snake River had been damaged or altered except on his ranch, but he said he was working with the EPA.

In June 2021, Minor and EPA signed a consent order in which the rancher agreed to take “immediate” steps to halt flows into the Snake River, mitigate for “lost river functions” and make plans to restore “to the extent technically feasible” the original form of the river.

Under the agreement, Minor was given a year to complete the work, upon approval of his plans by the EPA.

A work plan was submitted in September 2021, and the EPA said it had enlisted an engineer to help review that plan “due to the severity of the impacts and the complexity of the restoration.”

In February, however, EPA put Minor on notice that he was in violation of the agreement for failing to abate the ongoing erosion.

Aerial photographs of the drainage ditch earlier this year appeared to show some tree branches placed across the ditch. Photos taken in October did not show any further changes.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.