By Brent Frazee
Ordinarily, this would be a season of hope for Nebraska fishermen, turkey hunters, campers and hikers as spring arrives.
Not this year. After what many are describing as a “perfect storm,” large parts of eastern Nebraska have been paralyzed by record flooding. And officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission worry about what they will find once the water finally recedes.
“I’m afraid this is something we are going to be dealing with for quite some time,” said Daryl Bauer, fisheries outreach manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “Flooding is nothing new in Nebraska, but the scale of this flooding is unprecedented.”
“We’re seeing problems along not only the Missouri River, but the Platte, Elkhorn and Niobrara as well. There is water in areas that I’ve never seen flooded before.”
“It’s hard to talk about the effects on fish and wildlife when so many of our friends and neighbors are suffering. But we’re already getting questions from people who want to know how this will affect our fish and wildlife.”
The record flooding came to a head when a “bomb cyclone” –essentially, a land-based hurricane – swept across the Great Plains in mid-March. That storm dumped snow and rain on an already frozen landscape and that caused rapid runoff. To make matter worse, warm temperatures caused a quick snowmelt, which provided further stress on the rivers’ carrying capacities.
With more snow still on the ground to the north of Nebraska, officials expect prolonged high water on the Missouri River and they don’t anticipate any quick relief from the problems. Meanwhile, they have already begun to assess the damage caused by the flooding and it isn’t pretty.
“The fish and wildlife will come through this just fine,” Bauer said. “Flooding like this is part of their natural cycle. What we’re worried about most at this point is our infrastructure at some of our places.”
The problems have already started to surface:
- Many river accesses are now flooded and inaccessible.
- Ten state recreation areas which provide fishing and camping are temporarily closed due to flooding.
- Niobrara State Park is closed until April 15 due to flooding on the Niobrara River.
- With spring turkey season nearing (it opens March 25 for archery, April 13 for shotgun), many worry that low-lying areas in eastern Nebraska, (particularly river bottoms) will be inaccessible.
- Larger wildlife such as deer and turkeys have a strong survival instinct and are mobile enough to find high ground during a flood.
- The timing of the flood was good for upland gamebirds such as pheasants and quail, because nesting season hasn’t started yet. But should the high water continue into late spring, that, too, could create problems.
- Some undesirable fish such as carp could make their way into small lakes and ponds after escaping the river systems.
Neighboring states have also been affected by the high water. In Iowa, the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and eight state parks have temporarily closed until the flood water recedes. In Missouri, the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge is flooded and the 10-mile auto touring loop is closed. Big Lake State Park along the Missouri River is temporarily closed. And eight conservation areas or river accesses in northwest Missouri are temporarily shut down.
Meanwhile in Nebraska, Bauer sees a silver lining in the situation.
“Flooding like this can revitalize a river system,” he said. “It can create new side channels, new sandbars and new habitat.” “It can scour river bottoms and create new nursery habitat for spawning fish. Some of our best year-classes of fish have come in flood years.” Still, he said, it can cause millions of dollars of damage, force evacuations and result in months of repair work to infrastructure. “Nebraskans come from pioneer stock,” Bauer wrote in his blog. “It has been said of our ancestors that the cowards never came and the weak died along the way. We’ll get through this, too.”