MEMPHIS – Over a half-century ago, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission took steps to improve habitat for water fowl in the wetlands north of Memphis State Lake.
Unfortunately, those methods did not work as planned, and now the area is being rehabilitated to restore it to its original form.
“We’re putting the wetland contour back to where it was naturally,” said Randy Stutheit, wetland/wildlife biologist for state Game and Parks.
Work began about last month on the project at the wetland area located north of the Memphis Lake State Recreation Area (SRA). It is a 90-acre wildlife management area (WMA) owned by the State of Nebraska. The wetland is separated from the lake and campground by County Road D.
The project includes building water control structures that will manage the water levels in the wetland area separate from the connected lake. These structures will allow the wetland area to be drawn down for management work, Stutheit said.
“Tree removal is also a big part of this project,” Stutheit said.
“We’re getting all the trees and brush from the wetland and old railroad right-of-way on the west/southwest side of the wetland area,” he said.
The brush that is removed will be ground up and spread out over the WMA, while the trees will be buried in the “level ditches” that will be filled in as part of the project.
Five “level ditches” were dug about 50 years ago to provide deeper water for duck broods and nesting areas, Stutheit said. It was a wildlife management practice also used in the Dakotas to provide open water for water fowl to enhance their nesting areas, he added.
There are not many ducks that nest in the Memphis area, however, so Stutheit said he was not sure the original intention for the level ditches. Instead, the ditches created deeper areas for water to gather, which is not conducive to water fowl habitat.
“We want the water to spread out more shallow across the area,” he said.
Shallower areas will help seed-producing plants proliferate in the wetland to provide food for wildlife. The removal of trees and brush, which inhibited sight lines and provided places for predators to hide, will also offer a safer environment for wildlife.
“The proliferation of trees and brush in the wetland was not good for the water fowl either,” Stutheit said.
The project will also improve access to the wetland for hunters, who are drawn to the area because of its prime location between Lincoln and Omaha. As the wetland conditions deteriorated over time, so did the hunting opportunities.
“At one time this was a very popular hunting area,” Stutheit said.
A mix of water fowl call the wetland home, including several species of ducks, according to Stutheit. A flock of Canadian geese have taken up residence on the island in Memphis Lake in recent years. The project will not affect the geese, Stutheit said, although they may end up traveling to the wetland area more after the project is complete.
Pruss Excavation Company of Dodge, is the contractor for the project. Stutheit said the deadline for completion is April 30.
Game and Parks has been trying to get this project underway for several years, Stutheit said, but had to secure funding first. The agency received a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund. Ducks Unlimited is also a partner in the project, providing engineering and construction oversight.
Along with the history of the WMA habitat area, the Memphis Lake in general has a fascinating past as well. In 1897, the large, shallow lake produced ice starting for Armour and Company of Omaha to store their meat products.
The 1,543 acre site was purchased from H.C. Henry. Several springs on the northern end of the property and water diverted from Silver Creek filled the lake, which was dredged to make the ice in the winter. Each spring the lake was drained and the land was used for pasture.
In the fall, debris was removed and the lake filled again. Harvest started when the ice was eight inches thick. A scorer drawn by horses cut the ice into 40 by 20 foot cakes. The ice was then sawed into smaller blocks and moved directly onto the conveyor for storage in the ice house.
The plant provided year-round work for 25 local men and 300 more men during the busy season.
The ice house burned down in 1921. The ice harvest continued but was loaded directly into the rail cars. Eventually, the ice harvest dwindled to local use only until the advent of mechanical refrigeration put an end to ice harvesting.
The area was donated to the State of Nebraska in 1930 and became the Memphis State Recreation Area.