MEMPHIS – Extreme weather conditions delayed completion of a project to restore wetlands near Memphis State Recreation Area (SRA) by more than two months.
Work began in February on the Nebraska Game and Parks Commissions’ restoration project to improve habitat for water fowl in the wetlands north of Memphis State Lake. 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 original completion date was slated to be late April, but was delayed by weather, pushing the timeline for the project back about two and one-half months, said Randy Stutheit, wetland/wildlife biologist for Game and Parks.
“We had a terrible time with site conditions this year,” he said.
After trees and brush were cleared in February, the area was hit by a blizzard that dumped a foot of snow. Just a few weeks later, the SRA was flooded, followed by a smaller flood in late spring.
“Since (the blizzard) we had two floods in the area,” Stutheit said.
The WMA was drained for the project. A major flood in mid-March covered the area with about six to seven feet of water, refilling the drained area, Stutheit said.
“That was a bad one,” he added.
A second flood later in the spring was not nearly as bad, but it still put the project back another few weeks.
Stutheit said there is a small amount of dirt work that has not been completed because the area remains too wet. The project included filling five “level ditches” with dirt and trees that were removed from other areas and ground up, Stutheit said.
Because of the saturated ground, dirt work on the far east end of two of the level ditches cannot be finished, and the agency is not sure if it ever will be dry enough to complete.
“It may ultimately come down to the point that the site doesn’t get dry enough,” Stutheit added.
That should not hurt the outcome of the restoration project, however.
“If it doesn’t ever get filled in, it’s not a big deal,” Stutheit said.
Stutheit considers the project to be essentially complete.
“For the most part, I consider the project to be 99.5 percent done,” he said.
The 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 explained.
The outcome was not what was expected, according to Stutheit. Instead, the level ditches created deeper areas for water to gather, which is not conducive to water fowl habitat, he said.
The restoration project has created shallower areas to help seed-producing plants proliferate in the wetland, which will provide food for wildlife, Stutheit said. 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, he added.
Hunters should be able to use the WMA this autumn.
“That is our hope,” Stutheit said.
There is a small amount of work left to do on removing vegetation in the area, Stutheit added. There is a tall stand of cattails and some other vegetation on the mud flats that need to be knocked down, he said.
Game and Parks is also focusing on a diversion structure located northwest of the area that fills the wetland and lake.
Stutheit said the structure has not been used in about six years. In that time, trees have grown in the structure, and sediment has settled there as well.
“It needs to be cleaned out by our operations and construction crew before that diversion structure is fully functional again,” Stutheit said.
The diversion structure needs to be working in order to refill the wetlands and the lake after the project. During the project, there was no water going into the lake and the levels initially dropped about three and one-half feet, Stutheit said.
As the project was delayed, the summer heat drew down the level another six inches, Stutheit said. Already a shallow lake, there is concern for the fish population because of the lower levels.
“The fisheries people want us to get the water back up,” Stutheit said.
The temporary lower water levels have some benefits, however. Stutheit said more vegetation grows in the exposed areas, creating more organic matter, which contributes to the food chain.
“It’s good for the fish population,” he said.
The Game and Parks’ operations crew has been very busy this spring and summer cleaning up parks and recreation areas across the state after the spring floods, so the Memphis WMA project is low on the list of priorities, Stutheit said. But he is hoping now that the restoration project is essentially done, the diversion structure will be tackled in the new few weeks.
Once the diversion structure is up and running and the water levels are back to normal, visitors to Memphis Lake will notice other improvements. Stutheit said the water line was repaired, restoring drinking water to the SRA. There is also new signage at the park.
“It’s going to be nicer once all these improvements are done,” he said.
Even though the wetland restoration project has moved slower than expected, the public’s reaction to the improvements has been positive, Stutheit said.
“The reception amongst people in the area, the park goers and the fishermen, has been really good,” he said.