July 24, 2008

A Massive Cleanup Project Has the Republican River Flowing Freely Again

By David Hendee, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Jul. 24--RED CLOUD, Neb. -- The old tree-choked, shrub-infested, island- jammed ditch south of town has a new function this summer. A river runs through it.

For the first time in at least 10 years, the Republican River is reclaiming its channel, flowing faster and virtually unhindered from the Harlan County Dam to Kansas, thanks to a new program to remove invasive vegetation.

"We've got a good thing started here," said Mike Clements, general manager of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District. "We need to keep it going."

The river now easily carries high flows from tributary creeks without flooding adjacent farmland.

Fishing and other recreational activities have increased dramatically, officials said. More than 4,000 people floated down the river on tubes during the Fourth of July weekend. A local cattle-tank float bobbed back onto the summer schedule after several years in dry dock.

And there's a better chance that water Nebraska releases from Harlan County Lake will make it to Kansas. Nebraska failed in recent years to provide Kansas its legal share of Republican River water, and Kansas is pushing for millions of dollars in damages.

The swift transformation of this 83-mile stretch of river from clogged marsh to free-running stream is the result of a special program approved by the Legislature last year. It is one of four ongoing projects seeking to rid the Republican and North Platte River basins of weeds and other overgrowth.

Mother Nature also cooperated. Rainfall upriver toward McCook, Neb., was about 150 percent of normal through June and already is 145 percent of the July average.

Before and after looks at the Republican from the Nebraska Highway 10 bridge south of Franklin illustrate the river's return.

In September 2007, thick stands of phragmites -- a non-native, invasive grass -- hid the river channel. The grassy and woody invaders had taken advantage of drought since 2000 and infested shrinking and dry streams, rivers and lakes.

Today, the Republican at Franklin is free of phragmites. The grass is gone. The 50-yard-wide river is visible and flowing.

The river's transformation at Franklin will be one feature of a tour today of the lower Republican project by members of the Nebraska Riparian Vegetation Management Task Force.

That task force is developing goals and plans to improve river flows in several parts of the state by ridding streams of invasive plants.

State Sen. Tom Carlson's Legislative Bill 701, a comprehensive water law approved in 2007, created the task force and set aside $2 million annually for two years to launch the program.

Greg Ibach, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said the grant program, administered by his agency, has provided a good start in removing weeds that have no value to landowners and are detrimental to the health of rivers and streams.

Carlson said he was pleased with stream-flow improvements in the project's first year.

Clements credited Merle Illian of Red Cloud, coordinator of the Eastern Republican Riparian Improvement Project, for the early success in the lower Republican.

Twin Valley Weed Management Area in south-central Nebraska received $772,500 to remove invasive vegetation from the lower Republican in the first year of a two-year campaign.

Illian met with and encouraged the 180 landowners bordering the river to sign up. All but two signed easements allowing spraying and other work to be done on their property.

Twin Valley contracted with helicopter and ground sprayers to poison phragmites and other invaders with an aquatic herbicide on 1,200 acres of streambed and 800 acres around Harlan County Lake. In addition to phragmites, they targeted saltcedar, reed canarygrass, cattails and willows.

Crews removed fallen trees and other debris. They cleared 52 miles before high water forced machinery out of the channel this spring. They plan to finish the job this fall.

In addition, Twin Valley disked 24 acres of river bottom in a two-mile stretch of river and burned vegetation off four sandbars in a quarter-mile swath to determine the effectiveness of allowing water flows to scour the islands.

In farming, disking with a harrow or plow turns and loosens the soil. In river weed management, it loosens roots of poisoned phragmites, allowing water to wash the vegetation away.

Illian said disking also helped the river re-level its sandy bed. High points that had built up behind invasive vegetation washed away and low spots filled in.

"That's what you want for a healthy river: a wide, flat channel," Illian said. "The carrying capacity is much better."

Islands with established woodlands weren't sprayed or cleared because they provide prime deer and wild turkey habitat often opened or leased to hunters.

A bottleneck in the Republican south of Franklin still restricts the river's flow considerably, Illian said. Dead timber plugs a narrow channel and Center Creek, an upstream tributary, unloads a tremendous amount of sediment into the Republican.

Illian plans to tackle the bottleneck during the next year.

Clements said vegetation-removal projects will need funding beyond 2009 if Nebraska is serious about improving flows in the Republican and Platte Rivers.

"We're making progress," he said. "Let's keep it going to ensure that phragmites doesn't come back."

--Contact the writer: 444-1127, [email protected]


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