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Cunningham Lake Still a Work in Progress

August 7, 2008

By Chelsea Keeney, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Aug. 7–Put the sailboats and fishing poles away — Cunningham Lake is not ready yet.

The lake is being kept about 10 feet below full pool so that construction can be completed on a sediment weir — a low dam — in the Pawnee Wetlands, said Randy Winter, aquatic habitat program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Winter said he had hoped that boaters could get out on the water for a few days this fall, but he isn’t betting on it.

“They probably can’t get out until next spring,” he said. “But it’s not totally out of the realm of possibilities to get them out for a few days in the fall.”

Mayor Mike Fahey has scheduled a press conference for this morning to provide an update on work at the lake.

The Pawnee Wetlands are on the northern end of the lake.

He said the clay where the weir will be built was not “as tight and strong as it needed to be” so Game and Parks workers piled dirt on the area to compact the clay. The dirt will sit there for 30 or 40 days and will then be removed for construction of the weir.

The trenches for the weir have already been dug.

Winter said the weir is being built to filter out sediment from the Little Papillion Creek, the lake’s main source of water.

Some of the fish species that will populate Cunningham Lake were introduced in April, but the fish are too small to catch right now.

Steve Satra, Game and Parks program specialist, said the large mouth bass and channel catfish would be big enough to catch next summer. The lake will also be stocked with walleye, bluegill and black crappie, Satra said.

The seeding and planting of the disturbed areas is complete. Winter expects the vegetation to sprout in the fall.

Draining of the 350-acre lake in northwest Omaha began in April 2006, and the park has been closed to visitors since April 2007.

The total cost of the rehabilitation might not exceed low-end estimates. Winter said the original estimates were between $6.5 million and $7 million. He now thinks the whole project should cost around $6.5 million.

The rehab tab has been paid with a mix of local, state and federal funds, Winter said.

The goals of the rehabilitation — to lengthen the life of the lake and improve water quality — have come to fruition, Winter said. With the removal of about 440,000 cubic yards of silt from the lakebed, the stabilization of shorelines and the addition of the wetlands, water clarity has improved.

“There’s no doubt right now we’ve significantly increased the water clarity,” Winter said.

The removal of silt increased the lake’s average depth by 4 to 6 inches, with some areas much deeper and others only slightly changed.

Increasing the depth in shallower areas makes it harder for waves to dredge up silt from the lakebed and cloud the water, Winter said. An increase in aquatic vegetation in the lakebed will also increase clarity by holding down sediment. Winter said that when the weeds and grasses eventually decompose, the water won’t be as clear.

The Corps of Engineers, Game and Parks and the Environmental Protection Agency will monitor water quality for the next 10 years, he said.

To help keep Cunningham Lake clean and clear, Game and Parks has teamed up with the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District to dig out a 30-acre silt pond that would catch sediment before it reaches the Pawnee Wetlands, Winter said. Between 60,000 and 65,000 cubic yards of silt will be removed from the pond, which is west of 90th Street, on the north end of the wetlands, he said.

“Eventually these things silt in and you have to clean them out,” Bowen said.

The Papio-NRD will contribute $250,000 to the project, and the Game and Parks will cover the rest, said Gerry Bowen, NRD planner.

Winter said that project, which is separate from the rehabilitation project, will cost between $400,000 and $500,000 and be completed in the spring of 2009.

The $350,000 in upgrades to camping, bathroom or playground equipment at Cunningham Lake have not been completed yet, said Steve Scarpello, city parks director.

He said some upgrades to signs and shelters have been made, and new picnic tables and grills will be put in during the fall.

Scarpello said the renovation to the marina is estimated to be $1.1 million and will be completed in the summer of 2009.

–Contact the writer: 444-3110, chelsea.keeney@owh.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

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