Essay on revitalization of some wetlands along the Missouri River

completed for Urban Geology Seminar by Becky Zimmerman, 12/99

In the last 200 years, the state of Nebraska has lost 1 million acres of wetlands. This is approximately 35% of original wetlands in the state. The major cause of the disappearance of wetlands is the conversion of the land to agriculture. Other causes were construction of reservoirs, urbanization, and road construction.

Today, Nebraska's wetlands make up only 1.9 million acres (4% of state's area). The major wetland complexes in the state include the Rainwater Basin wetland complex, the Sandhills wetland complex, and the Missouri River wetland complex (figure 1).


  (Diagram from United States Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2425)

Because water is such an important resource for us and our planet's ecosystem, rules and regulations have been passed to ensure that water stays in good condition. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act spells out the regulation that deals with anyone who is interested in depositing dredged or fill material into "waters of the United States, including wetlands." Such activity can only be done with permission from the US Army Corps of Engineers, whom have the responsibility of issuing these permits.

In Nebraska, the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District (NRD) is involved in a project to revitalize and restore some of the wetland areas along the Missouri River. The goals of this project include wildlife habitat restoration, recreation and river access, education, economic development, cultural resources, and floodplain management. It is known that wetlands act as a natural filter of pollutants. They trap sediment, which helps to clean the water. Wetland areas also help control flooding by storing floodwaters. These are just a couple of reasons why wetlands are important.

The channelization of the Missouri River in the middle of this century is the reason the river revitalization project exists today. It was necessary for there to be deep enough water in the river for barge traffic. This channalization wiped out many wetlands along the river. The wetlands along the unchannelized portion the river were lost because of upstream dams on the river. These areas dried up from lack of water. The consequence of having a safer river for barge traffic was the loss of both wildlife and esthetically appealing areas along the river.

Today, many projects are underway to try to increase habitat for wetland species that have been lost to the area. This also creates a place for people to engage in recreational activities. State and private sponsors provide funding for the Back to the River project in Nebraska.

I have done a bit of research on a few specific sites along the Missouri that have been, or are in the process of being restored. The Downtown Omaha Riverfront Development, the Boyer Chute Expansion, as well as Nathan's Lake Wetland Expansion are all sites that I have investigated.


 (Map from the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District pamphlet Back to the River)

The Downtown Omaha Riverfront Development involved the acquisition of the Asarco Plant, a lead smelting factory. The company ended up polluting the soil with lead, so the NRD stepped in and bought the property for approximately twenty million dollars. The NRD is now capping the site to eliminate any threat of further lead contamination, and is planning to plant native grasses in the area. A public access riverfront park is being planned for the site as well.


Another improvement being made to the downtown area is the construction of a recreation trail. This trail will follow the river and will go through the Old Market to the Heartland of America Park, past the old Asarco site. It will then pass by Eppley Airfield, and continue up to NP Dodge Park. There has been $4.8 million allotted to this project.


 (Map from the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District pamphlet Paths of Discovery)

The Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge is located 3 miles east of Ft. Calhoun, on the west side of the Missouri River. Opened in 1996, it was a joint project accomplished by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District. The chute is about 2.5 miles long and presently, the area consists of 2,000 acres. The purpose of the Boyer Chute project, was mainly to restore wildlife habitat that was almost wiped out when the Missouri River was improved for navigation about 50 years ago. When I visited the area, I noticed many different animal tracks.



Along with the restoration of wildlife habitat, many species of trees and shrubs were planted. Native prairie grasses were among the vegetation restored to the area.


The area also provides the opportunity for recreational activities such as nature walks, picnicking, birding, biking, fishing and canoeing.


 (Map from the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge pamphlet Boyer Chute)

The cost of restoring Boyer Chute was $6 million. $3 million was for acquiring the land, $2 million was for the actual restoration, and the other $1 million was used to put in public access roads, and trails (pers. comm. Jim Becic).

There are no control structures to prevent the channel from wandering. In fact, erosion and meandering are encouraged so biomass and variation will increase along Boyer Chute. The area on the north end of the chute, where the Missouri River flows into Boyer Chute, is eroding and widening. When I visited the area, I noticed the placement of rocks along the banks. I thought that this might be an attempt to stop the erosion and widening of the Boyer Chute channel. It turns out that the NRD did indeed install rock rip-rap lining along both banks, as well as rocks on the bottom, to prevent widening of the chute entrance to more than a maximum amount. Rocks are also present on the south end, where the chute flows into the Missouri. Not much of anything else is needed to protect the banks from erosion. The Missouri River acts as a natural control structure, by applying pressure on the south side of the chute, thereby slowing water velocity and erosion.


Expansion of this area is ongoing. The NRD has another 10,000 acres that is near Boyer Chute. which has been handed over to the US Army Corps of Engineers to restore. When restoration is completed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will maintain it.

Nathan's Lake is a project that will begin in the end of December 1999. This area spans about 650 acres. It is located south of and adjacent to Boyer Chute. The cost of this project is approximately $250,000. Water will be diverted from an east - west flowing stream called Deer Creek. This stream flows into the Missouri, but after it has been diverted it will flow into a ditch. This ditch is soon to be Nathan's Lake. The purpose of this project is to create a wetland area in which fish from the Missouri can come up to breed and spawn.


The revitalization of the Missouri River is an important endeavor to ensure that endangered wildlife has sufficient habitat. It is also beneficial to the people in surrounding communities, because it provides an appealing place for recreational and esthetic purposes. In addition, there is a historical importance to restoring the Missouri. Lewis and Clark navigated through its waters, and recorded the geography and wildlife of the area. From their records, we know the Missouri River was once a place of bountiful wildlife, and meandering channels. The restoration projects underway are an attempt to restore the river to a form that will work to accommodate wildlife and "progress". The Missouri River can once again be a source of pride for Nebraskans.