Drought Drying Up Nebraska Rivers

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For Nebraska's early pioneers, water and survival went hand in hand. Today 85 percent of what we drink comes from wells, but when settlers arrived in the territory, they staked claims based on streams and ground water. It's a water source the other fifteen percent of us depend on even today and it's drying up in our drought.

"I've been on this river for 20 years and I've never seen it this bad," says airboat captain Bryson.

That's coming from a guy who's still able to slide across the Platte River with the power of a roaring V8 in only an inch of water. Sturgeon catfish and carp suffocate in what water's left in Dodge County.
Those fish that can't find moisture dry up in the record breaking heat. It's not hurting Bryson's airboat tour business, but the death lingering around the river channel, weighs heavy on his heart.

“As much wildlife that we've seen dead around here, if we have less water, it's going to get much worse," says Bryson.
60 miles upstream just on the west side of Columbus, it's already worse.

Nebraska DNR Director Brian Dunnigan says, "the last time that we had zero flow here at Duncan was 2006. That lasted from about mid-July to the end of the first week in September."

Where there's supposed to be water you'll only find a desert. Dry sand from bank to bank. Any water left only moves because something alive, struggles to survive. Dunnigan says it's not as bad as it seems, but that doesn't make it good.

"We have about 12 hundred surface irrigators closed right now."

That's 12 hundred farmers who rely on the water supposed to be flowing here to keep their crops alive. It's a concern because sand bottom streams like the Platte River are directly connected to aquifers feeding wells.

"We have local natural resource districts that regulate the ground water and they do a good job regulating how much ground water we use around the state," say Dunnigan.

While it's dry and desperate in Duncan there's a glimmer of hope downstream where a trickle of moisture fills the channel.

Any water flowing in Platte River east of Columbus is not actually the Platte River. It's water flowing out of this, the Loupe River Canal. Even the water the canal isn't making much difference. Here about three hours downstream, it never gets more than a foot deep and it's as hot as bath water.

"I'd have to figure with the water being that warm, there is really not that much oxygen in that water to begin with water dropping fast from the Loupe Canal, really their chances of living, aren't that good," says Bryson.

From his captain's chair six feet above the surface, Bryson can only watch the river shrink and save the few fish he finds to live another day.

"It's definitely very sad. For anyone into wildlife or air boater that doesn't shed a tear over this. It's just hard to recognize what is going on. I just hope that we get more water," says Bryson.

While more water doesn't seem like an option, it's likely the reality facing the Platte River. Every animal and person, who relies on its moisture, must brace for the desert to come.

According to central Nebraska public power the lack of snow melt is making matters on the Platte even worse.

Ten times more water is being released from Lake McConaughy than is flowing into the reservoir and as you just saw none of that water is making it to Columbus.