A Monthly Publication of the Nebraska Environmental Trust

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Dave Heineman, Governor

Board of Trustees

District I
District II
District III

Agency Directors

Trust Staff

December 2013

In This Issue:

  1. Executive Director's Corner
  2. Rainwater Basin Joint Venture - Hydrologic Restoration of Rainwater Basin Wetlands
  3. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission - Wildlife Habitat Improvement Through Prescribed Grazing
  4. Merry Chrismas and Happy New Year from the Staff of the Nebraska Environmental Trust
  5. Upcoming Events
  6. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and find us on YouTube


Executive Director's Corner

We had approximately 135 visitors to our annual open house on Dec. 8th.  It was fun talking to the visitors and not only relaying stories about the Ferguson House and the Ferguson family, but about the Trust and what we do. Several visitors thanked me for what we do.

The Grant Committee is wrapping up their ranking of the 125 grants we received and committee results will be announced at the February 13, 2014, board meeting.

It is the end of the year and the holiday season.  It is time to reflect on the year and our lives.  Marilyn and I have been helping a young homeless man get on his feet and while searching for affordable housing for him in Lincoln, I ran into two compelling local stories.  Two different young, single mothers are desperately searching for affordable housing.  You can feel the pain in their postings on-line in search of housing.  Each has spent time in the local shelter and are seeking in vain an opportunity to reach the next level and get out of the shelter. Their plight reminds me of the statistic I read recently that if you have $8 in your pocket, you are wealthier than 90% of the world’s population and a majority of Americans are one paycheck from being broke and two paychecks from being homeless.  Almost half of the world (over three billion people) live on less than $2.50 a day.

I’m not saying money should define a person or their happiness, but without money a person’s existence can be very difficult.  Please take a moment this holiday season and do something meaningful for your fellow mankind, I know it made me a happier person inside.  A couple of coins or bills in that red kettle, a few toys dropped off at a local shelter, your church or a local charity, a hand up to a neighbor or just an extra gift to your favorite charity.

Have a safe holiday season. 

Mark A. Brohman
Executive Director


Rainwater Basin Joint Venture - Hydrologic Restoration of Rainwater Basin Wetlands

Submitted by Andy Bishop, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture

The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) is a conservation partnership comprised of federal, state and local government organizations, non government conservation organizations and most importantly local landowners.  This partnership is dedicated to the protection, restoration and enhancement of playa wetlands.  At first, this partnership was focused on conservation projects to benefit the millions of waterfowl that use this region.  As the partnership expanded our focus shifted to recognize the cumulative benefits of these projects to wildlife, Nebraska residents and agriculture.  Conservation of playa wetlands benefits all of these constituents through increased habitat, nutrient cycling, flood storage and prevention and groundwater recharge.  Therefore playa conservation projects completed by the RWBJV directly align with the Nebraska Environmental Trust categories including: habitat, as well as, surface and groundwater, as described below. 

What is a wetland, aren’t they supposed to be wet?  There is often a misconception that all wetlands need to have standing water year round to provide the numerous ecosystem benefits these features provide, especially for wildlife, ground and surface water quality, as well as aquifer recharge.  Playa wetlands, like those found in the Rainwater Basin region (RWB) of South Central Nebraska, are a prime example.  Playa wetlands are considered “isolated wetlands,” that is, these features are not connected to navigable waters or riverine systems.  Each playa wetland has a closed watershed that funnels water to the wetland located at the lowest point.  The RWB landscape is very flat and vertical relief from the upper end of the watershed, through the wetland maybe only a few feet in elevation.  As a result these wetlands often fill from snowmelt in the early spring, dry late spring and early summer and refill as a result of intense summer storms. 

The wet/dry cycling of playa wetlands maximizes their ecosystem benefits.  As these wetlands flood, during early spring, they play host to an estimated 8.6 million waterfowls, 250,000 shorebirds and potentially the entire population of the federally endangered whooping crane.  In late spring these wetlands will be begin to dry exposing expansive mudflats.  These mudflats provide ideal growing conditions for annual plant species. These species can produce hundreds of pounds of seeds that ultimately provide the foraging resources for the waterfowl and other wetland dependent species the following spring.

This flush of wetland vegetation not only provides seeds for the upcoming migration, these vigorously growing wetland vegetation extracts nutrients and agriculture inputs from the runoff that enters the wetland.  The highly charged clay wetland soils also trap and store nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture runoff. 


Playa wetlands dry during late spring and early summer as a result of infiltration of water into the acquifer, evaporation and evapotranspiration of water by the wetland plants.  Macropores, or large cracks form as result of the playa hydroperiod.  Formation of the macropores cracks the clay pan, creating fissures that extend into the porous parental loess soils under the wetlands. Macropores can be inches across and extend several feet through the clay pan deep into the parental material.  Most recharge occurs quickly during the first influx of water into the playa wetland through the acropores.  As the basin fills, the clay swells and the macropores close, but recharge continues between the clay particles through micropores that exist between the clay particles.

A Nebraska Environmental Trust grant was awarded to the Friends of the Rainwater Basin in 2010.  This grassroots organization was formed by local duck hunters with an ultimate goal of having more hunting opportunities in the fall.  At first, the goal was to pump groundwater into these wetlands, for hunting.  However, the RWBJV partners worked with this group to develop a more long-term solution, watershed restoration to increase flooded acres and restore the hydrological function of RWB wetlands. 

Land leveling, road construction, drains, concentration pits and irrigation reuse pits in wetland watersheds all influence water movement to wetlands.  The large number of off-site hydrologic modifications, including reuse pits, has had the greatest negative influence on wetland function.  A recent Geographical Information Systems (GIS) inventory of irrigation reuse pits documented 10,217 pits in the Rainwater Basin.  Using the hydro-geomorphic model developed for the RWB, it is estimated that these pits capture 34,553 acre feet of water at full pool.  As a result of this large number of off-site modifications, only 20% of the remaining wetlands pond water in years with average precipitation and optimal thaw conditions, significantly reducing wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling and groundwater recharge these wetlands historically provided. 

Filling irrigation reuse pits provides a “win-win” situation for local producers, Nebraska residents and wetland dependent wildlife.  Recently many irrigation systems have been converted from gravity, where water is recycled using the irrigation reuse pits, to more efficient center pivot irrigation systems.  As a result, many of the irrigation reuse pits are no longer needed.  Eliminating the unused irrigation reuse pits results in additional farmable acres while allowing natural runoff to flow to the wetlands on a more regular basis.  These activities will not only increase wetland function and provide reliable wildlife habitat, but will also benefit local residents and area producers as a result of the groundwater recharge naturally occurring through these wetlands.  Since these projects were developed with willing landowners/local producers and complement their farm operations, the benefits are expected into perpetuity.        

The Trust awarded the Friends of the Rainwater Basin $334,925, these funds were matched with $482,750 from various conservation partners to fill 52 abandoned irrigation reuse pits in the watersheds of 18 public wetlands, owned and managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  These watershed restoration actions are expected to directly impact 5,722 acres of playa wetlands.  Annual monitoring completed by the RWBJV has documented a shift of 540 acres of upland vegetation communities, within the hydric soil footprint, that have transitioned to wetland vegetation communities.  Much of this transition has been attributed to the RWBJV Watershed Restoration initiative, suggesting that ecological process and ecosystem services, like increased wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling and groundwater recharge are being achieved by these actions. 


Nebraska Game and Parks Commission - Wildlife Habitat Improvement Through Prescribed Grazing

Compiled by Ted LaGrange, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

The plant and animal life of Nebraska’s pre-settlement wetlands were highly adapted to a variety of natural disturbances, including grazing.  Historically these wetlands were grazed by large herds of bison and elk.  Periodic prescribed grazing is essential to maintain and enhance wetland quality, plant and animal communities, and ecosystem processes.  Today, we do not have large herds of wild bison and elk in many parts of Nebraska, so to obtain the needed grazing disturbance, we use cattle and prescribed grazing to better manage wetlands by improving the diversity of plant community structure, increasing seed producing annual plants that provide wildlife food, and helping to control invasive plant species. 

Using cattle to conduct prescribed grazing requires finding a farmer or rancher who has cattle available and also requires infrastructure such as boundary fence, cross fence, and livestock watering systems.  Many of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) lacked this infrastructure needed for prescribed grazing.  In addition, many properties recently enrolled in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) also lacked this infrastructure.


To address the need to have the option to better manage wetlands using prescribed grazing, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission obtained four grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust over the past 10 years.  Grant funds were used to improve grazing infrastructure on WMAs and WRP tracts.  For the three grants that have been completed, a total of 23 different private landowners enrolled in WRP have benefited, resulting in the improvement of over 7,000 acres of habitat on private lands and a total of 21 WMAs have been upgraded, resulting in the improvement of over 12,000 acres of public land habitat. Partners to these grants have included private landowners, Nebraska Cattlemen and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Merry Chrismas and Happy New Year from the Staff of the Nebraska Environmental Trust



Upcoming Events

- February 11, 2014 - Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Informational Seminar

- February 13, 2014 (Thursday), 1:30pm - 1st Quarter Board Meeting

- April 3, 2014 (Thursday), 1:30pm - 2nd Quarter Board Meeting.


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