‘Mountain of sand’ covers some Nebraska farms after floods, adding pains to planting season

‘Mountain of sand’ covers some Nebraska farms after floods, adding pains to planting season
Ryan Ueberrhein says he's one of the lucky ones. He was able to start planting this week, despite the sand floodwaters deposited on his property. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Nebraska landowners are seeking new solutions for a millions-year-old phenomenon.

Tons of sand, sediment and silt — some in dunes as high as 10 feet — have been scattered across the eastern half to two-thirds of the state by the March flooding.

In some areas, washed-out cornstalks are 3 to 4 feet deep. Tree limbs are in piles and topsoil has been washed away.

“We have a mountain of sand piled up,” Valley farmer Ryan Ueberrhein said.

Sediment from Nebraska’s rivers and streams has been deposited on nearby flooded land for millions of years. Now U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension specialists and extension educators are trying to figure out what to do with it.

They’re racing against the clock because farmers need to plant and ranchers need grass pastures to graze their cattle.

Sixteen percent of the corn crop is planted, which is slightly ahead of last year but behind the 23% five-year average.

Some ranchers may have to use the land they can, supplement their herds with hay to make up for the loss in production and deal with sand issues later in the summer.

Eight inches or less of the sand-sediment mix can usually be tilled into the soil with the right equipment, extension educator John Wilson said. But for others with much larger amounts, it may require removing sand and stockpiling it along the edge or in the corners of fields. In extreme cases, it might be too costly to do anything but leave it.

“If you have 3 to 5 feet of sand, that might be the new normal,” said Brad Schick, an extension educator based in Nance County.

That’s where people like Daren Redfearn come in. He’s an extension forage specialist at UNL, and he and his co-workers are looking into what can be planted to stabilize the massive amounts of sand that can’t be moved.

“Especially those that border rivers and waterways, so they can serve more as a levy next time something like this happens,” he said.

There is no recipe to speed the process, he said.

If it’s too costly or labor intensive to remove the sand, native prairie grasses could be one answer, providing stabilization.

Landowners could consider planting annual forages for a temporary fix this summer, Wilson said, then work on sand issues before doing a dormant seeding late in the fall or seeding next spring.

“Establishing anything in the ‘sand dunes’ this year will be challenging because of the soil texture and lack of soil structure and organic matter,” Wilson said.

Redfearn said owners need to think about their plans for the affected areas, both in the short term of five years and longer.

“The obvious solution was to haul it off, but if that’s not affordable,” he said, “then what is the next best thing to do, given what you’re working with?”

Information from what was done after the floods of 2011 is available for landowners, but it doesn’t cover all of the same issues.

It’s going to be a learning experience for everyone, Ueberrhein said. “This is all new to me.”

The 34-year-old, who farms about 2,000 acres with his dad, brother and a neighbor, has sand and cornstalks washed up on his land from the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers. And trash.

“Chairs, shelves, soccer balls, a sled, 2x4s, 2x6s,” he said. “You name it and we can probably find it. It’s just a mess. We’re trying to figure out what to do with all that.”

Anything that has landed on a property now belongs to the owner, and they must find a home for it.

It’s illegal to dump any type of fill material into U.S. waters without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are exceptions, so the best approach is to call a corps regulatory office and talk to a project manager about the need for authorization.

Ueberrhein said 5 to 10 acres on one 80-acre piece of his land was covered in sand 2 to 4 feet deep. He hired Barger Grading of Bennington to bulldoze the sand into piles. After removal, it will be used for filler for other flood projects.

The sand was deeper than expected, making the job more expensive, but Ueberrhein said it had to be removed so he could properly plant his corn.

He has no idea what the final price tag will be.

“It’s not going to be cheap,” he said. “You have multiple trucks, a bulldozer and a loader. It gets pricey in a hurry. It’s an extra expense you hadn’t planned on.”

Other farmers along the Missouri River have piled up or wind-rowed sand along the edges of a field or in a pivot corner and won’t haul it away.

“They sacrificed a few acres of production so they could farm the rest of the field without the sand deposits,” Wilson said.

Ueberrhein said he’s one of the lucky ones. He was able to start planting this week, unlike many others across the state.

While the situation has been difficult, Ueberrhein said everyone he knows is approaching it with a positive attitude.

“I tell you, it’s building some character,” he said. “You get stressed out. You just have to take a step back and breathe. You can’t control Mother Nature. This is what it is, and you have to fight it head on. That’s what we are doing.”

Flood notes: Fremont Lakes reopens, Two Rivers might open mid-May

Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area has reopened after being closed because of flooding.

But some roads there remain closed, and some amenities haven’t resumed full operations.

The Fisherman’s Point campground is closed, and access to the Pathfinder campground is limited.

At least for the next couple of weeks, a no-wake, 5 mph speed limit is in place on lakes 10, 15 (Victory) and 20 because of trees and other potential hazards.

Both the east and west entrances to the south camping areas are open.

Two Rivers State Recreation Area might open by May 15.

Jeff Fields, regional superintendent of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, credited the work of staff and volunteers for getting Fremont Lakes open before the Memorial Day. Work at Two Rivers was delayed because the road leading into the park was damaged. It has since been repaired, allowing crews to get into the park to make repairs.

A valid 2019 Nebraska State Park permit is required for all vehicles.

For information, visit outdoornebraska.gov.

Free mobile food pantry is open today

Food Bank for the Heartland is partnering with Christ the King Lutheran Church to host a free mobile food pantry from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the church at 7308 S. 42nd St.

About 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of food will be available, including canned goods, pasta, grains, produce and breads. People are asked to bring their own bags or boxes. No identification is required.

Deadline extended to apply for help with dead livestock

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended until July 1 the deadline to apply for funding to help with the disposal of dead livestock.

The funding is provided through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Livestock producers do not need to wait for approval to dispose of carcasses, according to the USDA. Instead, they can apply for the aid and seek a waiver to let them begin disposal.

For information, go to your local USDA office.

Get expert help to salvage heirlooms

The Durham Museum is teaming up with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative to host a second workshop on preserving damaged heirlooms.

The free workshop will be from 10 a.m. to noon June 1 at the Durham Museum at 801 S. 10th St. in Omaha.

Participants are asked to bring photos of damaged items, but not the damaged items themselves because of health concerns.

Free health and safety consultations available

The Nebraska Department of Labor is offering free safety and health consultations to businesses in flooded areas.

Consultants can help with mold remediation plans, identify electrical hazards and perform overall risk assessments. Consultants can provide walk-through evaluations, air sampling, training and a wide range of advice.

For information, call 402-471-4717. For advice on elevators, call 402-595-3184.

Workshop will train officials on meeting energy needs

Two free workshops are planned to help local officials better meet energy needs during emergencies.

The Nebraska Energy Office and the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency are offering the workshops through funding from the U.S. Energy Department.

The first will be held in Ogallala on June 11, and the second will be in Columbus on June 13.

Mileage and one night’s hotel stay will be covered. The deadline for hotel reservations is May 31.

For information, visit neo.ne.gov

Disaster Relief Offices scale back or close

With most of the acute requests for assistance serviced, disaster relief offices are scaling back, closing or transitioning.

The Douglas County Disaster Recovery Center in Valley will close after Saturday evening.

Then, on Monday evening, the facility will reopen for a limited time as a disaster loan assistance center.

Businesses and nonprofits may borrow up to $2 million, and homeowners may borrow up to $200,000.

The center is at 111 E. Front St. For information, visit sba.gov/disaster or call 800-659-2955.

The Bellevue business recovery center operated by the Small Business Administration closed on Friday.

But the Salvation Army’s disaster relief center in Bellevue remains open, though it has reduced its hours. Starting next week, the Sarpy-Cass relief center will be open Thursdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The center is at the former J.C. Penney store at the Southroads Mall at 1001 Fort Crook Road.

The Salvation Army site in Council Bluffs remains open. It is at 715 N. 16th St.

World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report.

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