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Platte River sandbars
Sandbars on the the lower Platte River downstream from Columbus. (Courtesy Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance)

Sandbars are to the Platte River what holes are to Swiss cheese.

They are everywhere, and they help give the Platte its braided-river appearance.

Soon, for the first time, there will be a study on the lower Platte River on how sandbars are formed.

In the lower reaches of the Platte downstream from Columbus, canoers and air boaters use sandbars as rest stops. Weeds invade when water levels drop, and driftwood finds temporary anchorage.

Sandbars serve a more useful purpose for wildlife.

Historically, they have provided critical nesting habitat for the piping plover and interior least tern. 

But that is no longer the case.

Human activity and development have taken their toll. Piping plovers are listed as threatened and interior least terns are endangered, mostly due to the loss of habitat.

"We've made enough changes to the river that the habitat is not there," said Mary Bomberger Brown, program coordinator for the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership, a group of organizations dedicated to saving the species.

A pilot study will be launched in April to find ways to restore some of that lost sandbar habitat in places where both species have had the most nesting success on the river.

Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey will use time-lapse photography and field observations to study the frequency, abundance, location, size and vegetation of sandbars in the spring, summer and fall.

USGS hydrologist Jason Alexander said they will be measuring sandbars that are two acres or larger and counting all sandbars in a 20-mile stretch below Salt Creek.

This is the first time a sandbar study has been done on the lower Platte River, Alexander said.

"We're interested in the physical process behind their formation," he said.

Researchers know that floods and other hydrological variations like tributary flows affect sandbar formation, but they don't know exactly how that process works in different seasons.

Cameras will help track that. Alexander hasn't decided where the cameras will be located. He said they will be pointed at the sandbars and secured to prevent theft.

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Total cost of the study is $66,935, with the Lincoln-based Lower Platte South Natural Resources District contributing $46,838 and the USGS paying the balance.

Two other NRDs -- the Papio-Missouri River and the Lower Platte North -- initially expressed interest in the project but ran into funding problems.

"We think it's a good project. We have no problem with that. Timing-wise, we're not in a position that we should be saying yes to it," said John Miyoshi, general manager of the Lower Platte North, based in Wahoo.

In addition to helping endangered species, Miyoshi sees other potential benefits from studying sandbars. Information collected would help the NRD and other governmental agencies when they have to apply for permits to build levees and bridges or stabilize stream banks, he said. Addressing threatened or endangered species issues on the river often is part of a permitting process.

All three NRDs will benefit from the data collected in the pilot study because they are members of the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance, a consortium of local and state agencies dedicated to protecting the long-term vitality of the lower Platte River corridor, downstream from Columbus.

Meghan Sittler, the alliance's program coordinator, said the pilot study will provide a "baseline" of information and pave the way for a long-term project.

The alliance plans to ask the Nebraska Environmental Trust this fall for a $170,000 grant to pay for three more years of research; the USGS would contribute $90,000.

Sittler briefed the Lower Platte South NRD Board last week on the project before it voted to provide up to $46,838 for the pilot study. She said the research would be in a stretch of the Platte that is adjacent to the district's boundaries.

"It has more sandbars than other portions and more habitat for the two species," she said.

NRD director Bob Andersen noted that each of the three NRDs was supposed to contribute $20,000 initially and that $46,838 was a "hard sell" in these difficult times.

"But if we're going to do the project, let's do it right," Andersen told the board.

Director Larry Swanson echoed Andersen's remark, saying the NRD should be pro-active.

"We should do it. We're dealing with endangered species, and they (the problems) won't go away," Swanson said.

Bomberger Brown said returning piping plovers and interior least terns to renovated sandbars will be a win-win for everyone, including governments, gravel and sand mining industries and homeowners who have built houses on abandoned sandpit lakes. Both species often use nearby sandpit lakes for nesting instead of sandbars, where they should be, she said.

Sandbars are much safer, Bomberger Brown said.

"The river acts as a moat around the sandbars. They're safer from predators, safer from humans and not nesting in places where men use bulldozers," she said. "They're not nesting in the middle of human activities."

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Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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