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EPA orders cleanup after tons of sand washes into Sandhills stream
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EPA orders cleanup after tons of sand washes into Sandhills stream

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The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a Sandhills rancher and Cherry County to take "immediate steps" to halt and repair damage to a remote Nebraska stream inundated by a deluge of sand and sediment.

The EPA said the Snake River, which hosts canoers and trout fishermen, was transformed from a "deep and narrow" spring-fed creek into a wide and shallow, sandy waterway for about three miles after an estimated 1.6 million tons of sand washed into the river.

That's enough sand to fill an area the size of a football field about 540 feet deep.

The sand and sediment washed into the Snake River after a 2.5-mile ditch was excavated to the river to drain water off a flooded pasture and road.

The sand and sediment are defined as "pollutants" under the federal Clean Water Act, and the sand was deposited into the river without the proper permits. 

snakeriver2

Sandbars are piled high with sand at the point where a ditch dug through the Sandhills enters the Snake River. An estimated 1.6 million tons of sand washed into the river after the ditch was excavated to drain water off a flooded pasture and road. This photo was taken in September.

On June 14, the EPA ordered rancher Dick Minor of Gordon, Nebraska, and Cherry County to take "immediate steps" to stop the ongoing erosion of sand into the Snake River, and to come up with a plan within 60 days to permanently cut off the flow of sediments into the stream, and to restore, "to the extent technically feasible," the deep channel of the stream. 

David Cozad, a compliance director with EPA Region 7, said Wednesday that he was encouraged that Minor and the county recently signed an agreement to stop the unauthorized discharges into the Snake River.

"The agreement will protect this important aquatic resource, as well as prevent further impacts to downstream property owners,” Cozad said.

The damage occurred in April 2020 when crews from Cherry County assisted Minor in trenching out a roadside ditch on Minor's property to drain floodwaters off a county road and an adjacent meadow. Heavy rains had raised groundwater levels in that region, flooding several county roads and fields used by ranchers to graze cattle.

The EPA said the rancher extended the ditch so that it drained into the Snake River. According to the EPA, within days of the ditch being completed, rainfall events brought "massive amounts" of sand and sediment through the eroding ditch and into the river.

The damage occurred west of Nebraska 61, which is about 30 miles west of Merritt Reservoir, a popular recreation and fishing spot. But the increased stream flows and sand into the Snake were noticed several miles downstream after the trench was completed. The washed out ditch is visible in aerial photographs obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minor said he extended the ditch to the river because there was no other place for the water to drain off his meadow and the county road.

snakeriver.3

A ditch, shown in this photo taken in September, was dug through the Sandhills to drain water off a flooded pasture and road. The ditch leads to the Snake River.

"I can't see that it hurt nothing," he said. "No one will even see the stuff (sand) in five years."

Cherry County Attorney Eric Scott said the county road in that area, Fawn Lake Road, was one of many in the area covered by water due to flooding in 2019 and rising groundwater, raising concerns about access by ambulances. The elevation of several roads and state highways in the area needed to be increased, he said, and pumping was used to reopen some roadways.

Cherry County, according to Scott, spent $19 million to repair flooded roads and bridges. 

"It was just a terrible mess," he said, that impacted public safety and commerce.

Scott emphasized that the county was not involved in extending the drainage ditch to the Snake River — that was Minor's decision. He added that the local natural resources district and federal conservation officials were contacted before the "emergency" trenching was done.

snakeriver

A ditch, shown in this photo taken in September, was dug through the Sandhills to drain water off a flooded pasture and road. The ditch leads to the Snake River.

Whether the sand deluge impacted fishing on the Snake River is unclear. Officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said they were aware of the release of sand, but were not aware if any surveys had been done on the stream, which sits in a remote ranching area, far from the nearby towns of Hyannis and Merriman.

The stretch of the Snake River below Merritt Reservoir is considered the best trout stream in Nebraska. The upper portion of the Snake, where the washout occurred, also holds trout but runs entirely through private land that's much harder to access.

Minor, though, said he didn't think fishing was impacted.

The rancher and county will share the cost of the mitigation and restoration work, which is subject to EPA approval. Failure to do the work could result in fines, EPA officials said.

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