DU and Partners Bring Backwater Wetlands Back to Life

Ducks Unlimited and partners recently completed restoration of one mile of backwater slough habitat on the South Platte River near Paxton, Nebraska. DU regional engineer Mitch Messmer designed the Perlinger project, taking advantage of existing river "scars" in the Platte River floodplain to bring these wetlands back to their former glory.

Extensive changes in the Platte River watershed have greatly altered natural flooding cycles. Floods like the one experienced during 2009 are now a rare occurrence on the river, whereas historically such a flood would have been an annual occurrence. Former natural flood processes removed excessive woody vegetation from the riverbed, maintaining sandbar habitat, open channels, and backwater sloughs within a floodplain that often exceeded one mile in width. 

Today, in the absence of such frequent flooding, trees and other invasive plants have choked the river floodplain. The river channel has lost 80 percent of its natural width, and many backwater sloughs and side channels are dry and nonfunctional. 

Messmer focused his wetland restoration plan on the old channels. By removing accumulated sand and gravel, DU reconnected the former wetlands to the shallow groundwater beneath the sand. This practice essentially restores a functional "backwater" slough, providing benefits not only to waterfowl, but also many other species of fish and wildlife that rely on Platte River floodplain habitats. The Platte River and its associated wetlands provide important migration and wintering habitat for millions of waterfowl. DU's partners in this project included the Nebraska Environmental Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North American Wetlands Conservation Council, and private landowners.