Water levels at Harlan County Lake in Nebraska should finally drop

HARLAN COUNTY LAKE, Nebraska (AP)―It’s been a tough year for the locals at Harlan County Lake.

In a normal year, this sportsmen’s destination in south-central Nebraska would buzz with recreational activity. But the lake on the Republican River 45 miles south of Kearney took a hit from the crazy weather of 2019.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held back water at the dam all summer to avoid exacerbating flooding downriver. Water from the lake flows into a river system that eventually reaches the Missouri River near Kansas City.

The 67-year-old lake swelled to its highest level ever, inundating beaches, low-lying campgrounds and some lakeside facilities.

“It was terrifying as it came up,” Tami Kearns, operations manager for the Patterson Harbor Marina, told the Omaha World-Herald.

Now the locals are hoping to get things back to normal – or as close as possible.

Kearns’ facility survived with only minimal damage. There were some road repairs and other issues. But the marina and fuel pumps float, so they stayed in operation.

Reports of the high water scared off some would-be visitors, a hit to local marinas and businesses, she said. The water level has since dropped about 4 feet from the record level set in July. The pool elevation on July 18 was 1,958.08 feet, eclipsing the 1,955.66 feet set in April 1960, according to the Corps of Engineers.

The effects of that high water are visible all around. The high-water mark is etched into the trunks of large cottonwood trees – they look like king-sized rain gauges.

The high water caused some dirt banks to collapse. Some remain unstable and teetering at the water’s edge. Flotillas of jumbled driftwood sit stranded in disarray high on the rocky dam face. Some normally dry creek beds around the lake are still swampy.

Larry Janicek, Harlan County Lake operations manager, said the goal is to draw down the water to a normal pool before the lake ices over. Ice can cause complications on the lake and downriver, including carving away at the already damaged banks.

The corps can’t release water too fast, though, because of the capacity of the river downstream, he said. Too much water would impact downstream landowners, so it will take some time, Janicek said.

Although launching boats was a challenge during the high water, it’s possible now. On a recent morning, anglers could be seen heading off in boats in search of walleye and wipers.

The high water is still a challenge for shore fishermen, but there is access for those who are willing to walk.

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