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Meandering Elkhorn River’s history shows it is tough to tame

June 30, 2019

PILGER, Neb. (AP) — Ron Willers has had a running argument with the Elkhorn River for the past 80 years.

Each year, Willers hopes the river stays on its straight and narrow path bordering his land south of here. And each year, the river decides on its own if it will carve a new course through the countryside.

This spring, the river once again showed who’s boss, the Norfolk Daily News reported.

Willers has either farmed or lived by the Elkhorn River since he was born. His parents owned the land before he and his wife did, and his son and wife likely will continue to haggle with the river in years to come.

This year has proven especially worrisome as the river reinvented itself, cutting across narrow bends and shaving off outward curves, forcing the water into a new channel.

This spring’s flooding erased land up and down the river’s length, depositing it in giant sandbars in the center of the river, on the far bank, or sending it downstream.

Just west of Pilger’s Elkhorn River Bridge, the river — with its ravenous appetite — has eaten away at least 40 feet from its south bank since the end of May. Although the erosion has slowed somewhat in the last few months, the next big rain could remove even more trees, riverbank and farmground in the river’s wild meandering.

To further aggravate the situation, five years ago a tornado slammed into the area where the Humbug Creek enters the river, removing large cottonwood trees whose roots once lent stability to the banks.

Nearby is Willers Cove, with a small lake Willers built himself. A complex of houses ring the lake, and lakefront property owners are getting nervous. At the moment, only a sand road and a small pond separate the river from the cove’s lake, a distance of about a quarter of a mile.

Willers Cove property owners fear that if the river were to rampage once again and break through this barrier, it could create a new oxbow, compromising the Elkhorn River bridge, and placing Highway 15 south of Pilger at risk, along with a number of homes circling the cove.

Willers Cove property owners are looking at options, grasping at something — anything — they can do to stop the erosion. These ideas run from dikes, levies and jetties, to riprap, sheet piling and even dredging the river.

Artwin Fullner of Wisner was only 17 when he worked for a dragline crew that straightened the Elkhorn in 1948. Straightening of the river at that time was prompted by major floods of 1940 and 1944 that erased cropland, fences and even railroad tracks.

The river contained so many curves at that time, Fullner said, the majority of the water ran north and south instead of east and west.

Jerri Kumm knows the river is attempting to return to that original state. “It’s trying to find its way home,” she said.

Russell and Jerri Kumm live near the Elkhorn east of Stanton. A portion of road nearby has been eliminated from the landscape entirely. In addition, 13 acres of Rockwell Farms has been lost.

Russell is quick to point out that other people have lost much more than the Kumms have during recent flooding.

“A whole lot more,” he said.

And the flooding of 2011 was much worse in some parts of Stanton County than it was this year.

In the height of the flooding, when the river remained angry and relentless in its charge downstream, Nebraska Public Power District crews worked around the clock to replace nine sets of power poles extending across the river.

The river had washed away enough land around towers put in after the flooding in 2011 that towers were beginning to topple. The NPPD crews accessed the river through Kumm land, and used a helicopter to stretch lines across the river’s newly-widened expanse.

The Kumms’ river valley land contains about 3 1/2 feet of topsoil with sandy soil beneath.

“The whole Elkhorn Valley is like that,” Russell said.

The river eats the sand underneath and the land drops, Jerri explained. Out of the blue sky one day she heard the sounds of thunder.

“That’s not thunder,” Russell said. “That’s land dropping in the river.”

“It’s a river,” Jerri said, “a force of nature. You can’t demand it not to do what it’s going to do.”

But the folks at Willers Cove are looking at ways to persuade it otherwise, preventing what they see as a potentially crisis situation.

As Ron and his son, Scott, point out, there is not a lot of time.

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Information from: Norfolk Daily News, http://www.norfolkdailynews.com

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