Cunningham Lake closes to outside boating; draining is possible

August 18, 2018

One of the Omaha metro area’s premier lakes will be closed to outside boating effective Friday in an effort to slow the spread of the invasive zebra mussel.

Closing Cunningham Lake could be the first step toward more aggressive actions to deal with the mussel, said Brook Bench, head of the Omaha Parks Department.

Bench said officials are weighing next steps, which could include draining the lake or treating it chemically.

“We’re looking long term, what are the best options to fix the problem, and all the options are on the table,” he said.

The decision to close the lake was announced Thursday and made jointly by the City of Omaha, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Invasive Species Program, he said.

The closure at Cunningham is partial in the short term. Fishing will still be allowed from the shore, Bench said. And sailboats moored there and paddleboards and kayaks for rent from an outfitter on-site will still be able to use the lake, he said.

“They aren’t hurting anything while they’re there,” he said. “We’re more concerned about people coming and leaving. We’re making sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”

If the lake is drained over the winter, the return of boating will depend on how fast it fills back up. The goal of draining the lake is to expose the mussel to winter’s freezing temperatures.

The mussel is native to Europe and Asia and has no effective predators in the United States. It was found in the Great Lakes in the 1980s, and from there has spread throughout the Mississippi River watershed and into the Missouri River basin. About the size of a dime and highly prolific, its population can explode in a lake.

The mussels cement themselves to surfaces as they mature, and layers can grow to six inches thick, clogging pipes and valves in artificial lakes. Because they feed on plankton — the base of the food chain — their presence crowds out native aquatic life. And because their sharp-edged shells litter beaches by the thousands, the barefoot walk on the beach becomes a thing of the past.

An attribute of a mussel infestation that some people like is that they feed so intensely in a lake that the water becomes clearer. But even that has its downsides, exposing fish eggs to harmful UV rays and contributing to harmful algal blooms.

The mussel is transported from one body of water to another in buckets of water and by boats that haven’t been properly cleaned.

Bench said officials in Nebraska aren’t ready to throw in the towel, despite the daunting task of preventing the mussel’s spread. A handful of Nebraska lakes have confirmed or suspected mussel infestations compared to about 30 in Kansas and more than 150 in water-rich Minnesota and 240 in Wisconsin.

”(Game & Parks) is trying their best they can to keep it from taking over,” Bench said.

Other lakes with known or suspected infestations in Nebraska include Zorinsky, Carter, Offutt Base and Lewis and Clark Lakes.

Zebra mussels have yet to be found in Nebraska’s largest lakes, such as the 1,800-acre Branched Oak Lake north of Lincoln. While treating Cunningham might be affordable, doing so at a lake like Branched Oak would be cost-prohibitive, Bench said.

No matter what officials do next, one thing seems possible: Stricter boating rules could be forthcoming.

“That’s what will happen here if people don’t start paying attention and following the rules,” he said. “The restrictions will be at a whole different level.”

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