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Nebraska’s Aquatic Habitat Plans

For decades following statehood, anglers predominately fished Nebraska’s numerous rivers and streams just outside their own backyard, or traveled to the Sandhills to fish the states few natural lakes.  From the 1920s to the 1980s, hundreds of reservoirs of various sizes and shapes were built, adding nearly 145,000 surface acres of water.  Anglers quickly took a liking to these new waters, which were incredibly productive early in their life, and by the 1980s, 80 percent of all Nebraska anglers were fishing man-made lakes.


The Problem

Whether designed for flood control, irrigation, hydropower generation or watering livestock, these watershed impoundments that created reservoirs or stored water were not designed to last forever.  In fact, most of the flood control reservoirs in the eastern third of the state were often designed to have a recreational lifespan of only 50-100 years.  During that time, sediment washes in from the watershed, or wave action within the reservoir sloughs soils from the shorelines slowly decreasing water depth, increasing water temperatures and decreasing water quality. Generally degrading the habitats ability to support aquatic life, especially quality fish communities desirable to anglers. 

To speed the process of dredging sand from the upper end of Grove Lake, the lake was drawn down each winter so heavy equipment could move in and scoop out the upper layer of cattails and sand.


By the late 1980s, “We were well past midlife on a lot of these waters and you could see it,too, in the condition of those reservoirs,” said Randy Winter, a retired Commission fisheries biologist who led the Aquatic Habitat Program through most of its life.

Older reservoirs had lost half of their volume decreasing their depths to the point where winter fish kills were common. Many were also dominated by undesirable fish species such as carp, which muddy the water by feeding in soft bottom sediments.  With decreased water clarity, desirable stands of aquatic vegetation that serve as a fish’s food chain, were eliminated. “You can’t grow quality largemouth bass and bluegill in a lake that doesn’t have a shred of aquatic vegetation and looks like chocolate milk,” said Winter.

Until reservoir construction slowed, the fact that these fisheries were declining wasn’t a concern to many. “Initially, it wasn’t a large impact to anybody because they just moved to the next brand new reservoir down the road that had great fishing in it,” Winter said. But fisheries biologists could plainly see the writing on the walls. “We had to take care of what we had or we weren’t going to have anything for the public to fish.”


The Plans

It’s often easier to come up with a solution than to implement one, but in the 1990s, the Commission and anglers were able to do both. Biologists began engaging anglers and interested citizens by taking their message on the road in 1994.  Public meetings, enclaves, workshops and listening sessions provided an opportunity for biologists to outline their plan to rehabilitate the states “aging waters”.  Engaged citizens then took the message to their local and state representatives.  Anglers heartily supported a fee increase for fishing license as long as the revenue was dedicated to rehabilitating popular recreational fisheries. 

Ben Nelson, then the state’s governor, signed a bill establishing the nation’s first Aquatic Habitat Stamp in 1996, stating that the public should decide which waters should receive work, and the plan was eventually approved by the Natural Resources and Appropriations committees.  This Commission then approved the 1st Aquatic Habitat Plan which provided funding for projects at selected locations across the state. This initial plan lists the locations and why they were selected, often describing the problems encountered and identifying potential solutions. 

Click on Images below to view a larger version of a map of project sites.

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This template of seeking public input and presenting a proposed plan for Commission approval was used when creating the 2nd Aquatic Habitat Plan in 2008.  This version of the document does an excellent job of explaining the details that went into the establishment of the program and the techniques being used to rehabilitate degraded aquatic habitats in Nebraska. It also lists an additional 78 locations that are now eligible for funding under this program.

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Completed Projects


Successful projects have been completed all across the state.  View reports and pictures detailing the challenges and techniques used at each location by clicking the button below:

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