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EPA orders cleanup of Nebraska river deluged with sand

June 24, 2021 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Federal regulators have ordered a Nebraska rancher and county officials to clean up a remote stream after it was deluged with enough sand and sediment to change the shape of the waterway.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the Snake River had been a deep and narrow creek until an estimated 1.6 million tons of sand washed into it, turning a 3-mile stretch into a wide, shallow and sandy waterway, according to the Omaha World-Herald. That’s enough sand to fill an area the size of a football field about 540 feet deep.

The stream is a popular fishing and canoeing spot in the Sandhills, a desolate region of grass-covered sand dunes in north-central Nebraska. The sand and sediment flowed into the Snake River after a 2.5-mile ditch was excavated to the river to drain water from a flooded pasture and road.

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Federal officials said the sand was deposited into the stream without proper permits. Under the federal Clean Water Act, the sand and sediment are considered pollutants.

On June 14, the EPA ordered rancher Dick Minor of Gordon, Nebraska, and Cherry County officials to stop the erosion and create a plan within 60 days to permanently stop the flow of sediment into the stream. Minor and the county were also ordered to restore the stream’s deep channel “to the extent technically feasible.”

David Cozad, a compliance director with EPA Region 7, said he was encouraged that Minor and the county signed an agreement that would “protect this important aquatic resource, as well as prevent further impacts to downstream property owners.”

The waterway was damaged in April 2020 when Cherry County crews assisted Minor in trenching out a roadside ditch on Minor’s property to drain floodwaters off a county road and an adjacent meadow. Heavy rains had raised groundwater levels, flooding several roads and fields used for cattle grazing.

The EPA said Minor extended the ditch so it drained into the Snake River, and additional rainfall pushed massive amounts of sand into the stream.

The damage occurred west of Nebraska Highway 61, which is about 30 miles west of Merritt Reservoir, a popular recreation and fishing spot.

Minor said there was no other place for the water to drain off his meadow and the county road.

“I can’t see that it hurt nothing,” he said. “No one will even see the stuff (sand) in five years.”

The rancher and county will share the cost of the mitigation and restoration work, which is subject to EPA approval. Failure to do the work could result in fines, EPA officials said.