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Salt Creek Watershed Project

Nebraska Salt Marshes; The Last of the Least

Excerpted from"Nebraska Salt Marshes" by John Farrar and Richard Gersib, NEBRASKAland Magazine 69:6 (July 1991).
Photos by Joh Farrar. Text by Jon Farrar and Richard Gersib. Reprinted with permission.


Moderately saline wetlands, such as those along Rock Creek, do not have complete communities of salt-tolerant plants. ©NEBRASKAland Magazine

Salt Marsh. The words are foreign to most Nebraskans, and if they bring to mind any image at all, it is probably an image of the coastline of Virginia or the Carolinas; of blue and fiddler crabs, oysters and screaming mobs of gulls and terns; perhaps it is an image of seemingly barren, land-locked waters: the Great Salt lake in Utah or the Salton Sea in California. The mention of Nebraska salt marches brings only looks of puzzlement, but Nebraska has salt marches, and, although small by comparison, they have much in common with those elsewhere on the continent.

All are born of saltwater and sustained by it. We recognize a kinship through the plant names they share: cordgrass, alkali bulrush, saltwort, sea blite and widgeon grass. Nebraska's salt marshes are smaller than the coastal salt marshes, and receive no twice-daily wash of ocean tides, but in a manner of speaking, their saline waters are the flow of an ancient inland sea.

If salt marshes in Nebraska seem unlikely, it is with good reason. Even before settlers laid claim to what would one day be Nebraska, salt marshes were few in number and small in extent, essentially limited to the floodplains of Salt Creek and its tributaries in Lancaster and Saunders counties. Today, these unique saline wetlands, with their communities of salt-loving plants, are even fewer in number. Those which remain are smaller and have suffered much at the hand of man. They are Nebraska's most rare and most threatened natural community, truly the last of the least.

A History Entwined

The story of eastern Nebraska's salt marshes is also the history of Salt Creek and the city of Lincoln. Through geologic and human history, their courses have been inextricably entwined. Salt Creek and its tributaries shaped the landscape and supplied the water, both saline and fresh, which created these unique wetlands in eastern Nebraska. At least in part, it was because of the saltwater basins that Lincoln was founded and became the state's capital.

Salt Creek traces the western and northern edges of Nebraska's capital city. Near Lincoln, Salt Creek today is a deep canal contained by levees. Its floodwaters no longer threaten the city, and it efficiently performs the uncomely task of carrying away the discharge of Lincoln's gutters and processed sewage. It bears only scant resemblance to a natural stream. It was not always so:

As we viewed the land upon which now stands this great busy city, we had the exciting pleasure of seeing for the first time a large drove of beautiful antelope, cantering across the prairie about where the government square is (9th and O streets). We forded Salt Creek, just by the junction of Oak Creek, and what a struggle we had in making our way through the tall sunflowers between the ford and the basin. There was something enchanting about the scene that met our eyes. The fresh breeze sweeping over the salt basins reminded us of the morning breezes at the ocean beach.

W.W. Cox, 1888. Describing the Lincoln landscape of July 1861

Cox noted that "elk and antelope were plentiful," that Salt Creek and Oak Creek were "wonderfully supplied with fish," and said, "the basin was a great place for wild water fowls to congregate. Geese, brant, swan, ducks and pelicans were there by the thousands, and it was the hunter's paradise."

An 1888 Lincoln map shows original stream courses (black) and channelized stream courses (blue). ©Nebraska State Historical Society

The basin Cox referred to was Salt Lake, west of Salt Creek about two miles west of Lincoln, variously known over the years as Chester Basin, The Great Basin, Gregory Basin, Burlington Beach and, most recently, as Capitol Beach. Near this basin, numerous small tributaries joined Salt Creek, and game trails radiated out from it like spokes from a hub. While Salt Lake was the largest of the salt basins it was only one of many:

The Great Basin covers an area of about 400 acres. The brine issues from a large number of places all over the surface, but in small quantities. All the salt water that comes to the surface from this basin unites in one stream, and we estimate the entire amount of water that flowed from this basin at from six to eight gallons per minute. The second salt basin lies between Oak and Salt creeks and covers an area of two hundred acres. The third basin is on Little Salt Creek, called Kenosha Basin, and covers two hundred acres. Numerous small basins occur on Middle Creek, which occupy in all about six hundred acres. Between Middle and Salt creeks are several small basins, covering 40 or 50 acres. From the surface of all these basins more or less springs ooze out.

Besides the numerous basins mentioned above, Salt Creek, Hayes's Branch, Middle Creek, Oak and Little Salt creeks have each a dozen springs coming out near the water's edge. One spring on Salt Creek issues from a sand-rock (Dakota sandstone), and gushes forth with a stream as large as a man's arm, at the rate of four gallons a minute.

F.V. Hayden, U.S. Geologist. First Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, Embracing Nebraska, 1867.

Salt of the Earth

The explanation of the origin of these salt marshes lies under the region's mantle of fine loess soil and along the network of streams which have carved through it. Salt Creek has its source in the Southwest corner of Lancaster County, 20 miles southwest of Lincoln. Salt Creek'' two uppermost branches, Olive Branch and Hickman Branch, join near Roca to form the main stream, South of Lincoln, Salt Creek is fed by several freshwater streams, but tributaries from the west and north carry saline waters. About 13 miles northeast of Lincoln, below the mouth of Rock Creek (a mildly saline tributary), more freshwater streams flow into Salt Creek before it releases its burden of water to the Platte River east of Ashland. Salt Creek is an anomaly among Nebraska streams in that it flows principally to the northeast. About 52 miles long from headwater to mouth, Salt Creek drains an area of about 1,627 square miles.

The saline tributaries which gave Salt Creek its name share a common characteristic: their waters originate from, or flow through, Dakota sandstone, the only underlying rock formation naturally exposed in the region. For the most part, this porous, rust-colored, ferruginous sandstone is soft, crumbles under little pressure, and weathers quickly. The ultimate source of the saline waters, though, lies deeper, in ancient shales laid down in Cretaceous times, the Age of Reptiles, some 70 to 160 million years ago, when much of central North America was covered by a vast inland sea.

The first government survey of the region, in 1857, noted the potential wealth to be harvested from eastern Nebraska's salt basins. Settlers, and Indians long before them, had gathered the salt from natural deposits for their own use or for barter. Commercial exploitation began in earnest in the late 1850's, and the "salt boom" continued well into the 1880's. During the early years, salt was simply scraped from the surface, but soon commercial production by a variety of techniques began. Brine was pumped with windmills, concentrated in evaporation vats, and boiled in large kettles. By the early 1860's, several commercial ventures were extracting the basins' wealth of salt.

So promising was the salt industry, at least to some individuals of considerable influence, that it was a significant factor in the selection of the city of Lancaster as the site of the new territorial capital when it was moved from Omaha. At the time, Lancaster, soon to be renamed Lincoln, claimed no more than 30 residents, most engaged in gathering salt. Designated the state's capital in 1867, optimism for the future of Lincoln soared. The Nebraska Commonwealth, a Lincoln newspaper and strong supporter of the salt basin site, noted in September of 1867 that "the development of the saline resources of the Basin would of itself, were there no other inducements, inevitably attract the iron arms of commerce to Lancaster County, and with no other aid, a town of great commercial importance is bound to be located on Salt Creek." For a time, there was noteworthy commercial production; in 1866, one company alone produced 125,000 pounds of salt for sale.

©NEBRASKAland Magazine

Much of the hope for the development of a salt processing industry hinged on tapping a supposed buried "mother lode" from which the salty brine rose to the surface as seeps and springs. In October of 1869, a well was sunk for that purpose on the east bank of Oak Creek, about a mile above its confluence with Salt Creek. At 600 feet, drillers "struck a strong artesian flow," but neither aquifers of concentrated brine nor rock salt deposits were encountered. Subsequent wells were equally disappointing. In 1887, in an attempt to determine the validity of the purported commercial-value salt deposit, the state of Nebraska contracted for a deeper well, this one about two miles west of Lincoln on the south shore of Salt Lake. Drillers encountered salt water at about 200 feet and flowing water at about 600 feet. When the work stopped at 2,463 feet, there was no indication of a salt deposit, and the strongest brine came from a band of sand and gravel at about 200 feet. This revelation, coupled with the development of easily mined salt deposits in Kansas, and the arrival of railroads bringing an unlimited supply of cheap salt, dashed all further hopes of a salt industry in Lincoln's salt basin. Lincoln's saline waters were not totally without commercial value during the city's early years, however. Popular in the late 1880s and early 1890s, were several Lincoln bathhouses and sanitariums featuring sulpho-saline waters purported to possess all varieties of curative powers.

Lincoln would never be the region's salt production center, but it was entrenched as the state's capital, and, in the eyes of many, it was situated in a most undesirable location:

While this one-time famous salt basin yielded no important benefits to mankind, it unfortunately influenced the commissioners to unwisely plant the capital city in a semi-basin in its uncomely and otherwise injurious contiguity, from which, year by year, it instinctively shrinks toward the sightliness, salubrity, and unsalted water supply of the adjacent but originally slighted slopes.

Illustrated History of Nebraska, 1906

The city of Lincoln lies in a roughly elliptical dish about 12 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west, a dish carved from the once rolling landscape by Salt Creek and its smaller tributaries which merge there. A nearly level terrace, one to three-quarters of a mile wide, and 15 to 20 feet higher in elevation, bounds Salt Creek's floodplain. On this terrace, Lincoln's first buildings would rise, and the central business district would reside. From that terrace, the land gradually rose to become rolling grassland. He selection of this site as the state capital would ultimately sound the death knell for most of the salt marshes over which Lincoln would one-day sprawl.

Reshaping the Landscape

Nebraska's Salt Lake did not sit idle after it was abandoned by the short-lived salt industry. The test well dug by the state on the south shore of Salt Lake in 1887 continued to discharge its briny waters into the basin, and in 1895, a pair of entrepreneurs envisioned yet another path to riches by way of the salt basin. By diking the east end of the basin and diverting Oak Creek into it, permanent lake about a mile long and half as wide was created. Soon the water was plied by an excursion steamboat, and was lined with groves of trees, pavilions, bathhouses and restaurants. A Burlington Railroad spur carried visitors from Lincoln and the surrounding area to Nebraska's inland beach, and so it was named Burlington Beach.

Burlington Beach's crowds and the lake itself shriveled when the dike began to leak. In 1906, the development was revived under new ownership and a new name, Capital Beach revived under new ownership and a new name, Capital Beach (more commonly spelled Capitol Beach today). Less than a decade later, the "Coney Island of the West" was again on the decline and, against the advice of the Lincoln State Journal, the city of Lincoln decided against a proposal to purchase-for $100,000-875 acres encompassing Salt Lake as a city park:

Anyone with a spark of imagination cannot help viewing with enthusiasm the prospect of Capital Beach as a part of the city's park system. Here is Lincoln in the midst of a level plain, without rugged scenery and without a river. It seems like a special providence that at its very gates there should be a lake a mile long and a mile wide which could be made into a free vacation resort for the entire city. This lake, surrounded by trees and walks and drives, as it would be, and with ample park space on all sides is undoubtedly the city's greatest potential natural asset.

Lincoln State Journal, August 2, 1915.

In the 1920s, Capitol Beach was once again revived as a privately owned amusement park and saltwater resort. Until the early 1960s, the area flourished, featuring a saltwater swimming pool, dance hall and amusement park.

©NEBRASKAland Magazine

From the beginning, Salt Lake, for one reason or another, was seen to have some value. Smaller wetlands near Lincoln were not viewed so kindly. Salt marshes and streams merging in the basin over which Lincoln was expanding were considered impediments to progress. In the first half of the 20th century, most of Lincoln's growth had been to the east and south, the city instinctively cringing from the low-lying and frequently flooded marsh ground to the west and north. Although not by grand design, a pattern emerged which would subdue Salt Creek and fill the wetlands associated with it. The destruction of Salt Creek's saline wetlands was accomplished directly by draining and filling low-lying areas, and indirectly by straightening and deepening Salt Creek'' channel and the lower reaches of several of its tributaries.

The early history of wetland destruction in the Lincoln area is not well documented, but apparently lowlands between downtown Lincoln and Salt Lake were targeted for filling early in the century. From the 1930s until the mid-1950s, low ground and wetlands near Oak Lake, just to the east of Salt Lake, were used as the city dump. Today, grass grows over former wetlands filled with two decades or more of Lincoln's garbage, and I-180 severs Oak Lake.

As recently as the 1980's, wetlands west of downtown Lincoln were still being filled with rubble-spoil from construction sites, demolished buildings, trees, bricks, anything that could be hauled, that had to be disposed of and would raise the level of the land. Most of the wetlands east and south of Salt Lake, on both sides of West O Street and south to the Burlington Railroad Yards, were filled and prepared for industrial, commercial and housing developments. Additional impetus for draining and filling these wetlands was provided by America's mosquito phobia of the 1950s.

Saline wetlands on Lincoln's northern edge survived a bit longer. Many were still attractive to waterbirds and waterfowl hunters in the 1950s, some into the 1960s. A handful of these wetlands, particularly those on lower Little Salt Creek, are still hunted today. But, just as a city dump had filled the wetlands surrounding Oak Lake, the new landfill on North 48th Street north of Superior Street claimed several of the best saline wetlands on Lincoln's northern edge from the mid-1950's until it was closed in 1988.

Perhaps the best known of these wetlands was Roper's Pond, located west of the landfill and bounded on the north and west by a bend of Salt Creek. During the 1940s and 1950s, hunting blinds on Roper's Pond were frequented by many of Lincoln's prominent citizens, as ere other wetlands along Little Salt Creek just to the north. Retrieving dog field trials were regularly held on Roper's Pond. East of Roper's Pond, south of Salt Creek and just west of Highway 77, was a series of narrow wetlands, probably oxbows left behind when Salt Creek changed its course. At least one of these lakes, Reller's Pond, was deep enough to be used as a pay-to-fish area. Although altered by land changes near it, Roper's Pond has survived, but today, Reller's Pond and other wetlands to the east of Roper's Pond are covered by the former Lincoln landfill.

Prior to the 1960s, many other wetlands and oxbow ponds along Salt Creek northeast of Lincoln were frequented by both waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. All these wetlands on Lincoln's northern edge were known by name to local hunters and to young boys who regularly sneaked onto them for a chance shot at a duck.

Salt Lake, west of town, was also a popular waterfowl hunting spot. Even in the early 1950s, right up to the time Salt Lake was drained in 1958 so construction of I-80 could begin, there were eight to 10 blinds on the lake. The lake was still surrounded by pasture and haystacks, and shooting was said to be reliably good for early-migrating ducks and occasional geese, particularly snow geese.

In the summer of 1958, two ditches drained Salt Lake into Oak Creek in preparation for the construction of Interstate 80. Today, twin bands of concrete pass over the old lakebed, and the west quarter of the lake is isolated. Water from its saline seeps is now carried away by ditches. When Salt Lake was drained in 1958, a Lincoln newspaper noted the remains of a hunter's straw blind on the lakebed and that "an eyeless wooden duck mocks the waterless lake."

Beginning in the 1960s, the land around Salt Lake east of I-80 was developed as a residential area. Today, the lake is lined with houses except on the east and northeast sides, and is supplemented with water pumped from Oak Creek. Most of the small wetlands once found on the east end of the lake have been filled with construction spoil. Only degraded remnants remain, and yet, each spring, a few waterbirds return to them.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most of the remaining small wetlands along Superior Street between 27th and 56th streets in north Lincoln were filled to accommodate a growing industrial park. To the north and west, Lincoln had finally broken through the flood-prone, lowland barrier which had retarded the city's growth in those directions.

Straightening Salt Creek

Even before the turn of the century, Salt Creek and its tributaries had been modified to make them more compatible with human interests. Sanitary District No. 1 of Lancaster County was organized in 1891 and soon initiated "stream improvement" work such as channelization and bank stabilization, a mission the District pursued until the early 1960s when it ceased to exist, leaving little of Salt Creek and the lower portions of several of its tributaries untouched.

©NEBRASKAland Magazine

Although flood control was certainly a benefit of channel improvement, the principal mission of the Sanitary District, at least initially, was to ensure that Lincoln's sewage was carried away as quickly and directly as possible. The District's early work straightened and widened Salt Creek through Lincoln to accommodate larger peak flows. Levees, constructed principally with spoil excavated from the streambed and banks, further confined the creek to a straight, narrow channel.

Channelization of Salt Creek from Lincoln to Ashland was done piecemeal, a section at a time, from 1917 to 1942, much of it during the 1930s. Salt Creek was straightened by cutting off meandering loops of the original channel, and thereafter, its velocity increased, widening and deepening the channel.

Channel modifications on Salt Creek and its tributaries above Lincoln were limited to relatively minor channel-straightening projects undertaken by individuals. In the 1950s, Salt Creek south of Lincoln was described as "small and tortuous, its banks overgrown with trees and brush, with high banks forming natural levees." This condition, described in rather undesirable terms in a 1957 U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's report, is today protected, in part for those same natural features, as part of Lincoln's Wilderness Park.

In addition to modifying Salt Creek itself, the Sanitary District altered the channels of several Salt Creek tributaries in the Lincoln area. The lower half-mile of Haines Creek was straightened and its banks stabilized, as were two miles of Middle Creek above its mouth. Antelope Creek and Deadmans Run, both passing directly through Lincoln, were straightened over the years, mostly during the 1930s. Between N and Vine streets at the eastern edge of the downtown district, Antelope Creek was confined to an underground tunnel.

The greatest modifications occurred on the lower portion of Oak Creek. Originally, Oak Creek meandered along the north and east sides of Salt Lake before entering Salt Creek west of the University of Nebraska City Campus. Because it frequently flooded residential, railroad and industrial areas, between 1909 and 1913, a new channel approximately four miles long was cut from the north side of Salt Lake east to join Salt Creek north of the State Fairgrounds. Later, during construction of the Lincoln Air Base in the mid-1940s, and to protect the Lincoln airport from flooding, the Oak Creek channel in that area was straightened. Today, Oak Creek from Highway 34 northwest of Lincoln to its mouth is essentially manmade.

In spite of the best efforts of the Sanitary District, Salt Creek and its tributaries regularly continued to spill over their banks. The May 1950 flood was among the most destructive, inundating nearly 20,00 acres of land, claiming 9 lives, and causing damage estimated at nearly $3 million, more than half in the Lincoln area. Because of Lincoln's location in the basin, the western and northern portions of the city were frequently awash in floodwaters. After the 1950 flood, the Salt-Wahoo Watershed Association began pushing for more extensive and effective flood control.

In the 1950s, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed flood control plans for the Salt Creek drainage. The Corps plan centered on the construction of large reservoirs and channel improvement along principle streams. The Department of Agriculture proposed improved conservation practices on farmland in the watershed to control runoff, and the construction of many smaller reservoirs. In 1954, with the involvement of many local interests and watershed organizations, a comprehensive plan was adopted. The most conspicuous product of the projects was the construction of levees along Salt Creek through Lincoln, from Calvert Street on the south to Superior Street on the north, and the construction of 10 Salt Valley reservoirs during the 1960s. From the mid-1950s to 980, a host of smaller impoundments were built on smaller tributaries and upstream from the Corps of Engineers dams.

Since construction of levees through Lincoln in the 1960s, modifications to Salt Creek and its tributaries have been comparatively minor, principally maintenance and bank stabilization. Salt Creek has not flooded in the Lincoln area since 1963. Salt Creek and its tributaries finally seem under control, but at the expense of the region's formerly abundant wetlands.

Head-Cutting Tributaries

Compared to Salt Creek and the lower reaches of its tributaries in the Lincoln area, Little Salt Creek and Rock Creek to the north were treated with gloved hands. Settlement of their watersheds was much like that of most of rural eastern Nebraska. Small towns sprang up here and there, county roads criss-crossed on the mile lines, and farmers plowed what land could be farmed. What could not be plowed was used for pasture. Because much of the bottomland was too wet to farm and periodically flooded, it remained untilled and in native grass. Many wetlands escaped destruction because they attracted waterfowl. Some were purchased outright by waterfowl hunters, others were leased from farmers by hunters. Although saline wetlands along Little Salt Creek and Rock Creek escaped destruction from urban sprawl, substantial losses and degradation occurred as side effects of agriculture.

©NEBRASKAland Magazine

A few wetland sites were tiled and drained. More often, native vegetation declined in abundance or disappeared and was invaded by less desirable species because of chronically poor pasture management. Probably the greatest alteration of saline wetlands in the Little Salt Creek and Rock Creek drainages resulted from the channelization of Salt Creek. With its course straightened and confined, the water velocity of salt Creek increased and its channel cut deeper. In turn, Salt Creek's tributaries began head-cutting, carving deeper into their beds to adjust their gradients, leaving eroded, unstabilized banks. Lowered streambeds had an indirect, but profound, effect on wetlands associated with Salt Creek tributaries.

Historically, saline wetlands in northern Lancaster and southern Saunders counties were filled principally by runoff from surrounding uplands, and by the high-water flows of streams which periodically spilled into the floodplain's basins and depressions. Springs and seeps contributed water to some wetlands on a more regular but limited basis.

As channels cut deeper, they could accommodate higher flows, and adjacent wetlands were less frequently replenished. Although the hydrologic relationship between Salt Creek tributaries and their stream-side wetlands is not completely understood, it is suspected that a deeply entrenched creek functions much like a drainage ditch, lowering the water table, at least immediately adjacent to the creek where most wetlands are located. As a consequence, groundwater seeps away from wetlands more rapidly than it once did.

The conversion of uplands in the Salt Creek watershed from grassland to cropland has also affected saline wetlands. Years of runoff from surrounding uplands deposited silt in many depressions where wetlands existed. Today, most surviving wetlands in the Salt Creek drainage are shallower than they once were, and have a diminished water-holding capacity.

©NEBRASKAland Magazine

Unlike Salt Creek, Little Salt Creek and Rock Creek escaped channelization. From the air, oxbows are still evident, and some are filled with water. Most wetlands associated with Little Salt Creek are along its lower reach. The most extensive complex of saline wetlands along Rock Creek is in a basin four miles southeast of Ceresco where the North Fork merges with Rock Creek. Saltworts and inland saltgrasses (left photo) are characteristic salt-tolerant plants found on the saline wetlands. Below the mouth of the North Fork there are fewer wetlands, and cropland edges up to the banks of Rock Creek.