In both body and spirit, water is the thing that sustains us all. It is through water all living things connect to the earth. The ocean, lakes, rivers, and strams, we are drawn to water in all its forms. I am drawn, most especially, to rivers. Rivers are on the move. Rivers speak of distant origons, distant destinations, and the endless cycle of life. Rivers carve the landscape leaving behind a window into the Earths history.
The river that calls me back, again and again, rises on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming. The Niobrara river takes its name from the county of its origin. The name is of Omaha and Ponca Indian origin and means running (or spreading) water. The Niobrara has a more uniform flow than do most plains streams, owing to steady contributions from groundwater and tributaries in the Nebraska Sand Hills. As it nears the Missouri, in its lower course, the river becomes wide and shallow. Over the ages, the Niobrara has carved out a geological and biological treasure. Draining small portions of both Wyoming and South Dakota, the Niobraras five hundred thirty-five miles primarily drain over twelve thousand square miles of the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the largest stabalized dune fields on earth. The Niobrara valley supports an exceptional biological diversity. At least six different ecosystems intermix in the river corridor including Rocky Mountain pine forest, northern (boreal) forest, eastern deciduous forest, tall grass prairie, mixed grass prairie, and Sand Hills prairie. The valleys fauna is equally diverse. Visitors to the Niobrara valley will find deer, bison, elk, beaver, mink, herons, eagles, vultures, and on rare occasion, mountain lions. The valley floor is also home to a number of threatened and endangered species, including the piping plover, least tern, and the occasional whooping crane.
Approximately one hundred sixty of the plant and animal species found in the Niobrara Valley are at the edge of their ranges. In addition to biologically significant vertebrate species unique to the valley, invertebrates also occupy a special niche. Some ninety-two species of butterflies have been recorded along the Niobrara, sixteen of which are at the edge of their range. Hybridization of three species, Red-spotted purple, Weidemeyeri’s admiral, and Eastern viceroy are noted as evolutionary and genetically significant. Often referred to as the “biological crossroads of the Great Plains,” the thirty-mile stretch of the Niobrara east of Valentine is of great biological importance. The ranges of closely related species of eastern and western woodland birds overlap. In the deciduous forests, an isolated subspecies of eastern wood rat is found four hundred miles from its nearest relatives in eastern Kansas.
Notable geographic fearures along the rivers course include the Pine Ridge and the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the northwest Nebraska panhandle and Smith Falls State Park below Valentine Nebraska. Thirteen miles southwest of Valentine, the Niobrara is joined by the Snake River. The Snake river is a treasure in itself. About six miles west of the village of Butte, the Keya Paha river enters the Niobrara having come down from south central South Dakota. The Niobrara cuts through several rock formations including the Ash Hollow, Valentine, Rosebud, and Pierre. These unique geological formations include fossils of many mammalian species including beaver, horse, rhinoceros, and mastodons; as well as fossils of fish, alligators, and turtles. Most of the Niobrara valley consists of pine covered canyons with many tall sandstone cliffs along the waters edge. The Niobrara National Scenic River protects seventy-six miles of waterway from Valentine east to the Fort Spencer Dam. It is an outstanding example of a prairie river left practically unchanged despite two hundred years of exploration and development.
In 1879, Fort Niobrara was constructed just east of Valentine. The posts mission was keeping the peace between white settlers and Sioux Indians living on the nearby Rosebud Reservation. Life at Fort Niobrara was peaceful and during the twenty-seven years it operated not a single military action was conducted. The fort was abandoned in 1906. Today, the only thing that remains is a single barn and some foundations. By 1912, the status of wildlife on the prairie had become grim. Wolves and grizzly bears were gone. The black footed ferret would disappear within three decades, and there were fewer than one thousand bison left in the wild. A concerned resident of Nebraska offered half a dozen bison, seventeen elk and a few deer to the federal government if land could be found for them. The lands that were once part of Fort Niobrara were pressed into service, and the wildlife refuge was born. Today the refuge exists primarily to protect bison, elk, prairie dogs, prairie chickens, white-tailed and mule deer, burrowing owls, grouse, quail, sand pipers, and the sandhill crane.
Today the Niobrara River is one of Nebraskas biggest tourist attractions. Sadly, the river is in danger of losing its lifeblood — water. A Wild and Scenic River that attracts tens of thousands of paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts, the Niobrara valley also supports irrigation of more than six hundred thousand acres of farmland. Additional irrigation applications flows that also support fish, wildlife, and recreation. currently pending with Nebraskas Department of Natural Resources could, if granted, seriously endanger the rivers future. In the first six months of 2007, five times more water was requested for additional irrigation purposes from the river than in all of the nineteen eighties The 2006 level of the river was the fifth lowest since 1946. In 2007, some irrigators had their pumping restricted because of low water. Kayakers and canoeists today notice more exposed sandbars and rock ledges that make it harder to float this naturally shallow river, which was named one of the best paddling rivers in America by Backpacker magazine.
The Niobrara River ecosystem is also being threatened by an influx of massive animal factories, called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Sierra Club activists have been successful in keeping some CAFOs out of the Niobrara watershed, especially where it is joined by Verdigre Creek, a tributary of the Niobrara and a part of the Wild and Scenic River. A partial solution to the problems facing the Niobrara lies with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. By summer or fall 2009, the agency is expected to submit its application for an instream flow water right that would include the seventy-six mile Wild and Scenic section of the river. If granted, this right would ensure an adequate flow of water remains in the river to support the many benefits and services a healthy Niobrara can provide.
On the legislative front, the Natural Resources Committee of the Nebraska Legislature held a public hearing in mid-August 2008 regarding the possibility of changing instream flow regulations. American Rivers and its partners called on the 2009 Legislature to simplify, not hinder or prevent, the instream flow application process. A healthy Niobrara River demands that Nebraskans continue to carefully balance the needs of communities, wildlife, recreation and agriculture, said Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers. The question for Nebraskans is really very simple: Do we want to take all the water out of the river, or do we want to leave enough water in the river to protect current irrigation, fish, wildlife, and recreation?