Pumping the Wetlands

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There are many determining factors as to which WPAs we pump for fall, including the recent rains. At this time we do not have a list as to which WPAs will be supplemented with water this fall. The Nebraska Game and Parks has set the Wetland Conditions and Pumping Plan meeting for August 31st. We will have a better idea of the habitat conditions and the ability to make management decisions and recommendations for all counties at that time.  For Wetland Conditions for both the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District and the state of Nebraska, visit the Nebraska Game and Parks website. (Make sure to click on the "Wetland Conditions" section of the page for details.)

In the Rainwater Basin, nearly all wetlands have been altered from their historical condition.  Surrounding upland has been leveled, wetlands have been filled (with soil) and drained, roads have been built, and pits have been dug.  Each practice drained, diverted, or concentrated runoff water that once spread out over the shallow wetlands. The loss of surface water in wetlands forces millions of birds to concentrate on smaller and fewer areas.  High bird concentrations stress the birds and increase the risk of disease outbreaks.  Avian cholera occurs annually in Rainwater Basin, the record high was as many as 100,000 birds during spring migration.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pumps water to numerous wetlands to ensure habitat is available and to reduce the outbreak of disease.

Drought and Pumping

The recent years of drought have had a significant impact on wetlands. Irrigators and users of groundwater are being asked to be more efficient with their use. 

The two goals we strive for with fall pumping is: 

  1. To make the limited amount of funding we have available go further, and 
  2. To try to have at least a small portion of the water pumped in the fall available for the next spring migration.  Warm days and nights allow for quick evaporation of any water pumped.  Actively growing aquatic plants consume additional water as well.  Usually by mid-September, light frosts have greatly reduced plant growth and evaporation.  Our pumping normally begins in mid to late October.  This does not help provide water for early migrants, like teal, but with limited funding later pumping is the best use of our dollars.

In general, fall pumping does improve soil saturation conditions and therefore would facilitate ponding the following spring and not require a significant amount of runoff to show ponding. The misnomer is that fall pumping will sustain water into the following spring. This is rarely the case. Sublimation and general evaporation rates are still high over the winter causing our wetlands to go dry if we are snow free or if temperatures fluctuate above freezing over a 2-4 day period.

The other thing biologists are concerned with is fall pumped wetlands facilitate seed depletion from feeding waterfowl and deterioration. Those areas providing the most seeds (energy) are typically not pumped in the fall so seeds are available to maximize energy contributions that support spring migrants body condition. From an energetic perspective, fall pumping directly reduces available energy for spring migrating ducks. 

Spring pumping is delayed until early February.  Heavy snows or spring rains can quickly fill the shallow wetlands: saving pumping costs. Because plant water consumption and quick evaporation is not a problem, as with fall pumping, wetlands can be filled quickly. Pumping in early February provides habitat by the time large numbers of birds begin to arrive.

Wetland vegetation management, using livestock grazing, prescribed burning, and disking, is allowing more waterfowl habitat using less pumping.  The result is the ability to pump more areas with the same amount of dollars.  

Submersible Pumps

We are slowly increasing the number of submersible pumps we have throughout the District.  Submersible pumps are located deep in the well and require no daily inspection or maintenance.  This allows us to turn on one or two wells without having to commit a staff person to monitor the pump.  It also allows us to turn some wells on earlier or later than the others so we can be better prepared for unusually early spring migrations and to provide more shorebird habitat in the late spring.  The submersible pumps are electrical--operating at lower costs.  We currently have nine submersible pumps.  They are located at Harvard, Johnson, Clark, Funk, Mallard Haven, Eckhardt, Massie, Smith and Cottonwood WPAs.

Installing pipeline

In cooperation with Ducks Unlimited, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, a large contract was awarded to bury PVC pipe on numerous WPAs and WMAs.  This project was completed in December of 2003.   A total of 14,325 feet or nearly 3 miles of buried PVC was installed on 12 sites.  Ducks Unlimited, Inc. handled all phases of the project including design, contracting, and on- site inspection.  Prior to this project, water was delivered from the well to the wetland via open ditches--causing much of the water to soak away before reaching the wetland. 

Deciding Where to Pump:


When pumping is done, which areas to pump are determined by a number of factors.

  • Wetlands that have some soil moisture in the wetland basin are given higher consideration.  Wetlands that have been dry for long periods of time and have large cracks in the soil cause a large amount of the water pumped to go into the ground and does not benefit waterfowl.
  • Wetlands that have historically high use by waterfowl and recreationists are given more consideration.  These types of wetlands give the most benefit.
  • Good water distribution across the Rainwater Basin is important.  We try to have water in wetlands scattered throughout the Rainwater Basin to ensure that water is available for migratory birds and recreationists.
  • Wetlands that have had recent management are more suitable for pumping.  Grazed wetlands have more open area for waterfowl to use.  The hoof action also compacts the soil allowing less water loss through percolation.
  • The size of the wetland helps to determine if a wetland is pumped.  Large wetlands with no water are difficult to add significant water if the capacity of the well(s) do not match the size of the wetland.  Pumping works the best on those wetlands when there is existing water which needs to be supplemented.
  • The cost per acre-foot of water delivered is also included in our decision.  Some wells, because of the depth to water, the type of substrate, or the performance of the engine are more costly to operate.