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Nebraska’s Shell Creek Watershed Makes History for Successful Water Clean-Up Efforts

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By Erika Hill, public relations director, Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts and Desirae TePoel, information and education specialist, Lower Platte North Natural Resources District

Shell Creek in Nebraska covers almost 110 miles, running through five different counties, and drains approximately 304,873 acres of surrounding farmland.

Over the years, Atrazine, a common carcinogenic herbicide used to kill weeds, polluted the stream, impairing the aquatic life and overall health of the watershed. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the waters as impaired due to its high concentration. Thanks to a comprehensive watershed management plan, Shell Creek’s water, fish, frogs and other aquatic life are now the healthiest they’ve been in decades. In June of 2018, the watershed made history as the first stream to be delisted from the EPA’s ‘Impaired Waters’ list.

This accomplishment took more than 12 years to complete. The Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group (SCWIG), founded in 1999, is a group of landowners and farmers who led the grassroots efforts in conservation. They worked collaboratively with a variety of partners on the local, state and federal level including the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District (LPNNRD), the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), EPA and other project partners. More than 240 landowners have participated in the program so far, putting more than 340 conservation practices on the land, including no-till farming, filter and buffer strips and cover crops. As a result of these practices, the Atrazine level has significantly declined and is now supporting aquatic life in the creek.

“I grew up a quarter mile away from Shell Creek and my siblings and I spent a lot of time there,” said SCWIG co-chairman Matt Bailey. “It’s a great feeling to think that my kids will be able to see the shells I didn’t see in the creek. The stewardship of this water is the responsibility of all of us as producers and landowners. Getting it delisted is a testimony to all our efforts within SCWIG and especially those who put management practices on their own farms. They’re the reason this is becoming a reality.”

“This is the perfect example of how Nebraskans pull together to solve our common challenges,” said Governor Pete Ricketts. “Working together, local community leaders collaborated with state and federal agencies, and together they are accomplishing their goals of cleaning up the watershed and being good stewards of our natural resources.”

“It was the grassroots initiative of the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group to promote and grow interest in the restoration plan and the producers who stepped up to adopt conservation practices that led to this achievement,” said Jim Macy, NDEQ Director. “NDEQ helped develop the restoration plan for Shell Creek and helped secure funding for its implementation. This was great teamwork by all people and partners involved.”

Educating Nebraska’s youth about the importance of water quality has also been a large component of this project. Newman Grove High School and Schuyler Central High School have developed summer volunteer programs to take samples of Shell Creek’s water, sediment and bugs to help monitor the creek’s water quality throughout the years. These samples provide valuable information on the creek’s health, and the students get a rare hands-on opportunity to learn more about Nebraska’s natural resources.

“This is a major milestone,” said Eric Gottschalk, Lower Platte North Natural Resources District’s general manager. “We know SCWIG will continue to work hard in keeping Shell Creek healthy. We also know there are other creeks and rivers that could benefit from developing groups like SCWIG. We believe we have a program model that works well in Nebraska and we’re ready to share it with anyone interested.”

To learn more about the watershed plan and Shell Creek, please contact Melissa Foreman, NRCS Program Assistant, at Melissa.Foreman@ne.usda.gov or the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District.

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