Natural Resources, School of


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Environmental and Engineering Geoscience (February 2004) X(1): pp. 69-90


Lake C. W. McConaughy, a 63-year-old manmade reservoir in the North Platte Valley of western Nebraska, is the largest standing body of water in the state. From the time that Kingsley Dam was completed in 1941 until the present day (2004), many geomorphic and environmental changes have occurred along the shores and within the North Platte Valley. Erosion on the southeastern shoreline of the lake had been perceived as a problem for landowners and managers for at least three decades, but the full scale of erosion was revealed only after a cumulative 18-m drawdown in lake level: bedrock platforms, extending from cliffs on headlands, as well as minor caves, alcoves, potholes, and beach erosion scarps were revealed. Actual headland retreat since 1941 has probably been on a scale of magnitude of tens of meters. Erosional platforms, however, are as much as 266 m in length, indicating that they are, collectively, the results of a combination of pre-reservoir geomorphic conditions, erosion during reservoir filling, and wave erosion after filling. Serial observations of the shoreline made in the period 1999-2002 demonstrated that shoreline erosion continues. Depositional features such as pocket beaches and beach ridges have formed de novo in bays between headlands. Also, a delta that prograded at least 4 km from the North Platte River into the lake between 1952 and 1993 continues to grow, and major morphometric changes have occurred on the North Platte River immediately upstream since 1941 in response to the elevation of the local base level by the lake; most of the change in channel patterns in the river upstream from the delta took place in a mere 8 years from 1952 to 1960. Since 1999, some emergent beaches and areas of exposed lake floor have developed sand dunes; eolian erosion and re-deposition is widespread elsewhere in these areas during periods of high winds, which are frequent in western Nebraska. The water table beneath lands adjacent to the reservoir generally rose until 1953 as the lake was filling. The far-flung irrigation system of which Lake McConaughy is the key element has elevated water tables as far as 250 km from the lake. Since at least 2000, soil salinization (episodic thenardite accumulation) has developed in exposed lake sediments at the western end of the lake. On a smaller scale, groundwater has been discharging lakeward along shoreline beach scarps through springs and seeps while lake levels have been low. Slightly lowering the operating level of Lake McConaughy could slow some of the more dramatic effects of shoreline erosion when the lake returns to its predrought volume, but erosion will continue, particularly at the ends of headlands on the southeastern shore, which are exposed to strong waves driven by northerly to northwesterly winds. Eolian erosion and re-deposition will, on the other hand, continue as long as lake level remains particularly low as a result of drought and the removal of irrigation waters. Salinization can be considered an ephemeral phenomenon, dependent on future management of the lake, but it indirectly represents the potential for larger-scale changes in hydrogeologic systems. The longer-term effects of lake-related water-table changes, both near the lake and downstream in irrigated lands, as well as the ability of the lake to supply irrigation water if drought conditions continue, remain to be seen.