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Many endangered or threatened ecosystems depend on ground water for their survival. Nebraska’s saline wetlands, home to a number of endangered species, are ecosystems whose development, sustenance, and survival depend on saline ground water discharge at the surface. This study demonstrates that the saline conditions present within the eastern Nebraska saline wetlands result from the upwelling of saline ground water from within the underlying Dakota Aquifer and deeper underlying formations of Pennsylvanian age. Over thousands to tens of thousands of years, saline ground water has migrated over regional scale flowpaths from recharge zones in the west to the present-day discharge zones along the saline streams of Rock, Little Salt, and Salt creeks in Lancaster and Saunders counties. An endangered endemic species of tiger beetle living within the wetlands has evolved under a unique set of hydrologic conditions, is intolerant to recent anthropogenic changes in hydrology and salinity, and is therefore on the brink of extinction. As a result, the fragility of such systems demands an even greater understanding of the interrelationships among geology, hydrology, water chemistry, and biology than in less imperiled systems where adaptation is more likely.
Results further indicate that when dealing with ground water discharge–dependent ecosystems, and particularly those dependent on dissolved constituents as well as the water, wetland management must be expanded outside of the immediate surface location of the visible ecosystem to include areas where recharge and lateral water movement might play a vital role in wetland hydrologic and chemical mixing dynamics.