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Conestoga Aquatic Habitat Project

An aerial photograph shows the completed Conestoga State Recreation Area restoration project.

Why we did it

Conestoga State Recreation Area was the site of the largest Aquatic Habitat Program project in the program’s 25-year history. The goal was to improve the quality of the lake along with its fishing and angler access after years of sedimentation and shoreline erosion.

The fishery now offers largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, channel catfish and walleye as well as several new fishing piers and pads and ADA-accessible features to get anglers closer to deep water.

The main issue that needed to be addressed in this project was sediment. Since it was completed in 1963, sediment inflows from the watershed and shoreline erosion had caused Conestoga Lake to lose one-third of its original volume.

The sedimentation hindered the growth and development of the fishery and affected aquatic vegetation growth, leaving little habitat for fish. This made for declining water quality, a degraded population and an over-abundance of carp and gizzard.

The recreation area also needed improvements to meet current federal safety and access standards for fishing and camping.

South shoreline at Conestoga, looking west. Photo from The Flatwater Group drone footage.

How we did it

Work began in 2016 and included draining the reservoir and removing the existing fish population. We also had to remove roughly 600,000 cubic yards of sediment from the lakebed, which is enough to fill the bowl of Memorial Stadium three-fourths of the way to the top.

The next priority was keeping sediment out of the lake and protecting the shoreline. We added a third sediment trap in addition to the two existing traps at the upper end of the lake, creating a three-fingered system that filters water flowing in from Holmes Creek, as well as forming a shallow wetland area that filters sediment and provides habitat for migrating waterfowl. Smaller sediment traps were also build on smaller streams that flow from the north.

Aside from the work done to stop sediment inflow, the lake was also deepened in certain sections, and we build offshore breakwaters to protect the shoreline from wind. We added diverse habitat  to the lake floor in the form of a dozen underwater islands or raised shoals, as well as rock piles and cut trees removed from the shoreline while the sediment dikes were being built. These structures can support a thriving fishery that by attracting and congregating fish.

Another goal of the project was to make it easier for people to fish at Conestoga. There are now 15 new fishing spots, including decks, pads and points that get anglers close to deep water, including ADA-accessible fishing decks, a new two-lane boat ramp and a 12-boat mooring dock.

Watch the Conestoga renovation series

What benefits from these changes

The Conestoga project was completed in 2018. The result was improved water quality, with visibility up to three or four feet compared to near-zero, as well as a restocked and revitalized fishery that includes largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, channel catfish and walleye.

While improving the fishery and access were priorities of this job, the improvements benefit the overall environment. Commission staff cleared nearly 400 invasive eastern red cedar trees that had encroached on woodlands and grasslands near the lake, and the project’s role in wetland formation is vital for improving the area’s overall natural habitat and supporting migrating waterfowl. Visitors can take one of Conestoga’s access trails to enjoy some wildlife viewing.

Project partners

  • The Flatwater Group, renovation project partner
  • Nebraska Environmental Trust, funding partner
  • Nebraska Angler Access Program, funding partner
  • Sport Fish Restoration, funding partner
  • Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, funding partner

The Aquatic Habitat Program

The Aquatic Habitat Program was created in 1997 and was the first program of its kind in the nation. Since then 100s of waterbodies across the state — everything from lakes to streams to rivers to ponds — have been renovated, improving aquatic life and water quality for Nebraskans.

Learn about the program