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Project Update – Atlanta Waterfowl Production Area

(Posted 9/17) The Atlanta Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and is located one mile northwest from the town of Atlanta in Phelps County, Nebraska. This WPA was purchased in 1964 and encompasses 1,147 acres, including a 488-acre playa wetland surrounded by 659 acres of upland buffer. The Service manages the wetland habitat for the benefit of migratory birds. The goal for the upland area is the establishment of a protective buffer of native grassland plant communities that can support a variety of species, including resident wildlife.

A diverse plant community thrives in the restored wetlands of Atlanta WPA. Photo credit: USFWS Rainwater Basin WMD

Over the years, Atlanta WPA has been a temporary home to numerous and notable species including the federally endangered Whooping Crane. When flooded, this wetland has attracted large concentrations of ducks and geese during spring migration. However, in recent years there have been noticeable declines in ponding frequency and ponded area during both fall and spring migrations. For this reason, Atlanta has been a priority for wetland restoration work.

The wetland and watershed restoration actions completed as part of this work have maximized habitat conditions on Atlanta WPA and improved hydrologic function of the watershed that supplies water to this wetland. Restoration practices began with on-site surveys and remote sensing to evaluate the current conditions. Based on this evaluation the Service, working with RWBJV partners, identified areas of excessive sediment deposition that could be removed, 31 irrigation reuse pits within the watershed that should be filled, terraces that could be removed, and waterways that could be re-contoured to facilitate more runoff reaching the wetland.

The RWBJV partners collaborated to effectively deliver the restoration activities outlined in the engineering design plan. Ducks Unlimited (DU) worked with the Service to complete the wetland and watershed restoration activities that could be completed on-site. These included removing 7.15 miles of terraces, removing a low-level berm in the wetland footprint, and re-contouring waterways into the basin.

Heavy equipment removing terraces. Photo credit: Casey Campbell, Ducks Unlimited

To complete the watershed restoration activities needed on private lands, DU and the Service’s Partners for Fish & Wildlife (PFW) biologist worked with multiple landowners.  The material from the terraces and low-level berm (approximately 37,800 cubic yards) were used to fill the remaining irrigation reuse pits in the watershed to maximize the amount of runoff that can be delivered to the WPA. Service funding along with grant funds from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and North American Wetland Conservation Act were leveraged to cover the costs associated with filling 13 reuse pits that had the greatest impact on the wetland. Willing landowners filled another eight reuse pits. The pit fills within the Atlanta WPA watershed are expected to provide 97.3 acre-feet of runoff to the wetland from natural precipitation events. With the additional on-site restoration activities completed, Atlanta WPA will now provide more frequent ponding that will benefit migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and the federally endangered Whooping Crane.

Adding supplemental water has been a strategy used to increase ponded available habitat during spring migration. Atlanta WPA has two ground water wells, with one currently in operation, and both powered by diesel. This restoration will reduce the need for supplemental water and improve efficiency of the pumping program when necessary. The amount of water saved is equivalent to 22 days of pumping the high capacity ground water well at Atlanta, which would cost $7,400 per year providing significant savings to the Service.

The Service will continue to actively manage Atlanta in the years to come to provide desired vegetation communities. Currently, wetland plant communities within Atlanta WPA are dominated by both desirable and undesirable plant communities; in areas where reed canary grass is encroaching, more intense management is needed. The RWBJV has helped by financially supporting these efforts, hiring local contractors to spray chemical on the areas infested with reed canary grass. The Service continues to use fire, grazing, and haying to mimic historic disturbances at the appropriate frequencies to help maintain and increase native plant community dominance.

Author: USFWS staff