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SALINE/ALKALINE WETLANDS

These wetlands have saline (salty) or alkaline water. They receive their salts from either groundwater or through concentration by evaporation. The complexes in Nebraska include the Eastern Saline and the Western Alkaline. There are also some highly alkaline wetlands in the western Sandhills that are covered in the Sandhills Complex section. Additionally, moderately saline/alkaline wetlands are found in scattered pockets along much of the Platte River.

Eastern Saline Profile

Eastern Saline wetlands are of historical significance as their presence spawned a short-lived salt mining industry in the 1860’s that led to the establishment of the city of Lincoln (Cunningham 1985). Eastern saline wetlands occur in swales and depressions within the floodplains of Salt Creek and its tributaries in Lancaster and southern Saunders counties. The wetlands receive their salinity from groundwater inflow that passes through an underground rock formation containing salts deposited by an ancient sea that once covered Nebraska. Eastern saline wetlands are characterized by saline soils and salt-tolerant vegetation. Soil salinity varies greatly between, and even within, wetlands. Highly saline wetlands usually have a central area that is devoid of vegetation, and when dry, exhibit salt encrusted mudflats. Wetlands having lower soil salinities are fully vegetated with salt-tolerant plants.

Loss and Threats

Eastern saline wetlands are considered critically imperiled in Nebraska (Clausen et al. 1989) and the most limited and endangered vegetation community in the state (Kaul 1975). Although historic wetland acreages have not been quantified, past losses are considered to be significant (R. Gersib, pers. comm.).  Inventory and assessment work by Gersib and Steinauer (1990) and Gilbert and Stutheit (1994) noted extensive wetland losses from expansion of the city of Lincoln and agricultural activities. They further noted that all extant saline wetlands identified in their inventory have experienced recognizable degradation through drainage, diking, filling, farming and overgrazing. Eastern saline wetlands were given a priority 1 ranking (due to very extensive past losses) in the Nebraska Wetlands Priority Plan (Gersib 1991). Because the entire Eastern saline wetland complex is located in and near the city of Lincoln, past losses have been severe, and future threats from development activities are imminent. Saline wetland assessment work by Gersib and Steinauer (1990) indicated that 168 of 188 uncultivated wetland sites were considered to have a high or moderate vulnerability to future wetland degradation or loss.  Categories of threat to Eastern saline wetlands include drainage or filling, stream-bed degradation, agricultural conversion or use, residential or commercial development, transportation, and water pollution. Of these, commercial or residential development and road construction are considered to be the greatest threats to Eastern saline wetlands. Commercial and residential development usually result in total wetland destruction and the loss of all related functions. One of the most serious long-term threats is the degradation (deepening) of stream channels that results in erosive lateral headcuts (gullies) that eventually drain wetlands, and would likely lead to lower area water tables.

Functions and Values

Eastern Nebraska saline wetlands provide habitat for a variety of wildlife species, and are particularly important as migrational habitat for shorebirds. The exposed saline mudflats provide abundant invertebrate foods. During the last century, more than 230 species of birds have been reported for the salt basins of Lancaster County (Farrar and Gersib 1991). Twenty-two species of shorebirds were documented using the saline wetlands during the 1997 spring migration. (Poague et al. 1998) and they estimated that more than 20,000 shorebirds may use these highly vulnerable wetlands during spring migration. The federally endangered least tern and threatened piping plover have been reported using Eastern saline wetlands. The salt creek tiger beetle (Cicindela nevadica var. lincolniana), a very rare and restricted subspecies, is found only on the open salt flat areas of Eastern saline wetlands. The salt creek tiger beetle is a state listed endangered species and is a candidate for the federal endangered species list. Eastern saline wetlands are home to many saline plants that are found nowhere else in Nebraska. Three plant species found growing in Eastern saline wetlands are considered rare in Nebraska (Clausen et al. 1989) including saltmarsh aster (Aster subulatus var. ligulatus), saltwort (Salicornia rubra), and Texas dropseed (Sporobolus texanus). Saltwort is a state listed endangered species. Silty clay soils reduce downward water movement resulting in low to moderate groundwater recharge functions. The location of wetlands within the Salt and Rock Creek floodplains and their alluvial soils provide strong indications that flood control functions are being provided by these wetlands. Because of their location in and around the city of Lincoln and their proximity to Omaha, Eastern saline wetlands are ideally located to provide recreational opportunities. Bird watching, nature study, and waterfowl and pheasant hunting are the most common outdoor recreation activities. Few wetland areas in Nebraska provide the educational opportunities afforded by the close proximity of these unique wetlands to so many students. 

Select Public Use Areas

http://mapserver.ngpc.state.ne.us/website/gpc_land/viewer.htm. C Arbor Lake, ½ mi. N. of Arbor Road on N. 27th, Lincoln, Lancaster Co.
• Shoemaker Marsh, 1 mi. N. of Arbor Road on N. 27th, Lincoln, Lancaster Co. C Jack Sinn WMA, 1 mi. S. of Ceresco, Lancaster/Saunders co. C Little Salt Fork Marsh, 3 mi. E. of Raymond, Lancaster Co.. This is a Nature Conservancy area and is open to limited public use. C Lincoln Saline Wetland Nature Center NRD Area, east shore of Capitol Beach Lake in Lincoln, Lancaster Co. C Whitehead Saline Wetlands NRD Area, 27th Street and I-80, Lincoln, Lancaster Co. C Phizer Saline Wetland, 1st and Cornhusker, Lincoln, Lancaster Co.. Owned by Phizer Co. but open to public use.


Conservation Programs and Contacts

Saline Wetland Conservation Partnership- This is a partnership between the City of Lincoln, Lancaster County, Lower Platte Natural Resources District, The Nature Conservancy, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and others to protect and conserve Eastern Saline Wetlands (LaGrange et al. 2003). Contact the Saline Wetland Coordinator, 3125 Portia, Box 83581, (402) 476-2729. http://interlinc.ci.lincoln.ne.us/city/parks/admin/wetlands/index.htm. Other contacts include the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission District Office in Lincoln (402) 471-5561.


Western Alkaline Profile

Western Alkaline wetlands occur on the floodplain of the North Platte River upstream from Lewellen, and along the upper reaches of Pumpkin Creek. These wetlands receive their water from a combination of overland runoff, flood overflows, and springs. The hydrology of these wetlands is complex and influenced by local irrigation runoff. The alkalinity is principally caused by the salts of sodium carbonate and calcium carbonate becoming concentrated in the soils as a result of high rates of evaporation in this semi-arid region. These wetlands frequently dry up and a white crust of alkaline salts forms on the exposed soil surface. 

Loss and Threats

Wetlands in this complex appear to have experienced fewer losses and to be less threatened than many of the other complexes in Nebraska. Much of this is due to the lack of development in the vicinity of these wetlands and because the soils are poorly suited to crop production. However, some wet meadows on less alkaline sites have been drained and converted to cropland or planted to non-native wheatgrasses. Irrigation projects have affected some sites and the long-term effect of reduced flows in the North Platte River is unknown. In recent years flows have greatly declined on Pumpkin Creek, likely as a result of groundwater depletions, and this could impact the alkaline wetlands located there.

Functions and Values

Western Alkaline wetlands provide nesting and migration habitat for a variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds. This complex is especially attractive to nesting American avocets, Wilson’s phalaropes, cinnamon and blue-winged teal, mallards, and Canada geese. Much of the shorebird habitat is provided by the open alkaline flats. These wetlands provide important waterfowl hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities in this region of the state. Several plants rare to Nebraska occur in the alkaline wetlands including the Nevada bulrush (Scirpus nevadensis), slender plantain (Plantago elongata), silverweed (Potentilla anserina), eastern cleomella (Cleomella angustifolia), thelypody (Thelypodium integrifolium), seaside heliotrope (Heliotropum curassavicum) and sea milkwort (Glaux maritima). The location of these wetlands near springs and along the Oregon Trail lends to their historical significance. 

Select Public Use Areas

http://mapserver.ngpc.state.ne.us/website/gpc_land/viewer.htm. º Kiowa WMA, 2 mi. S. of Morrill, Scotts Bluff Co. C Chet and Jane Fliesbach WMA (Facus Springs), 2 mi. S., 3 mi. E. of Bayard, Morrill Co.

Conservation Programs and Contacts

Platte River Basin Environments, Inc. is a group interested in the protection and restoration of wetland habitat in the Panhandle and especially along the North Platte River. Contact Platte River Basin Environs at 190498 County Road G, Scottsbluff, NE 69361, (308) 632-3440. The Playa Lakes Joint Venture is a multi-state partnership for wetland and bird conservation that covers portions of western Nebraska. Contact the Playa Lakes Joint Venture Coordinator, 103 East Simpson Street, LaFayette, CO 80026, (303) 926-0777. http://www.pljv.org/index.html. Other contacts include the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission District Office in Alliance (308) 763-2940.

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