COLUMBUS — A Nebraska Game and Parks Commission official estimates several thousand fish died in the Loup Power Canal after water flow from the Loup River was shut off.
“It was a very significant kill,” said Jeff Schuckman, a regional fisheries manager at the Game and Parks Commission’s Norfolk office.
Schuckman and other Game and Parks employees have been reviewing the fish kill in the 35-mile canal over the past week. Although it’s hard to determine exactly how many fish were impacted, Schuckman put the figure in the “tens of thousands.”
Loup Public Power District employees filled eight dump trucks while removing dead fish from the water at the Monroe Powerhouse, and the kill extended east to Castner’s Crossing along 48th Avenue just north of Columbus.
Schuckman said all species were affected, including catfish, crappie and walleye.
Loup Public Power President and CEO Neal Suess reported a majority of the dead fish were carp and drum, which aren’t favorites among anglers, but there were some walleye and large catfish impacted.
Suess estimated at least a few thousand fish were killed while acknowledging that it’s impossible to come up with an exact total.
“I don’t know if we could ever put a number on it,” he said.
The fish kill occurred after the electric utility was forced to stop diverting water from the Loup River into its power canal on July 15.
As part of its updated license to operate the hydroelectric facilities, which include the canal and powerhouses near Columbus and Monroe, Loup Power must follow new rules outlined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
One of these regulations requires the utility to stop diverting water into the canal when the water temperature in the Platte River reaches 93 degrees at the Louisville gauge. This was part of the biological opinion submitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is concerned about the effects the water diversion has on protected species such as the piping plover, pallid sturgeon and least tern.
The order states that Loup Power cannot restart diversion until the water temperature at Louisville drops below 93 degrees for 72 consecutive hours.
Loup Power stopped diversion for nearly two days before FERC issued a temporary waiver on July 17, allowing the water flow to resume.
Without water coming in from the river, the canal warms up and dissolved oxygen levels drop, which led to the fish kill.
Although the current situation is bad, Suess said it could have been worse. Had the waiver not been granted, he said Loup Power still wouldn’t be allowed to divert water at the head gate near Genoa since the weather has been so hot.
“The death toll on the fish would have risen immensely,” said Suess.
Schuckman said the dissolved oxygen levels remain low in parts of the canal.
Fish in Lake Babcock and Lake North were unaffected by the shutdown, according to Schuckman, and anything in the canal past the Columbus Powerhouse can swim to the Platte River.
The Game and Parks official said it’s difficult to know what kind of impact the kill will have on fishing moving forward.
“The long-lasting effect is kind of hard to predict without getting out on the canal and doing some sampling,” Schuckman said.
The Game and Parks Commission stocks the canal with thousands of fish annually — and Suess estimates the system is home to half a million fish or more — but it does take time for the larger flathead and channel catfish to grow.
Loup Power’s temporary waiver from FERC remains in effect “until further order by the commission.”
The utility filed an emergency motion to put the canal flow restrictions on hold during its legal battle to overturn certain parts of the order. However, that motion was denied by FERC on June 9. The district also filed a request for a rehearing on the order.
FERC will not be able to take action on the district's request until it reaches a quorum of at least three commissioners.
“We’re waiting to talk more with the Fish and Wildlife Service to see where we go from there,” Suess said.
Loup Power also has financial concerns associated with the updated rules since it cannot generate electricity at the Columbus and Monroe powerhouses or sell water for irrigation without sufficient flows in the canal.
The utility estimates the potential costs and lost revenue associated with the updated rules could total more than $2 million annually.