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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5031

Prepared in cooperation with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District

Emergent Sandbar Dynamics in the Lower Platte River in Eastern Nebraska—Methods and Results of Pilot Study, 2011

By Jason S. Alexander, Devin M. Schultze, and Ronald B. Zelt

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (1.15 MB)Abstract

The lower Platte River corridor provides important habitats for two State- and federally listed bird species: the interior least tern (terns; Sternula antillarum athallassos) and the piping plover (plovers; Charadrius melodus). However, many of the natural morphological and hydrological characteristics of the Platte River have been altered substantially by water development, channelization, hydropower operations, and invasive vegetation encroachment, which have decreased the abundance of high-quality nesting and foraging habitat for terns and plovers. The lower Platte River (LPR), defined as 103 miles (mi) of the Platte River between its confluence with the Loup River and its confluence with the Missouri River, has narrowed since the late-19th and early-20th centuries, yet it partially retains many geomorphologic and hydrologic characteristics important to terns and plovers. These birds nest on the sandbars in the river and along shorelines at sand- and gravel-pit lakes in the adjacent valley.

The need to balance continued economic, infrastructure, and resource development with the conservation of important physical and aquatic habitat resources requires increased understanding of the physical and biological dynamics of the lower Platte River. Spatially and temporally rich datasets for emergent sandbar habitats are necessary to quantify emergent sandbar dynamics relative to hypothesized controls and stressors. In cooperation with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, the U.S. Geological Survey initiated a pilot study of emergent sandbar dynamics along a 22-mi segment of the LPR downstream from its confluence with Salt Creek, near Ashland, Nebraska. The purposes of the study were to: (1) develop methods to rapidly assess sandbar geometries and locations in a wide, sand-bed river, and (2) apply and validate the method to assess emergent sandbar dynamics over three seasons in 2011. An examination of the height of sandbars relative to the local stage of the formative discharge event, and how subsequent river discharges, of both high and low magnitude, alter sandbar geometries and abundance within the LPR was of particular interest.

A “rapid-assessment” method was developed with the goal of characterizing the spatial distribution and habitat-relevant geometries of the complete population of sandbars along the study segment. Three primary measures were used to assess emergent sandbar dynamics in the study segment: sandbar area, sandbar height, and sandbar location. Data to derive these measures were collected during three, week-long survey periods in 2011, herein named “spring survey period,” “summer survey period,” and “fall survey period.” Emergent sandbars were grouped into one of three generalized types: (1) bank-attached, (2) island-attached, and (3) mid-channel.

First posted April 10, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, Nebraska Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
5231 South 19th Street
Lincoln, Nebraska 68512

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Suggested citation:

Alexander, J.S., Schultze, D.M., and Zelt, R.B., 2013, Emergent sandbar dynamics in the lower Platte River in eastern Nebraska—Methods and results of pilot study, 2011: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5031, 42 p. with appendixes.




Approach and Methods

Emergent Sandbar Dynamics in the Lower Platte River

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited


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