• Outdoors: Lake Wanahoo ready to live up to hype
• Timeline: Lake Wanahoo
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WAHOO, Neb. — A popular park sunk by flooding nearly 50 years ago is about to resurface as one of the state's most-promising fishing lakes.
The 87-square-mile Sand Creek watershed that played a large role in flooding Wanahoo Park so frequently over the years is now responsible for the creation of the two-mile-long, 667-acre Lake Wanahoo.
Soon after the park closed in 1963, the dreaming started about a dam — to curtail severe flooding — and a lake.
Now that is reality — set to open April 28 and expected to be the premier angling destination in eastern Nebraska and provide a major economic boost for Saunders County.
"Hands down, this lake is what everyone has been talking about," said Jim Swenson of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's always hard to put a number on what numbers (of visitors) a new lake will have, but this will be very busy."
Added Roger Kuhn, the parks division manager for the commission: "We anticipate that Wanahoo is going to be busier than lakes of similar size because it's located between the state's two major population centers."
That's good news for Wahoo Mayor Jerry Johnson and Saunders County officials.
"I truly believe this is the start of a whole new look, a whole new era for our city," Johnson said. "Not only will we have flood control for the watershed, but that beautiful new recreation area will benefit Wahoo economically and aesthetically."
Nearly 70 percent of all Nebraskans live within 65 miles of the state's newest lake. Situated on the north edge of Wahoo, it is roughly 30 minutes from both Omaha and Lincoln.
The original Wanahoo Park included a dance hall, swimming pool and recreation area. It was a popular gathering place for area residents, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. The main attraction was an ornate dance hall on a man-made "Dance Island."
According to local lore, Wanahoo was the name of a Native American woman who lived with Chief Wahoo in the area when the community of Wahoo was founded in 1870. Lake Wanahoo's advisory board, made up of city, county and Lower Platte North Natural Resources District officials, decided to keep the Wanahoo name for the new recreation area.
Trees that once rimmed the banks of Sand Creek now stand in clusters in the middle of the filled reservoir. Some of the old bank trees were cut down to create openings for boats to pass from one side of the lake to the other, and anchored on the bottom to create natural habitat.
The lake and recreation area feature seven fishing jetties to allow anglers access to deeper waters, two handicap-accessible aluminum fishing piers, no-wake boating, 74 camper pads for recreational vehicles, 60 tent camping sites, four miles of trails and picnic shelters. Camping will be limited to the west side of the lake and the east side will be primarily for day users of the recreation area.
Ground on the east side formerly was the site of the Saunders County poor farm, including its cemetery. The cemetery, which is fenced off and holds 13 unmarked graves, sits on a narrow piece of land that juts out into the lake just south of a breakwater.
"The guys from Game and Parks had the idea of putting the breakwater just north of (the point) to protect the cemetery from erosion," said John Miyoshi, the general manager of the Lower Platte North NRD.
The breakwater — a leveelike structure that quiets wave action and prevents erosion — spans Lake Wanahoo from east to west, allowing people to cross back and forth on foot or bicycles. Part of the structure is a bridge, to allow boats to pass under.
At its deepest, including off the jetties on the west side, the lake has a depth of 34 feet.
A boat ramp that can handle three watercraft at one time is on the west side of the lake. Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table and a fire pit.
But other than the trees left in the lake that serve as fish habitat, shade is in short supply, so visitors don't want to forget their sunscreen.
For the time being, there is no playground equipment and there are no concessions. The lake will open to the public as mainly a camping and fishing destination, though the wetlands north of the lake are already proving a draw for bird-watchers.
Lake Wanahoo is the key component of a $30.5 million project to control flooding in the watershed that has been discussed since the late 1960s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the Lower Platte North NRD, Wahoo and Saunders County are the major partners in the venture.
Wahoo and Saunders County approached the NRD in 1990 about forming a partnership to create the lake. Miyoshi said studies were done and the project really started rolling when Mike Murren was hired in 1997 to oversee construction.
At the same time, the corps began constructing a series of eight dams, including the one that created Lake Wanahoo, in the Sand Creek watershed to control flooding and promote wetlands. Miyoshi said work on the dams sometimes took a back seat because the corps' first duty is to its federal projects.
"There were a lot of early setbacks," Miyoshi said. "Sept. 11 came along, and that was a big setback because the corps became involved in a lot of work for Homeland Security, assessing dam safety. Then came Hurricane Katrina. And I can't count the number of engineers that were (taken off the project) because they were detailed to Iraq and Afghanistan to build hospitals and airports."
Now that it's done? "I can't tell you how nice it is to sit back at this point and think back over everything that was accomplished," Miyoshi said.
The economic benefits of the 1,777-acre recreation area on both the 4,500 residents of Wahoo and the surrounding area should be almost immediately apparent. Alan Mueller, mayor of Louisville, Neb., said his community doesn't track the amount of money spent by park users, but it owes "more than I can say" to its partnership with the neighboring Louisville State Recreation Area.
"We've seen the benefits here for years, and Wahoo will from the start," Mueller said. "They will become a lake community with visitors migrating into town to buy food, gas, supplies. They'll know when the park is full, because there will be a lot of new faces coming into town to shop and eat at the local restaurants."
Wahoo's Economic Development Office has said the only possible downside to the new recreation area might be traffic congestion. But that will be helped when the Nebraska Department of Roads completes a four-lane bypass for U.S. Highway 77. Truck traffic and other vehicles that are not destined for Wahoo will be routed around the city.
"Bids for the bypass are currently scheduled to be let in the fall of 2013," said Curt Mueting, an engineer with the Nebraska Department of Roads. "If things go as scheduled, the bypass could open in spring of 2015."
The bypass would skirt the west and north sides of Wahoo while running across the top of the Lake Wanahoo dam that sits directly west of the Nebraska Highway 92-Highway 77 junction. The road over the dam is now made of gravel.
Wahoo officials said their city is planning a new entry point on Chestnut Street, which becomes County Road 17 and runs directly to the west side of the lake. Watts said city officials would like the street to become "more of a boulevard" and expect to add lighting and eliminate stop signs.
"The final design isn't completed, but the goal is to make Chestnut Street more attractive to encourage folks to come into town from the lake," Watts said. "We also want to extend our walking trail to the lake."
Some residents just outside of Wahoo have been benefiting from their proximity to Lake Wanahoo. About 30 homes have been built near the lake, most of them on the west side overlooking the new site. Wahoo officials are expecting many more lots to be sold.
Marsha and Mark Otte built their home on a hill on the west side of the lake 17 years ago.
"The view we had of the fields was just gorgeous," Marsha Otte said. "And now the lake is so beautiful when the sun comes up and when the moon shines on the water. It's really something to see."
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