More than meets the eye: Harlan County Lake completes projects to protect cultural sites

Published May 16, 2023
Shoreline can be seen  of Harlan County Lake with trees in the left background and the lake in the right background.

White Cat Village can be seen before riprap was placed along the shoreline earlier this year to prevent further erosion. Photo by Tom Zikmund, Harlan County Lake operations project manager.

Rock can be seen along the shoreline of Harlan County Lake with trees in the left background and the lake in the right background.

Riprap, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, was placed at White Cat Village earlier this year to prevent further erosion. Photo by Tom Zikmund, Harlan County Lake operations project manager.

At first glance, the new rock, also called riprap, that has been placed along the banks of Harlan County Lake, Nebraska, might not look like much. However, this seemingly insignificant riprap plays a critical role not only in the mitigation of further shoreline erosion, but also in the protection and preservation of two cultural sites at the lake.

Over 11,000 feet of riprap was placed along the shoreline of Harlan County Lake earlier this year. After the 2019 flood, areas of the lake’s shoreline had eroded 50 to 100 feet, with some areas having eroded as much as 400 feet since 1985. Even without experiencing flood conditions, the lake’s shoreline is susceptible to erosion. 

“Harlan County Lake has highly erodible soils and frequent high winds, which is a bad combination for having erosion problems,” said Tom Zikmund, Harlan County Lake operations project manager.

These conditions make for an even worse combination when the shoreline is the only protection between the lake’s water and the two cultural sites. These cultural sites are known as White Cat Village, located on the south side of the lake, and Tipover Cove, located on the north side of the lake.

Harlan County Lake received funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make the necessary repairs to protect these important cultural sites from further shoreline erosion. The project started in October 2022 and was completed in January 2023.

“To my knowledge there has never been anything done like this in the past to protect our cultural resources at Harlan County [Lake],” said Zikmund.

A window to the past

To fully appreciate the importance of these riprap projects, it’s important to understand what these cultural sites represent. White Cat Village was first recorded in the 1940s by Nebraskan archeologists. However, this site was well known to locals before it became official record. The site marks an 18th century village that was occupied by the descendants of today’s Plains Apache Tribes. Home to the remains of houses, fire pits and storage pits, White Cat Village is an important cultural and historical site to the Plains Apache Tribes, who originally inhabited this area.

Like White Cat Village, Tipover Cove is another important cultural and historical site located at Harlan County Lake. Unlike White Cat Village, Tipover Cove is significantly older and contains several sites that were occupied over the course of thousands of years. The cultural sites of Tipover Cove were used by the descendants of the Pawnee Nation because of its location where Tipover Creek once met the Republican River.

Both White Cat Village and Tipover Cove are rich in cultural significance and history to the descendants of those that originally inhabited these areas, as well as for present day Harlan County Lake. However, these cultural sites are just two of over 156 recorded cultural sites at the lake.

“There are undoubtedly more sites in un-surveyed areas [of Harlan County Lake],” said Gina Powell, archeologist with the Kansas City District. “This [number of cultural sites] is actually quite low compared to the rest of [the Kansas City District’s] lakes.”

Sites like White Cat Village and Tipover Cove provide a window into the past and can teach us a lot about our history. Protecting and preserving these invaluable cultural and historical sites is an important mission for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas City District.

“Erosion is a problem at our lakes and when there are National Register of Historic Places, or NRHP-eligible or listed sites that can be protected, they should be,” said Powell.

It takes a village

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires all federal agencies to consider their actions on historic properties. These historic properties are considered cultural resources that are eligible for, or listed on, the NRHP.

“As a federal agency, we [USACE] are required to provide stewardship to cultural resource sites on our lands,” said Tim Meade, archeologist with the Kansas City District. “The erosion control was undertaken to prevent damage from the erosive effects at [Harlan County Lake.]”

USACE archeologists are not the only ones who play an important role in protecting these cultural sites and resources. Within USACE, archeologists work closely with the lake project offices and park rangers who work on the land surrounding the lakes every day. At the Kansas City District, archeologists review projects for potential site damage, make plans to mitigate damage, monitor existing sites, survey for unrecorded sites and train park rangers to observe and record sites and artifacts. 

“The [park] rangers are our eyes and ears on the ground,” said Powell. “They do an excellent job helping us care for our cultural resources.”

Outside the district, USACE archeologists often work with local, state and Tribal organizations and agencies to ensure cultural resources remain protected. For the riprap projects at Harlan County Lake, USACE worked with the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office and the Pawnee Nation to ensure the work would provide appropriate protection.

While these federally protected cultural sites are full of fascinating history, it is important to remember that they are neither open, nor accessible, to the public.

“Digging for and/or collecting artifacts on federal land is illegal and people who do it can face fines and jail time,” said Powell.

History buffs are encouraged to visit the Harlan County Lake Visitor’s Center to learn more about these amazing cultural resources and others like them. If someone finds an artifact at one of the Kansas City District’s 18 lakes, they can record the artifact's location by taking a picture on their phone and informing a park ranger. As for the protection that the new riprap at Harlan County Lake provides, Zikmund and his team hope they can continue to preserve the history of the area for future generations.

“This [riprap project] protects [Harlan County Lake’s] cultural resources for years to come,” said Zikmund. “This really is a neat project.”