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Big Elk Lake and Portal Recreation Area open: Reservoirs honor past, plan for future
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Big Elk Lake and Portal Recreation Area open: Reservoirs honor past, plan for future

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Two new Papillion-area reservoirs are open for public enjoyment and recreation.

Numerous community partners joined the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (Papio NRD), the City of Papillion and Sarpy County today, Sept. 21, to celebrate the grand opening of Big Elk Lake and Portal Recreation Area.

Both are flood mitigation reservoirs along Cornhusker Road, providing flood protection to Papillion and Sarpy County residents alongside green space and recreational opportunities.

The grand opening was celebrated with a program of speakers at Big Elk Lake, located near 108th and Cornhusker Road. The program featured a cedar ceremony — burning cedar on charcoal — performed by Rudi Mitchell, the great-great-great grandson of Chief Big Elk of the Omaha Tribe. The cedar burning and prayer served to bless the reservoir, named in honor of Chief Big Elk, a principal leader of the Omaha Tribe.

Mitchell also read aloud the famous speech Chief Big Elk gave upon returning from a treaty negotiation in Washington D.C., where he warned his people of the impending flood of settlers that threatened Omaha homelands and lifeways.

The Papio NRD Board of Directors voted in June 2020 to name the reservoir in Big Elk’s honor.

“Chief Big Elk is one of the most notable figures in Sarpy County history,” said John Winkler, general manager of the Papio NRD. “He was fiercely protective of his people, but also known as a peaceful leader who valued alliances. Naming this flood mitigation reservoir in honor of him — a structure designed to protect the people of Sarpy County made possible through partnerships and surrounded by acres of beauty and peaceful natural resources — seems like a perfect way to commemorate all that Chief Big Elk stood for. It has been an absolute honor working with the Omaha Tribe on this special project.”

Mitchell said he is very pleased with the recognition of his ancestor.

“Until today, there was no tribute to Chief Big Elk in Omaha,” Mitchell said. “Big Elk was admired for leading one of the most peaceful tribes through many challenges. Through his speeches, trading and peace treaties, Big Elk had a gift for peacefully bringing settlers and the Omaha tribe together. This says a lot about the kind of leader he was and I’m grateful he will be remembered in an area of beauty and nature.”

Glenna Mitchell Slater, also a descendant of Big Elk and one of the few Omaha Tribe certified fluent language speakers and teachers, said she is touched to see the lake entrance monument bear Chief Big Elk’s name interpreted in the Omaha language: O-po- To-ga.

“I want to thank the Papio NRD board for accepting my request to place our Chief Big Elk’s Omaha Tribal Indian name to be translated under his name on the entrance sign,” said Mitchell Slater.

While the primary purpose of the new reservoirs is to help protect the lives and property of citizens from floods, each also features recreational amenities including walking/cycling trails, kayak/canoe launches, picnic shelters, park land and fishery enhancements.

Big Elk is a 13-acre lake with an additional 46 acres of park land near 108th Street and Cornhusker Road. The $8.1 million project features non-motorized boating, fishing, 1.1 miles of hiking and biking trails, an ADA-compliant kayak/canoe launch and picnic areas. The reservoir captures 470 acres of drainage area on a tributary to Schram Creek within the West Papillion Creek Watershed, serving areas surrounding and including the cities of Papillion and Bellevue.

Portal Recreation Area is located nearby at 114th and Cornhusker Road. The $13.1 million project — named after the original one-room school near the former township Portal, near Papillion — captures 1,270 acres of drainage area through its 34-acre lake and additional 109 acres of park land. Recreational opportunities include no wake boating, fishing 1.45 miles of hiking and biking trails, a kayak launch and picnic areas.

Both reservoirs were stocked with small-mouth bass and yellow perch by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“In addition to the flood protection, the recreational opportunities these areas will provide are invaluable to our community,” said Papillion Mayor David Black. “The City of Papillion values our long-term partnership with the NRD, and we are proud to bring these new areas into our park system.”

Both Big Elk Lake and Portal Recreation Area were near completion in May of this year. They are now officially open to the public.

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