Grab the bikes, the boats and the babies.
After a three-year wait and $23 million in changes, Cunningham Lake will reopen to the public Aug. 5.
And when it does, the lake will open to all boats, an about-face from a proposal put forth by the private foundation that will operate the park.
The reopening of the 1,050-acre park will give members of the public their first chance to bike or walk the new 6-mile concrete path around the lake, pitch a tent or trailer at one of the new campsites or revisit a favorite cove in Omaha’s largest lake.
“It’s beautiful,” said Brook Bench, executive director of the foundation that renovated the park. “The lake is pretty and scenic, and when people see the trail and how pretty it is, I think they will be impressed. The renovations are spectacular.”
The renovations come with greater security and more strictly enforced park rules — a change for those accustomed to using the once laid-back park. No more ATVS, dogs off leash or wading with the family along the beach. Horse riders will still have trails, but will be kept away from some areas where people might have seen them before.
Bench said the goal of cameras in the parking lots and on-site staff is to provide park users with a greater sense of security.
“We want people to feel safe when they are on a trail a mile or two from their car and that no one is getting into their cars,” he said.
The 390-acre lake was drained in 2018 in a bid to kill off an invasive species, the zebra mussel. The closure was then extended to allow for redevelopment of facilities there by a private foundation, the Lake Cunningham Development Trust. The names of the trust’s donors have not been made public.
The trust had proposed restricting access for those boats most likely to recontaminate the lake with the zebra mussels, which can upend a lake’s ecological balance and foul infrastructure. Motorized boats and sailboats have watery compartments that can harbor microscopic zebra mussel larvae and inadvertently introduce them into a lake. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboards would have been allowed under the proposed restrictions.
Instead, all boats will be allowed, according to Kelsey Jolley, a natural resources specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps owns the lake, which was built for flood control and public recreation. The agency leases the park to the City of Omaha, which has contracted with the trust to operate it.
“We do understand their concern,” Jolley said of the trust. “Nobody wants the lake to be infested again, but we also didn’t want to put undue restrictions on the lake either.”
Limiting boating access would have required the corps’ approval, and the corps had said concerns about invasive species weren’t a sufficient reason to close a lake to the public. If access to the lake had been restricted, it would have been a first in Nebraska.
As with Omaha’s other lakes, Cunningham will again be a no-wake lake, which means boats are not allowed to operate over 5 mph.
Omaha Parks Director Matt Kalcevich said the city is thrilled to have the park open.
“The changes they’ve made and the amenities are amazing,” he said. “We think the public is really going to enjoy what they experience there. We look forward to a long, successful relationship with the trust.”
The trust has removed a number of older trees and planted 1,100 new trees. The lake has been stocked with 225,000 still-young fish. Also available will be standup paddleboard and kayak rentals, a concession stand at the campground, an archery range and a disc golf course.
For information on the park or to reserve a campsite, visit its website, explorethec.com.
Bench said people already have begun reserving campsites. The park now has 83 developed campsites and 17 tent sites. Costs for camping range from $30 to $40 a night for developed sites to $15 a night for tent sites.
To prevent reinfestation of the lake, the trust has purchased boat-cleaning facilities that it will make available on an as-needed basis, Bench said. Per state law, boat cleaning will be voluntary, he said. The cleaning station will be available on opening weekend.
“We want to keep the zebra mussel out of there as long as we can,” Bench said.
The park, which is in northwest Omaha at 8660 Lake Cunningham Road, will be open daily from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Entrance is free.