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Lake Cunningham reopens after 3 years in partnership with USACE, City of Omaha, Lake Cunningham Trust

USACE, Omaha District
Published Sept. 21, 2021
A green and white striped lighthouse surrounded by stones and green grass.

Visitors celebrate the reopening of Glenn Cunningham Lake after three years and $23 million in renovations near Omaha, Nebraska, Aug. 3.

Two people talk in a park.

Brook Bench, Executive Director of the Lake Cunningham Development Trust, and Kelsey Jolley, natural resource specialist, USACE Omaha District, discuss the reopening of Lake Cunningham near Omaha, Nebraska, August 3rd.

A concrete sidewalk surrounded by green grass.

A new concrete pathway surrounding Lake Cunningham, near Omaha, Neb., Aug 3.

After nearly three years and $23 million in improvements, Glenn Cunningham Lake reopened to the public Aug. 3.

Since the lake’s closure in 2018, the Lake Cunningham Development Trust made significant changes to the property. Additional camping sites, a campground loop, a restroom and shower facility, and a concession stand were constructed. A new six-mile concrete trail stretches around the entire lake. The trust also re-roofed and re-sided the existing picnic structures and restrooms. All of the trust’s improvements were fully funded by private donations.

Other major changes include the addition of multiple ADA-accessible features. The path around the lake now features smooth concrete and low-slope ramps for visitors in wheelchairs. The Nebraska Games and Parks Commission also built an ADA-accessible kayak launch with benches and rail systems to help visitors transition out of wheelchairs and into kayaks.

The NGPC was heavily involved in improving Lake Cunningham. To eradicate the zebra mussel infestation and control the common carp population, the NGPC drained and refilled the lake. They also added a fish hatchery to the bottom of the lake and repaired the existing boat ramps and fishing platforms.

Lake Cunningham was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, in 1977 along with Standing Bear, Zorinsky, and Wehrspann Lakes for flood mitigation and recreation. Today, the lake is owned by the USACE, but it was leased out to the City of Omaha under a long-term maintenance agreement. The City of Omaha then leased the property to the trust in December 2020. The trust handles all operation and maintenance of the lake.

“It is unique in that there’s not a lot of properties that are Corps (USACE)-owned where the entire property is leased out to one of our partners, which is the case at Cunningham,” said Kelsey Jolley, natural resources specialist, USACE, Omaha District.

The trust was formed by a group of local philanthropists and donors who wanted to improve the lake, trail, and campgrounds for the citizens of Omaha.“Omaha has a very giving philanthropic base, and there are people willing to step up and help out with our parks,” said Brook Bench, executive director of the Lake Cunningham Development Trust.

Although the lake is managed by a private trust, the city and the USACE reviewed all improvements to ensure that they were reasonable, acceptable projects for public federal lands that kept them open for public use. The lake is known as a recreation area, but the USACE must also ensure that any improvements do not interfere with the original flood mitigation mission.

“Our mission is to hold these lands for the public, so when we review or judge them, it is to make sure that they are still being used in the public’s best interests for everyone’s use and safety,” said Jolley.

As for the future of Lake Cunningham, the trust has proposed a variety of new projects and improvements including a new mountain bike course, an equestrian trail upgrade, and a nature center to educate classes and school groups. As with the other improvements, these plans will take time because they will also be fully funded by donations.

“I envision that we’ll have projects going on for years to come,” said Bench.

Lake Cunningham is now open to the public from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m daily. Since this is a city park, there is no entrance fee. However, those who want to stay overnight in the campground areas must register in advance and pay for a campsite.

“I hope people are going out and enjoying the lake and seeing everything that has been improved. There have been little improvements everywhere, and it makes it a much nicer experience. It’s a beautiful project,” said Jolley.