Water, Water, Water

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The largest quantity of water in 60 years is now gushing down the Missouri River, making the Muddy Mo look mighty wild.

Published on: June 7, 2011

The largest quantity of water in sixty years is now gushing down the Missouri, making the Muddy Mo look mighty wild.

Just a few years ago, folks around Pierre, SD were talking about how low the water level was in Lake Oahe, on the Missouri River. Today, folks only wished they were talking about low water. Things change pretty rapidly in the Great Plains, and the low snowfall years have given way to a winter that won’t quit in the Northern Rockies.

All that snowpack eventually melts and fills the Missouri River. A series of dams, built in the 1950s for flood control, irrigation, erosion control and recreation, control the lake levels and river flow.

MIGHTY WILD: Nearly 150,000 cfs will be released through Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River by June 14, doubling the former record release in 1997, and causing havoc to residents and farmers downstream.

The last dam on the river, Gavins Point, located just north of Crofton, NE and west of the old river town and former Dakota Territorial Capital, Yankton, SD, released 140,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) through the flood gates this week. That is double the former record of 70,000 cfs released in 1997.

Right now, the Corps of Engineers predicts that the peak release will be 150,000 cfs on June 14, but more rain events in South Dakota or snow in the Rockies could change plans. Residents of river towns in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa are bracing for the disaster coming soon. They are sandbagging, throwing up hasty levees and evacuating their homes.

Farmers are clearing out grain bins along the river, moving machinery and equipment to higher ground, and praying that the river doesn’t claim too much of their highly valued riverfront farm ground. They know that in the wake of the flood, which will hopefully recede sometime in August, they will find a real mess. There will be sediment and debris covering their crops. They know that in some cases, it will take years to recover from the flood of 2011.

One Yankton official said it best, “It is like a disaster coming in slow motion.” He said that people know it is coming. They know when it is coming. They are watching the river rise. But they just can’t get out of the way.

High lake levels on the upper end of Lewis and Clark Lake have caused additional flooding concerns east and west of Niobrara, NE, the town that has already moved twice in its long and storied history, due to Missouri River floods. The town is up on a hill, but Highway 12 and Highway 14 leading to Niobrara follow bottomland and are both expected to take on water. It is hoped that alternative routes to town can be found, or that the junction of Highway 12 and Highway 14 west of town can somehow be raised before the real flood waters arrive.

These are just a few of the challenges folks are facing these days. These are not unusual challenges for many river residents who have lived through disasters like this before, in other states and in other regions. But for the residents and farmers who live and work downstream along the Missouri River, this is uncharted territory. They haven’t experienced this type of flooding in a generation or two.

Hopefully, the dams on the river do their job and control the raging flood waters to some extent. Hopefully the conditions along the river will not be as dire as predicted and the flood waters will recede quickly. For now, though, everyone is watching the Big Muddy, and realizing that no matter how much human kind tries to tame it, the Missouri River is still mighty wild.