Sandbars and River Booty

The Great Flood of 2011 altered the Missouri’s channel morphology in noticeable ways. In the unchannelized river at the foot of Ponca State Park (Ponca, Nebraska) the flood has rearranged the riverbed.  Where fast, deep water once pushed heavily downstream, there is now a football-field-sized sandbar. Next to it, a dark, muddy shoal is beginning to emerge from the depths.  Just upstream, the river is now careening through a once-calm side channel. Northwest of the bridge linking Newcastle, Nebraska, with Vermillion, South Dakota, numerous sandbars are visible in mid-channel.  After a summer adrift on the waves, the topsoil of the Dakotas has finally found a resting place here.

Besides an increase in sandbars, the river has swept the vegetation clean from its edges. Stands of cottonwood and willow have been replaced by long stretches of sand.  On a bright day, the riverside beaches gleam under the sun, clearly demarcating the channel’s boundaries.  The light yellow of the sand is in sharp contrast to the blue of the water flowing nearby.

Wreckage from the flood is strewn all along the river.  Near the Burlington-Northern Sante Fe Bridge at Sioux City, the roof of someone’s shed has run aground against the rock of a pile dike.  Not far from there, a long bit of torn plastic hangs from the limb of a tree.  It resembles a tattered battle flag – the last vestige of a plastic consumable.  On the sand flat that now covers much of the South Sioux City waterfront, the river covered walkways, fences, and abandoned canisters with a vomit-green slime.  Logs lay peacefully on their sides, waiting for the next flood to carry them a little further downstream.

As I walked the sand flat, I hoped I might find some river booty – interesting artifacts coughed up by the river.  Usually after a flood, there is a lot of river booty to be found, such as plastic water jugs, plastic Rubbermaid containers, plastic barrels, plastic Coleman coolers, and plastic lawn chairs.  Plastics possess survivability.  I once found a plastic sandhill crane on a Missouri River sandbar.  I still don’t know the purpose of a sandhill crane decoy.  That big bird now stands over my mother’s rose garden.  I am convinced its imposing size and rigid demeanor keeps hungry critters out of her garden.  No bunny wants to mess with a three-foot-tall sandhill crane.  Unfortunately, I think the river booty will be meager this year.  The flood lasted too long.  As a result, the river either pulverized all the plastic goodies or buried them under tons of sand.

The Great Flood definitely created ideal habitat for the least tern and piping plover.  Next year, those birds will luxuriate on lots of sandbars and sand flats.  They are going to be happy campers.  For the ill-informed who continue to blame the flood on the birds – the creation of so much habitat will be a sore point.  And for the real wackos out there, all that habitat will be further “proof” that the Army purposefully set loose this year’s flood to aid the birds.

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