Notes from the Field, June 25, 2011, Niobrara’s Missouri River Woes

Niobrara, Nebraska.  The small community of Niobrara sits on a bluff on the south bank of the Niobrara River where it enters the Missouri.  Since its founding in the 19th century, the town has had a difficult history with the river.  In April 1881, the Missouri smashed into the first town site during its April rise.  Cold slushy water and cakes of ice knocked down buildings and swept through streets.  The residents rebuilt the town in the Missouri River bottoms, gambling that the river would not take the town’s second incarnation.  In 1955, the Army closed the earthen embankment at Gavin’s Point Dam downstream at Yankton, South Dakota.  The reservoir behind the dam soon filled and backed up to the foot of Niobrara.  By the 1960s, buildings in low-lying neighborhoods began experiencing regular water damage from the ever-rising elevation of the riverbed in front of the town.  The delta that formed at the head of Lewis and Clark Lake sent water into the basements of Niobrara’s buildings.  In 1972, residents moved the town to higher ground.  The old town site became a golf course and city park.  The troubles with the Missouri appeared to be over.  But the Missouri has come back.Today, the Missouri confronts the newest version of Niobrara with another challenge.  The high bed elevation of Lewis and Clark Lake, in conjunction with large discharges from Fort Randall Dam upstream, have pushed the Missouri way beyond its normal borders.  The river just outside of town covers the entire valley floor from bluffline to bluffline.  The Missouri inundated Nebraska State Highway 12 both east and west of town.  The bridge over the Missouri southeast of Niobrara is also closed to traffic.  The only way in or out of Niobrara is from the south, either along Highway 14 or over one of the area’s gravel roads.  With access to town limited, and the river dangerous for recreational boaters, tourism has fallen off.  The local economy is hurting from the decrease in tourist dollars.  Niobrara always had a quiet, slow-paced feel about it, but the Missouri has almost silenced the place.

(Author’s Note: the above photograph, dated June 25, 2011, shows a stretch of Nebraska State Highway 12 between Niobrara and Verdel, Nebraska.)

The Missouri is daily defying the people of the United States, the vaunted U.S. military, and the supposed permanence of American civilization’s constructs.  A month ago, Nebraska State Highway 12 linked tiny Niobrara with the outside world.  Today, miles of it are under the Missouri.  Both east and west of Niobrara, water flows over the roadway.  It is already difficult to tell that a highway lies below the river’s brown water.  On the highway section between Niobrara and Verdel, large, inter-woven mats of cattails have floated downstream with the flood.  The cattails now grow atop the highway.  How quickly the Missouri obliterates signs of the human presence.

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