On May 9, 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers will cut the discharge rate from Gavin’s Point Dam to zero, yes zero. That means no water will exit through the structure’s power tunnels or spillway gates. The Army must stop the flow of water through the dam in order to inspect it for any damages. Last year, the Missouri’s powerful floodwaters pounded the structure, especially its spillway. The Army wants to know just what the Missouri did to the dam. Without water pouring through Gavin’s Point Dam, the Missouri downstream through southeastern South Dakota and western Iowa will drop to a record low level. It remains to be seen just how low the Missouri will go. Much depends on tributary inflows. If the James and Big Sioux rivers do not dump large volumes of rainwater into the Missouri, we can expect the river at Sioux City to diminish to a trickle. We do know that during the eight hours the Army pinches off the river’s flow, the Missouri will drop to one of its lowest levels ever, possibly lower than at any time since the glacial formation of the stream 30,000 years ago. Continue Reading »
The Missouri River Canoe Expedition of 2003 took Todd Siefker and I through the White Cliffs of the Missouri and past several of the campsites of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We actually stayed overnight in a few of the same camp sites used by the famed explorers. We did not stay in those campsites because we wanted to somehow imitate the explorers. As a matter of fact, we knew our two-man expedition paled in comparison to their epic journey. For starters, we navigated the Missouri in a plastic Royalex canoe. We also carried with us an array of ultra-modern outdoor gear that made our expedition more comfortable, faster, and lighter than that earlier sojourn. We slept inside a nylon tent, kept the rain off our bodies with Gore-Tex jackets, cooked food on a Primus multi-fuel stove (it could burn everything from unleaded gasoline to jet fuel), and called our loved ones from the remote reaches of Montana on a cell phone. We had nothing in common with Lewis and Clark. Rather, we chose to camp where they camped because their 1805 and 1806 campsites were still the best sites for camping along the Upper Missouri, especially in a land dominated by towering bluffs and gullied badlands. Continue Reading »
In late May 2003, Todd Siefker and I pushed our sixteen-and-a-half-foot, cherry red Bell Canoe Works canoe into the Missouri River at Fort Benton, Montana. From there (the traditional head of Missouri River steamboat traffic) we planned on canoeing all the way to Sioux City, Iowa, a total river distance of 1,344 miles. Oh, it was a grand, bold, and in hindsight, absolutely unrealistic, plan. But we were confident in our skills as outdoorsmen, in prime physical condition, and neither one of us was tied down by a mortgage, a cubicle job, or any dependent children. In our minds, the trip appeared not only possible – but also incredibly adventurous. As a matter of fact, it was going to be a blast, a hoot, a hell of a lot of fun. Tackling hundreds of miles of winding, capricious river and six of the world’s largest reservoirs – no problem. Confronting rain, wind, cold, and heat – no problem. Facing the possibility of death by drowning, injury by odd accident, or a bullet wound from an armed, xenophobic, rural Montanan – no problemo. We’d deal with the challenges as they arose. We’d overcome, we’d make it to goddamn Sioux City (or as only those with roots there have a right to call it – Sewer City). We’d arrive in that cow town triumphant, modern-day explorers – heralded by the local media as men of daring. Continue Reading »
From 1929 to 1940, the Great Plains experienced a devastating drought. Scorching temperatures, an over-abundance of sunshine, and dry winds ravaged the land. From the Dakotas to Texas, soils turned to powder and blew away. In those hard, lean years, plains residents experienced hundreds of deadly dust storms. The Black Blizzards threw billowing clouds of dirt into the atmosphere, blotted out the sun, suffocated stock animals, and inflicted a phenomenon known as dust pneumonia on the rural population. Untold numbers died from the respiratory ailment. Continue Reading »
The Army’s navigation channel through the Sioux City metropolitan area appears to have survived the Great Flood of 2011 with only minimal damage. Even though powerful currents pushed rocks off riprapped wing dams and knocked askew the wooden poles atop pile dikes, the dikes and revetments continue to hold their positions in the river. The Mighty Missouri did not completely grind them down and carry them away. Rather, the training structures are at this moment directing the Missouri’s flow through what the Army calls the “design channel.” Continue Reading »
Sioux City, Iowa. The persistent high water of the Missouri is beginning to take a toll on the trees lining the stream’s banks. The saturated soil around the roots of the trees no longer provides a strong base of support. Thus, when high winds or strong river currents strike the vulnerable trees, they easily tumble over into the floodwater. Dozens of large and small trees are lying on their sides in the engorged Missouri just a mile downstream from its juncture with the Big Sioux River at Sioux City, Iowa. The number of downed trees is going to increase exponentially as the summer moves toward fall and the Army keeps the discharge rate out of Gavin’s Point Dam at 160,000 cubic feet per second. The loss of bankline timber will increase runoff into the Missouri for years to come. Healthy timber tracts halt or slow runoff by storing water in root systems, trunks, and leaves. Once the trees are dead and gone, rain will hit the valley floor and more quickly drain into the Missouri. River edge trees also act as a natural means of bank stabilization. Trees slow down erosive currents, deflect water from the bankline, and keep valley soils from rapidly washing away. The absence of trees along the river will lead to intensified bank erosion. Additionally, the loss of timber strips adjacent to the river means that agricultural chemicals, feedlot fecal matter, and urban storm water (which contains automobile lubricants) will readily find its way to the Missouri. The destruction of river side timber will have serious negative repercussions for the health of the Missouri River ecosystem.
Yankton, South Dakota. Today, the Army increased the volume of water released through the emergency spillway at Gavin’s Point Dam to 150,000 cfs. Gavin’s Point Dam is the southernmost of the Army dams across the Missouri. The Army built the low dam in the 1950s as part of the Pick-Sloan Plan for Missouri River Development. The Army did not build the dam and its reservoir (named Lewis and Clark Lake) for flood control. Lewis and Clark Lake is too small to check the Missouri’s floods. Rather, the lake is designed as a re-regulating reservoir. It is supposed to smooth out the surges of water emanating from the larger Fort Randall Dam upstream. The Army believed re-regulation necessary to prevent damage to the valley below Yankton. But since the start of the Great Missouri River Flood of 2011, Gavin’s Point Dam and reservoir has not smoothed out Fort Randall’s large releases. As a matter of fact, the water out of Randall is now hitting Gavin’s Point reservoir and immediately passing on downstream through the dam’s spillway. Continue Reading »