By Bob Kerrey
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Nebraska,” I answered.
“Oh,” she replied, her voice trailing into the distance. “I drove across there once. It took forever. It’s real flat isn’t it?”
I have participated in many short conversations like this over the course of my adult life. When they first started coming my way, I would try to explain that a 450-mile trip on Interstate 80 was not a good way to get a feel for the place. Frustrated when their eyes did not light up with that possibility, I would suggest they return to try out the Niobrara River or the Dismal or the Blue or the Republican. If this failed, I would wax eloquently about the grandeur of the Sandhills, or the cranes as they lift at first light from a quiet strand of the Platte River, or the call of the turkeys near Fort Robinson, or the sudden rise of a bald eagle on the Missouri. Over time I have surrendered to the silent smile of comfort that comes from knowing that you have experienced something good that can neither be explained nor shared.
Falling in love with a place is not a feeling that can be shared easily. I didn’t realize I had fallen in love with the place called Nebraska until the beginning of my fourth decade of life. It was 1974, the year my first son was born, the year Richard Nixon resigned, and the year I read James Michener’s Centennial
In his introduction, Michener tells the 169-million-year-old history of the place we call home. In the beginning, there was a collision of tectonic plates leading to the rise of the Rocky Mountains to a height greater than the Himalayas. From this moment began the flow of water—those simple, magical, but powerful molecules—in vast amounts down to the west and to the east. The flow of the water was shaped by many natural forces, but none of these natural forces was greater than the last ice age 30,000 years ago. When the ice receded, it left our most important river valley, the Missouri, the longest on the North American continent.
I didn’t fall in love with the high plains of Nebraska because of its prehistoric geological story. What stirred my passion was the description of the enormous spring and summer floods that roared down from the west in 50-foot walls of water, tearing and uprooting everything in their path. And what sealed the deal of my romance with this place was the rebirth of new animal and vegetative life that followed every deadly spring and summer season of the water’s rise. The river took and the river gave.
Those of us born and raised within the flow of the Missouri’s main stem or along one of its tributaries have stories we can tell about the spring and summer floods. The one I remember most—which still occasionally recurs in dreams—was a big one in 1952. In Robert Kelley Schneiders excellent book Unruly River
, which chronicles the story of human efforts to control the unpredictable Missouri, he describes the 1952 flood and its political consequences in detail.
He begins with a weather report: “December 1951 witnessed the beginning of the wettest, coldest, and deadliest winter on the northern Great Plains since Euro-American agricultural settlement of the area nearly eighty years before. In January officials working for the Corps of Engineers, clad in snowshoes and heavy coats, hiked into the mountains to conduct a snowpack survey, and discovered a sobering fact. In the areas drained by the Missouri and its tributaries, the mountain snowpack surpassed all recorded levels. To make matters even worse, the deep snow contained a high moisture content.”
These three sentences would have struck fear in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of adults who lived in Missouri River communities from Montana to the mouth of the Missouri just north of St. Louis, had they heard them. Homes and businesses that were built in the flood plain were vulnerable to even modest spring and summer rises. This one promised to be a whopper.
I was nine years old at the time, living in Lincoln, a city whose founders selected the location because of its proximity to a salt deposit. Although Salt Creek, Antelope Creek and Dead Man’s Run would swell and do a little damage, we never had to worry about being evacuated as the water rose.
Things were different for people living near the Missouri or one of its main tributaries. On the morning of Easter Sunday, April 13, South Sioux City’s mayor urged the entire town to leave. It was not a false alarm. The 60-mile-long crest covered almost everything by the next night. Soldiers called into service in Omaha and Council Bluffs added three feet to the dikes that protected both cities. When the crest passed on April 17 and only caused minimal damage, everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
However, nearly 20,000 farm families in North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri were forced to abandon their homes to avoid the rising water. Subsequently, many of these families thanked their purchase of a television or radio for their being alerted to the need to move. No one died in this flood, but damage to private property and public roads and bridges set new records.
Afterwards, communities came together as they always do to clean up and help one another. Along with the others in my Cub Scout Pack, we went by bus to Milford, a town that is built in the flood plain of the Big Blue River, to assist in the cleanup. I doubt that we did anything of value, but I carry with me to this day the sight of the swollen river running wild over the highway into town. It blocked the progress of our bus. I can still recall the dread feeling that the flood was going to trap and carry us all away. This is the dream that, from time to time, visits me 50 years later.
Dreams of this kind and others were motivating the adult leaders of the Missouri Valley to make the Missouri River more predictable and less threatening to life and property. Their dreams for the valley were not singularly connected to the desire to reduce the damage of flooding. They concurrently wanted the river to be able to carry freight and people more reliably and efficiently than the meandering, snag-infested Missouri could handle. Some of the dreams were in conflict from the beginning. The most important conflict, which remains to this day, is the need upstream in semi-arid country for more water to irrigate crops and the need downstream, where ample rainfall makes irrigation unnecessary, for less water.
These dreams or visions of a valley transformed by collective efforts resulted in a set of community demands of Congress to write laws that led to the transformation of our river. In the decades following the Lewis and Clark expedition, the demand was little more than for assistance in clearing the snags which made navigation difficult and, at times, dangerous. With the arrival of steam-powered paddle wheelers, that demand shifted to the construction of structures which altered the flow of the river into a reliable channel. Even after the railroad displaced the paddle wheelers, the demand continued for a channel for barges, which would open up new markets for our farms.
These changes in the vision of the Missouri Valley were largely economic. The goal was greater prosperity and wealth for those who lived and worked in the valley. The demand to use the stream flow for low-cost electricity and the impounded water for recreation and irrigation was a part of the same vision. Later, as development progressed, the reality of flooding led to new demands to build dams that would enable the government’s primary agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to regulate the flows more precisely.
Until 1933 the work on Missouri River dams was steady but quite modest. Then activity on the river increased, following a drought that reduced stream flows and barge traffic substantially; the Depression, which dramatically increased the numbers of Americans looking for work; and the June 1933 passage of the National Industrial Recover Act, which allocated $3.3 billion to a public works fund. Channelization work between Kansas City and Sioux City received new monies, and the Fort Peck dam in Montana was authorized.
A little more than 10 years later, following a very destructive flood in 1943 and the end of World War II, signaling the likely return of millions of job-hungry GIs, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act. This legislation, which is arguably the law with the greatest impact on valley dwellers, authorized five dams on the main stem of the Missouri north of Sioux City. The outbreak of the Korean War shifted federal priorities enough that two of those dams were almost not built. The 1952 flood created the political climate to push Congress to begin and eventually complete all five dams and the construction of a nine-foot channel from St. Louis to Sioux City.
The dream of a tremendous surge of commercial activity from barge traffic never materialized. The cost-benefit analysis to build and maintain the upstream channel tells us the cost to the taxpayers was not justified. Perhaps it kept rail rates lower than they would have been otherwise, but I do not believe such arguments to be supported by facts.
The facts tell us that the overall economic benefits from flood control, power generation and irrigation to the valley have been delivered to the taxpayer. It is hard to imagine the commercial development measured in income, jobs and wealth occurring in such an impressive way over the past 50 years without the flood control that has come from these structures.
All of this, of course, has come with a substantial price tag in total dollars spent, land inundated, and, in particular, loss of habitat for the abundant fish and wildlife populations. Moreover, the Missouri is by no means tamed. The 1993 floods have given us a grim reminder that this river can be as wild as it ever was and that the structures built to prevent flooding can become a means to make flooding worse. The power of this stream’s flow, which has carried away so much of the earth, is more than a match for anything we humans can build.
We need to ask ourselves what our dreams are for this great river today. We need to discover for ourselves if an alternative vision and dream for our river valley is better than the one which produced the demands for federal laws that authorized and appropriated monies to build structures that control floods and maintain river channels. We also need to pursue those dreams with the same determination, persistence and courage demonstrated by the leaders who made what we have today possible.
My own dream for the Missouri River valley is that we restore the substantial damage done to wildlife habitat without undoing the good which previous development has accomplished. This dream leads me to believe we should demand federal legislation that creates a new interstate authority comprised of a full-time representative from each of the valley’s six states. This new authority would have the power to make the quantitative and qualitative policy decisions which would become the basis for the Corps of Engineers management practices.
Aerial photo of the Missouri River near Bellevue, Neb., on October 3, 2001, is courtesy Nebraskaland Magazine/NGPC.