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An interesting look at dam history
sheldon damONLINE
SHELDON DAM, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is located in Northeast Nebraska on the Niobrara River, failed spectacularly during the calamitous melt following a bomb cyclone in mid-March of 2019, under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice.

In the heyday of dam construction in America, in the 50s and 60s, there were two competing philosophies of flood control that dominated the nation’s approach.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took the approach of ‘controlling’ nature, building large flood control structures on the main stems of American rivers. Perhaps the most obvious example of their work that most Americans are familiar with is the iconic Hoover Dam. Another example of their efforts was the 90-year-old Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River in Northeast Nebraska. 

The dam failed spectacularly during the calamitous melt following a ‘bomb cyclone’ in mid-March of 2019, under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. The dam failure, melt and runoff caused catastrophic flooding in Nebraska and Iowa. Before the dam was destroyed, the Niobrara River had been running at five or six feet of gauge height. After the water and ice released by the catastrophic thaw and rains broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. And it wasn’t a gradual increase, either.

This large dam approach differed from that taken by the Soil Conservation Service, which took a focus of ‘cooperation’ with nature, focusing on a combination of conservation land treatment and flood control structures. Historically, the SCS (historical predecessor of today’s USDA-NRCS), was given responsibility for flood control along the tributaries of rivers, but not the main stem. SCS was responsible for the watershed studies, massive installation of conservation land treatment measures, and construction of PL-566 flood control dams in Southwest Wisconsin.

This is the reason that the flood control dam project on the main stem of the Kickapoo River above LaFarge was an Army Corps of Engineers project, whereas the dams in the West Fork Kickapoo, Coon Creek, and the Bad Axe River watersheds were SCS projects.

As Paul B. Sears of the Yale University Conservation Program wrote in his introduction to Elmer Theodore Peterson’s book, ‘Big Dam Foolishness,’ published in 1954:

“One of the first and most costly results of human disruption of the natural landscape is water trouble - either too much or too little. Land covered in native vegetation will absorb water, whereas land cleared and farmed loses from half to two-thirds of its capacity to absorb water.”

Sears went on to say, “Peterson is calling upon us to re-examine our child-like trust in steel and concrete and to consider instead the ways of nature. For natural processes were handling the regimen of water long before we came on the scene, and doing it very well. All that Peterson asks is that we take advantage of this fact to the fullest.”

Peterson described the situation facing his community in 1954:

“At this point a critical battle is shaping up between those who think that flood control is best achieved by huge storage reservoirs, and those who contend that water – even in abnormal amounts – can be stopped where it falls or near that point.”

Peterson writes in his introduction:

“The most conspicuous element in this fight has been the enormous infiltration of political power of those who cling desperately to the big-dam concept because it is a convenient mechanism for the appropriation and distribution of the taxpayer’s money. Time after time it has seemed the watershed policy would win, but defeat has come because of the ingenious and potent techniques of the pork barrel have been effective. The politicians in such cases have taken the easy route of succumbing to the blandishments and technical gobbledegook of a deep-rooted bureaucracy, using huge and spectacular baits instead of standing beside the lonely farmer at the forks of the creek, working on his quarter-section of disintegrating land. Let the fight go on – reinforcements are on the way. The on-coming generation, particularly the FFA and 4-H Clubs, is learning about modern and scientific methods of flood control. We must look to these youngsters for leadership in the days ahead.”

Although much focus since the historic flood of August of 2018 has been on the area’s flood control dams, the reality is that those dams were never meant to stand alone. They were meant from the first to work hand-in-hand with conservation land treatment. Indeed, a requirement for the dams being built was that a minimum of 50 percent of the landowners in the watersheds the dams would control had to be cooperators with the Soil Conservation Service in conservation land management for the funds to be approved.

 We have only to look at the most recent 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture numbers recently released to see that the crucial role of conservation land treatment has been abandoned in the counties that make up the Kickapoo River Watershed. In those four counties, there have been exponential increases in acres planted in soybeans and corn, especially on ridge top farmland, and the shrink in acres planted in pasture and hay. What this has meant, especially since 2007, has been removal of the conservation land treatment measures installed on the landscape that started in the 30s and continued through the period in which the area’s flood control dams were being constructed.

Now, USDA-NRCS proposes a thoroughgoing study of the West Fork Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds, and their flood control dams. In the meantime, the breached dams will remain wide open and local communities will be faced with uncertain futures. 

Now, the area is faced with the need to undertake this study, using updated rainfall amounts and more modern engineering techniques. Another challenge will be to re-examine the way that land is being used, and to actively explore ways to increase soil water infiltration and to slow runoff of water and nutrients.