Unexpected Rise In Niobrara River Takes Everyone By Surprise

Corps Studies Niobrara Flooding. Corps of Engineers officials say they remain baffled on how to stop the flooding of Niobrara’s lower west side that has continued for nearly a week. Missouri River flooding has shaped the history of the town – it’s been moved twice to higher ground. However, area residents are saying the current flooding is unlike anything they have seen before. In response to the current Niobrara flooding, the Corps reduced the Missouri River releases, said Dave Becker, operations project manager at the Gavins Point project near Yankton. “We heard about the problem on Friday, so we lowered our flows out of Fort Randall Dam (at Pickstown) from 18,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 17,500 cubic feet per second,” he said. “After those flows were reduced on Friday, we left them down. We were just trying to get an understanding of what is going on – if there is something we can do, or if it’s a fact of nature and something we can’t control.” The Corps attributes the problem to Niobrara River siltation that dumps into the Missouri River, Becker said. “There has been 53 years of sedimentation accumulated at the delta,” he said. “It affects everything, so I’m sure it contributes (to this flooding). The sediment has raised the water levels considerably.” The sediment has dramatically worsened at the same time that the region has seen historic flooding, Becker said. “We had major flooding issues in the Niobrara area back in the 1990s, when they had high (Missouri River) flows,” he said. “Then we had the drought period, and we didn’t have as many problems because there wasn’t as much water in the river. “Now, we are in our third wettest year in 112 years on the Missouri River, and these problems show up as extreme events.” Most of the Knox County community of 400 now sits on a hill overlooking the Missouri River. However, a portion of the town – including the K-12 school with about 165 students – remains on lower ground. Niobrara school superintendent Margaret Sandoz said the district continues to monitor the situation. However, the nearby flooding has not disrupted classroom activities or the school calendar, she said. “The school is not currently in jeopardy, and we are running business as usual,” she said. “However, three of our five ground water test wells are frozen in and around with the floodwater. I am hoping for a solution soon. This isn’t even our typical flood season.” Corps officials from Yankton and Omaha have inspected and taken readings in and around Niobrara since last Friday, Becker said. What makes the current flooding even more unusual is its winter occurrence, he said. “We spent four hours up there (Tuesday), and we looked at the ice and sediment on the Missouri and Niobrara rivers,” he said. “We don’t see anything at this point in time that is constricting the flows anywhere and making the water back up. Our guys will take a look at the data and see if they can do something.” The Corps, along with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, met with Niobrarans this week to learn the flooding’s impact on the residents’ everyday lives, Becker said. “We didn’t come up with easy answers, but we’re going to put our headstogether and see if we can come up with some kind of battle plan in the next week,” he said. Meanwhile, Victor and Ruth Janak can only watch as floodwaters continue to fill their mechanic and service shop after nearly a week. Their shop is located in the lower part of the west side of town, at the junction of Nebraska Highways 12 and 14. As of Tuesday night, Vic’s Service was filled with 11 inches of water, silt and ice. The water drops down to 5 or 6 inches during the afternoon, giving them hope, only to see the flooding rise back to the original levels. “We are waiting to see what the Corps decides to do,” Ruth said. “They had a meeting up here (Tuesday), and they are just as puzzled as we are, on what to do with the situation.” Even amidst the chaos, the Janaks didn’t stop serving the public. “We had a customer on Sunday who needed a hydraulic hose, and here was Vic working on one for him, even with the water all around us,” Ruth said. Vic’s work was perhaps a desire to maintain normalcy and conduct business as usual, or it may have been a belief that the flooding was temporary. But the Janaks quickly realized that they were in for the long haul in a situation they don’t understand. They were informed they weren’t located in a flood plain, but now they are told that their insurance won’t cover their losses. “We have to deal with the Corps, and we need to go through lawyers,” Ruth said, adding that they are facing an elevation study that would cost $600. Niobrara village clerk Bob Olson said the siltation has worsened since last summer, particularly during the last month or two. “I think there are problems with water digging away at the mouth of the (Niobrara) river,” he said. “The water is backing up on the Niobrara and can’t get into the Missouri. They have dropped the Missouri River (during the past week), but it ran high all summer.” Olson has lived most of his life in Niobrara and hasn’t seen anything like the current flooding, particularly in the current location. “This situation has never occurred before, not at this level,” he said. The construction of the Missouri River dams has changed the natural flow of the river, Olson said. “It used to be, every few years there would be a flood that would scour out the channel and send the silt down to New Orleans,” he said. “But it doesn’t do that anymore, it just stops here (at Niobrara).” The Corps maintained even higher Missouri River releases about 15 years ago than it does today, Olson said. However, the current releases create a greater impact because the riverbed constantly silts in, he said. Olson and other Niobrarans look with concern at the upcoming spring thaw and the prospect of even more flooding. Knox County emergency manager Laura Hintz said she met this week with the Corps of Engineers and the Game and Parks Commission. She also accompanied the National Weather Service during its survey of recording stations. “Everyone is stymied as to what is causing (this type of flooding). It hasn’t happened in that area before,” she said. “And now the water comes up and ice forms on top of it, but it’s still under snow.” Hintz continues monitoring local facilities for potential flooding.So far, the water has remained at bay from several sites, she said. “The city (of Niobrara) has wells down there, but they are not under water,” she said. “We have a building belonging to the Ponca Tribe that has nothing in it. The Nebraska Department of Roads has a state yard. There are grain bins, hay storage and a cement plant. They all have water close to it.” In addition, Niobrara State Park officials are monitoring the impact of ice and flooding on a trail bridge, Hintz said. And at one point, water was creeping up on Highway 14, which was highly unusual, but has since receded, she added. The future remains uncertain, Hintz said. “We don’t know what Friday will bring,” she said. Olson hopes that local residents are spared major flooding in the lower west side of Niobrara. “I hope it turns out for the business people and property in that area, but it’s not good,” he said. However, the Janaks believe it’s too late to save their 17-year-old business. “We are both 50. We will be done with our business,” Ruth said. “Who wants to start over at this time in your life?” ((27 JAN 2011))






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