BISMARCK – Chuck Gerhart suspected a few surprises lay ahead on a trip floating down the Mighty Missouri aboard a paddlewheel riverboat.

He’d soon learn, yet again, that the Missouri River can fool even a veteran who knows its currents well.

Gerhart’s boat was the Far West II, a replica of a famous steamboat by that name that ventured the upper Missouri in the 1870s, when riverboats were the primary means of transportation before the railroad.

As Gerhart left the dock, with 30 or 40 passengers on board, he eased the Far West into the current that would carry the boat more than 200 miles downriver.

But the journey would be on a Missouri River radically different than the days of routine riverboat traffic. Gerhart’s departure and destination points were dictated by two mammoth dams, Garrison and Oahe, that now regulate the river’s flows.

The Far West could only go so far on the modern Missouri.

Once the boat had traveled 20 miles downriver, it encountered the headwaters of Lake Oahe – and ran aground on a sandbar.

The new Far West, like the original, was designed to travel in shallow water; it drew no more than 4 feet. But that proved not shallow enough.

“We had problems just like the 1880s,” Gerhart, 71, said of the trip he took, near as he and friends can recall, in the late 1980s. “When you slide on a sandbar going downstream, you’re in trouble.”

This undated image shows the river steamer Far West, which was built in 1870. The 190-foot-long boat supplied Army outposts in Montana and the Dakota Territory.  Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, D0005
This undated image shows the river steamer Far West, which was built in 1870. The 190-foot-long boat supplied Army outposts in Montana and the Dakota Territory. Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, D0005

Showdown in Omaha

The country delivered a defiant message to the Missouri River in 1943: No more.

The nation would no longer tolerate the river’s frequent rampages that spawned widespread floods that devastated cities and swamped crops.

The river’s destructive unruliness determined its own fate that year by inspiring the Flood Control Act of 1944, which would forever change the Missouri River.

On April 3, 1943, the Missouri at Bismarck did what it had done countless times before. It burst its banks after a huge ice jam formed, flooding thousands of acres with a wall of water.

The river, clogged with huge cakes of ice that hammered the Memorial Bridge, causing it to shudder, crested at 21.86 feet, almost 6 feet above flood stage in Bismarck.

Mandan, also battling the raging Heart River, saw its business district inundated and almost half the town’s residents had to flee to higher ground.

Similar scenes of devastation played out along the Missouri’s banks for more than 1,000 miles through the nation’s heartland. Damages were tallied at $20 million, the equivalent of $43 million in current dollars, and 1.8 million acres were inundated.

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Officials gathered in Omaha, Neb., where the city’s airport had been flooded, and solemnly vowed to take action.

Levees wouldn’t do the job, Army engineers announced. Taming the Missouri would require a series of six huge dams and reservoirs – immense pools to hold back water to be released in flows regulated by gigantic gates.

Work on Garrison Dam, 75 miles upstream from Bismarck, began in 1947. Six years later, in 1953, the earthen dam was closed, allowing its reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, to begin filling with water.

But the petulant Missouri River would not wait for the dam to be finished. It would flood again five times after 1943 – in 1944, 1947, 1949, 1951 and, most notably, in 1952.

That year, in another ice-jam flood, the Missouri surged to 27.9 feet, almost 12 feet above flood stage in Bismarck.

The 1952 flood, considered the worst in 42 years, drove 1,000 Bismarck residents from their homes and inundated 300 houses, sweeping at least one away.

As the water receded, an official with the Army Corps of Engineers gave reassurances. The big dams then under construction offered the only protection against such major floods, said Lt. Col. R.J.B. Page, the Garrison district engineer.

“The Oahe Dam will, of course, stop flooding at Pierre and Fort Pierre completely,” Page said, referring to South Dakota, “and the Garrison Dam, after its closure in the summer of 1953, will do the same for Bismarck.”

Devastating floods would become a relic of the past, thanks to the massive dams. As well as providing flood control, the dams and reservoirs would generate huge amounts of hydropower, help supply municipal and industrial water, irrigation, and support barge traffic downstream on the lower Missouri River.

A steam-powered locomotive is surrounded by floodwaters of the Missouri River in 1947 near Bismarck. The river flooded five times between 1943 and 1952, the year it inundated 300 Bismarck homes with water levels 12 feet above flood stage.  Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2003-P-02-008-1
A steam-powered locomotive is surrounded by floodwaters of the Missouri River in 1947 near Bismarck. The river flooded five times between 1943 and 1952, the year it inundated 300 Bismarck homes with water levels 12 feet above flood stage. Photo Courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2003-P-02-008-1

But the dams also would transform the Missouri into one of the nation’s most altered rivers.

In North Dakota, all but 70 or 80 of the Missouri River’s 410 miles flow through a channel; the rest flow through artificial reservoirs.

The most natural stretch of the river is near Williston, below where the Yellowstone merges with the Missouri, says Greg Power, a biologist and chief of fisheries for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

The reach above Garrison Dam near Williston still has sturgeon, for instance, a fish species that has disappeared from most places. “It’s quasi-natural,” Power says.

Of sturgeon and erosion

It was no coincidence that the Far West was stranded on a sandbar at the headwaters of Lake Oahe.

Along the headwaters, where the river widens as the lake begins, the river’s pace slows, allowing sediment carried in the water to settle on the bottom, where it accumulates over time, forming deltas and sandbars.

Siltation, as the effect is called, is a major problem on the Missouri River. Sediment buildup plagues the river cities of Williston and Bismarck-Mandan.

The formation of a delta south of Bismarck was one factor in the formation of an ice jam in 2009, which briefly caused flooding before dynamite helped break it up.

Sandbars are a natural part of the Missouri River. In fact, management of the dams was altered in 2004 in a manner to promote more sandbar formation, providing valuable nesting habitat for endangered bird species.

Dozens of species, including sport fish and game birds, were declining along the river, according to American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group that proclaimed the Missouri the nation’s most endangered river in 2002.

That was two years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a biological opinion that required the Army Corps of Engineers to manage the dams to re-create the river’s seasonal fluctuations.

The altered operating manual for the dams followed years of studies and criticism from environmentalists calling for regulating the Missouri River in a way that more closely mimicked natural seasonal rhythms.

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Every year, the heavy flows from spring melt, with water flowing from the mountains and plains, would flush the river and rearrange its elaborate mix of sandbars and islands.

Then, when flows would recede in the dry summer, the sandbars would be exposed, allowing bird species like the least tern and piping plover to build nests.

Releases from the dams are kept relatively stable to provide hydropower and reliable flows to operate barges on the lower river, as well as minimize riverbank erosion.

The operation of the dams was further modified in 2006 to provide for a “spring pulse,” a surge of water that helps rare sturgeon spawn.

The fluctuating river levels are good for birds and fish but exacerbate bank erosion – a point of contention among landowners and communities along the river in North Dakota that deal with loss of land and flooding aggravated by deltas.

That is just one of the ongoing controversies involved in the balancing acts required to operate the Missouri River dams in a way that serves multiple uses.

During periods of drought, including much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, upstream recreation interests clashed with the downstream barge industry over how much water to release from the dams.

North Dakota officials clamored for more water to be stored in the Sakakawea and Oahe reservoirs during times of drought so fishing and other water recreation industries could remain viable. Recreation revenues, they pointed out, dwarf the downstream barge industry by a factor of 9 to 1, according to corps figures.

The argument ultimately was taken into account in the 2004 revised master manual for operating the dams, allowing for greater water storage during droughts.

But conditions can change dramatically in only a few years – as shown by the historic Missouri River flood of 2011, which came only a few years after a prolonged drought.

So while coping with flooding that lasted three months in Bismarck-Mandan and elsewhere along the Missouri, officials found themselves criticizing the corps for failing to anticipate the possibility of heavy spring rains following a heavy mountain snowpack.

The Missouri River floods Bismarck in this circa 1940s photo.  Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota 0276-23
The Missouri River floods Bismarck in this circa 1940s photo. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota 0276-23

Thus, the critics were saying the corps should have begun releasing more water sooner – the opposite argument they had made just a year earlier when, mindful of recent severe droughts, they called for storing more water.

Todd Sando, North Dakota’s state engineer, acknowledges that operating the dams calls for delicate balancing acts. Hydropower, by far the biggest economic benefit, requires storing enough water to run the generating turbines, for instance.

“You need head to produce the energy,” Sando says. “You can’t have dry dams. Hydropower is the moneymaker.”

The ongoing tug-of-war between clashing interests, as well as upstream states and downstream states, reflects the inherent contradictions in running dams that must balance eight authorized uses as diverse as irrigation and hydropower.

The Flood Control Act of 1944 was a compromise that melded two competing plans from rival bureaucracies.

The Army Corps of Engineers pushed the Pick plan, which emphasized flood control and navigation. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Sloan plan favored irrigation, municipal and industrial water development projects.

Washington merged the blueprints into the Pick-Sloan Plan, which authorized eight uses for the yet-to-be-built Missouri River dams.

“Congress forced kind of a shotgun marriage and ended up with the system we have today,” says Lee Klaprodt, director of planning for the North Dakota State Water Commission.

The only issue upstream and downstream politicians can agree upon in managing the complex Missouri River dam system, it seems, is the critical need for effective flood control.

Steam boatin’ by moonlight

Finally, after half a day of rocking back and forth, and using the paddlewheels to wash away part of the sandbar, the Far West broke free and resumed its journey down the Missouri River.

Gerhart had to make up for lost time. A reception was planned for the Far West’s arrival on the lake above the Oahe Dam, where the boat’s owners and others would be waiting.

“We had to travel all day and most of the night just to get to Mobridge,” Gerhart says.

Traveling in the dark of night was more treacherous. A pair of spotters on the bow helped Gerhart keep a lookout for hazards, including snags, fallen trees embedded in the sand that sunk many an old wood-hulled riverboat.

“If you have a full moon, that is much better,” says Gerhart, who has 50 years of boating experience on the Missouri. “We were very lucky.”

The boat, designed for brief pleasure rides, was equipped with a bar and snack area, but no sleeping accommodations. Passengers had to sleep on the deck, using life vests as pillows.

Unlike the riverboat captains of old, Gerhart had a depth finder to help him stay in the river’s channel. Although helpful, the finder could only read the river bottom below, not out ahead.

Once the Far West reached the open waters of Lake Oahe, however, the traveling became easier, largely free of the obstacles including snags and numerous sandbars that plagued the Missouri before the dams.

On today’s river, the greatest hazard to boaters often is posed by other boaters, moving at speeds far greater than the tortoise pace of the Far West’s paddlewheels, with an average speed of 4 or 5 mph.

Eventually, after 2½ days, the Far West put ashore above the Oahe Dam, a few miles north of Pierre, S.D. A crowd and a band were waiting.

Many of the passengers decided they’d had enough of riverboat travel, and elected not to make the return journey onboard the Far West.

The roundtrip voyage was in all likelihood the first long paddlewheel riverboat trip on the Upper Missouri since the steamboats stopped running in the 1880s, after the arrival of the railroads.

On the trip home, going against the current, it took a whole day to travel the last 20 miles.

“It was an adventure,” Gerhart says. “I got to experience a little bit of what it was like in the 1800s.”

Patrick Springer reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

"Living with Water" in print

Scroll through the PDF version of part one of the "Living with Water" series to read the rest of the section's stories as they appeared in the newspaper:

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