Then and Now: History Edition
Press & Dakotan

Then and Now: History Edition


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    Then&Now SECTION C Yankton Press & Dakotan September 25, 2017 Education Health Recreation Sports Entertainment Living With The River KELLY HERTZ/P&D The tranquil waters of Lake Yankton (above), which is the old, pre-dam riverbed of the Missouri River, offer a stark contrast to the river s unpredictable past, as seen below in this photo of an inundated lower Yankton during the flood of 1881. The Missouri River Has Changed Greatly Through The Years, And So Has The Area s Relationship With The Mighty Mo BY RANDY DOCKENDORF T im Cowman has lived his entire life in the shadow of the Missouri River, seeing the fury of the Mighty Mo. He grew up in the Yankton-Gayville area and attended the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. He now teaches at USD and works with the South Dakota Geologic Survey in Vermillion. The Missouri River is a tremendous natural resource, he said. We need to educate the public about the challenges facing it. In recent years, the American Rivers group designated the Muddy Mo as one of the United States endangered rivers because of its condition. Many of those challenges date back centuries, involving politics and money, as well as trying to tame the river, Cowman said. The river has spawned battles over capitals, water use and relations between tribes and the state and federal governments. One thing that has changed is the nature of the river itself, now harnessed by a series of six dams and reservoirs. The approximately 2,565-mile river formerly flowed as an unchannelized waterway with an environment to match, Cowman said. We had a wide river with natural features that would come and go, he said. It had forested islands and cottonwood trees. The river created an ever-changing environment that affected life around it, according to National Park Service (NPS) biologist Lisa Yager. The Missouri River used to be a wild river that was meandering and would do as it pleased, she said. Despite posing travel challenges, the river provided a natural pathway across the Northern Plains for the young nation, Yager said. Cowman, former director of the Missouri River Institute, showed photos of the river s changes through the years. You have the 1881 flood, which greatly influenced the river and the communities along it, he said. You can see other changes because of flooding and bank erosion. But Mother Nature didn t create the greatest changes, Cowman said. Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Act of 1944, transforming the upper Missouri River basin with a network of dams. The six dams and reservoirs intended to harvest the upper two-thirds of the river, which had been a natural free-flowing river, he said. They formed huge reservoirs behind the dams, and you saw the creation of a fertile flood plain. Since that time, the river has changed in ways unknown before construction of the dams. For a look at the past, Cowman pointed to the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR). The 98-mile national park, formed in 1978, consists of two stretches: 39 miles from Pickstown to Running Water and 59 miles from Yankton to Ponca, Nebraska. You get a feel of the Missouri River the way it was meant to be, as a wild and scenic river, he said. It allows us to reconnect with the Missouri River before it was modified (by dams). Visitors can experience the river s history as well as its flow, Cowman said. You feel like you re reconnecting with the Missouri River of the 1800s, he said. It s as close to the way the river probably looked at the time that Lewis and Clark explored the region. While creating flood control and other benefits, the dams have also PHOTO: DAKOTA TERRITORIAL MUSEUM The system of dams built on the Missouri River in the 1940s and 1950s changed the river dramatically from an unpredictable creature that could rage with floodwaters or wither away amidst drought, to a dependable source of water for community and recreation purposes. LEFT: The construction of Gavins Point Dam created a reservoir now called Lewis & Clark Lake, and it has turned into one of the premier recreational attractions in South Dakota. BELOW: Before the damming of the river, recreation could still be had on the river, including ice sailing. Now, the river below the dam rarely freezes at Yankton because of the swiftly moving waters from Gavins Point. KELLY HERTZ/P&D RIVER | PAGE 10C PHOTO: DAKOTA TERRITORIAL MUSEUM
    Living With the River