Surge in mountain floodwaters threatens Nebraska homes

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June 2, 2011 - 7:00pm

Along North Platte's North River road, water is running in the ditches. It sounds a lot like a bathtub overflowing. From time to time, trucks navigate through the water that crosses the road near Dolores Stellman's house. Stellman, who's 89, has lived in this area most of her life.


Photo by Fred Knapp

Water from Lake McConaughy cascades down the Morning Glory structure at Kingsley Dam near Ogallala.

Graph courtesy of the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District

Water levels of Lake McConaughy from May 1 to June 1, 2011

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360-degree view of Lake McConaughy via Google Earth

"I've been here since the '40s, and we built our house here in '49, and I've never seen it like this before in my life," she said. "Never."

Her family has built a berm, rigged up a pump, and is moving her belongings out of the basement. But Stellman's daughter, Bev Ulfers, still worries about flood waters damaging her mom's property.

"Her well, the septic system, her deep freeze, all of her valuables in the basement," said Ulfers. "(She's) lived here for 70 years and it's all going to go under water, the way it sounds."

A little more than 50 miles upstream from Stellman's house, Kingsley Dam spans the North Platte River to create Lake McConaughy. Most years, water released from the dam goes through the hydropower plant, with some shot in the air for oxygenation.

This year, for the first time since Kingsley was finished in 1941, people who run the dam are using something called the Morning Glory structure to send water downstream. Picture looking down at the petals of a flower, then imagine standing on a catwalk looking down at what amounts to a giant bathtub drain for Lake McConaughy. Open the surrounding gates, and the water cascading down looks like frothy petals.

The water kicks up a mist as it falls into the drain at a thousand cubic feet per second.

Nate Nielsen, Kingsley Dam foreman for the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, says this is all part of the district's management strategy.

"We'll store to capacity, and hopefully by that time, we'll have things under control" he said. "If it continues higher flows, though, you know, we'll just end up having to increase our outflows. There's only so much you can do."

Back downstream in North Platte, with water threatening her house, Stellman wonders if Central Nebraska Public Power has done all it could.

"This is uncalled for, because they should have known there'd be a snow melt, and they should have lowered it a lot sooner than they did," she said.

Photo by Fred Knapp

Dolores Stellman stands outside her flood-threatened North Platte home.

Nielsen agrees that with 20-20 hindsight, lowering Lake McConauhy sooner would have been better. But he says after a decade of shortages, Central was trying to save water for farmers to irrigate this summer. Then came the unexpected late, heavy snows in Wyoming and Colorado.

John Lawson, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation near Casper, Wyoming, says snow in the mountains between those states is up to 15 feet high, and contains three times the amount of water that's been average for this season over the last 30 years. (Click here for a chart of Lake McConaughy levels from 1941 to 2011.)

Still, with all that looming over her North Platte home, Stellman is looking forward to the future.

"I've got all the faith in the world," she said. "We're not going to get - oh, we might get hurt a little bit. But it's not going to be bad. Just not going to let it be."

Back upstream at Kingsley Dam, Nielsen sounds like he's on the same page.

"We've got a lot of water," he said, "and the trick is to manage it without washing people away."



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