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Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters

Missouri River Basin

Missouri River Basin

The U.S. acquired land along the Missouri River Basin in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. From 1804 to 1806, Lewis and Clark’s expedition explored the region and produced one of the first detailed maps of the area. Westward expansion soon followed.

By the mid-19th century, settlements along the river included the incorporated towns of Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; and Sioux City, Iowa. During the 1870s and 1880s, transcontinental railroads led to further population growth into the Dakotas.

Five notable floods occurring between 1881 and 1934 and a severe drought during the 1930s had government officials calling for flood control and irrigation plans to sustain the region’s growth. In 1941, America’s entry into World War II put those plans on hold as money, material, and manpower were diverted to support the war effort.

Map of land acquired by the U.S. along the Missouri River Basin in 1803

Image source: Lewis, Meriwether, et al. History of the Expedition Under the Command of Lewis and Clark…. Vol. 4. Francis P. Harper, 1893. View Source

The Floods of 1943

A series of floods in 1943 began in April when snowmelt in Montana and the Dakotas sent rising water levels downstream along the Missouri River. Heavy rains in April and May added to the problem. Floodwaters hit Omaha, Nebraska, particularly hard with the airport at one point under seven feet of water.

Flooding had been a regular occurrence along the Missouri River, but the 1943 floods became a catalyst for change. After two years of war, Congress took notice of the damage inflicted to vital Midwest industry and agriculture that slowed military production and training (Omaha, for example, was a major hub for pilot training).

There was also political interest in developing hydroelectric power and agricultural irrigation for the region, as well as providing jobs for veterans returning home from the war. A public works program was viewed as a solution to several problems.

Image of the Omaha airport under several feet of water

The Omaha airport under several feet of water during the 1943 floods. Image source: Final Report: Missouri River Flood Plain Study. Missouri Basin States Association, 1983, p. xvi. View Source

Pick and Sloan

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded to the floods of 1943 with a sweeping plan to redevelop the Missouri River basin. Colonel Lewis Pick, an engineer in the Corps’ Omaha, Nebraska, office, drew plans to build dams and reservoirs, dredge a navigation channel, and create a series of levees from northern Iowa to St. Louis. The proposed budget for the projects totaled nearly $500 million.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had been working on a similar Missouri River development plan since 1939. Headed by William Sloan, an engineer in the Bureau’s Billings, Montana, office, the $1.3 billion plan focused more on irrigation, drought relief, and hydroelectric power generation.

Both agencies had supporters in Congress, but a compromise proved difficult as the agencies fought over how best to control and utilize water resources.

Image of two men, William Sloan on the left, and Lewis Pick on the right

William Sloan, left, and Lewis Pick. Image source: The Federal Engineer, Damsites to Missile Sites: History of the Omaha District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. United States Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, 1985, p. 81. View Source