Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 3, Summer 2001, pp. 179-92.
Water has played a critical, even defining, role in the history of the American West. Typically, scarcity determined water's significance. Farmers descended of European stock found too little water in the West to continue their traditional agriculture. Battles linger to this day over water rights for irrigation and urban usage. In a less-examined phenomenon, excess water has shaped the otherwise arid Plains by influencing the relationship between humans and their environment. In Nebraska's Elkhorn River Basin, a steady history of flooding led humans to alter the basin in attempts to control or mitigate flooding. Record flooding in 1944 revealed the weaknesses in a series of ad hoc flood control measures taken during previous decades and spurred basin residents to recruit federal aid in an effort to control the Elkhorn once and for all. Although subsequent flood control projects still could not totally prevent flooding on the Elkhorn, 1944 marked the beginning of a new era in the relationship between basin residents and their environment. This reflected a broader trend in American environmental history, that of bringing the phenomenal resources of the federal government to bear upon the countryside.
The Elkhorn Basin experiences floods regularly, almost annually, to this day. One of the earliest written accounts comes from Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Württemberg, who recorded in August 1823 a hurricane-like storm that turned the Elkhorn into a torrent. The river flooded Indian earth lodges abandoned for the summer. When Americans of European descent began settling in the basin in the 1850s, they located town sites near the river, the better to utilize the Elkhorn's current to power mills. Placing economic assets such as mills and homes within the river's reach-the floodplain, not just the usual banks, must be considered any river's natural domain-paved the way for conflict. During the late 1800s basin residents coped with flooding simply by rebuilding damaged structures, replanting damaged crops, and, in some areas, as at Norfolk, by building levees to protect assets from high water.
The dawn of the twentieth century saw people in several counties form drainage districts, which were private, quasi-governmental organizations dedicated to improving drainage within their jurisdictions. The Elkhorn River Drainage District and the Elkhorn Valley Drainage District each pursued "improvements" to the river, typically straightening curved portions of the channel to facilitate drainage. By 1912 the districts had completed several such projects, which accomplished their objectives but only during rains and floods of limited magnitude.
Between 1910 and 1920, local flood fighters attacked the basin more aggressively. Workers dredged the Elkhorn's final twenty miles and created a new channel. Tributaries such as Logan Creek experienced similar modifications, which in some cases made it impossible to recognize the original channel. Logan Creek, originally 150 miles long, shrank to less than one-half its original length. As a result of those efforts flood damage declined.