Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) dates back to 1779, when Congress formed the unit for military support purposes. Public works projects, employing citizens outside the military to work for the COE, began in 1824 with work to improve navigation on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The initial and continuing focus of the Army Corps of Engineers in the Great Plains is the Missouri River.

The Corps's presence on the Plains began in 1867 when Capt. Charles W. Howell spent three months on a survey of the Missouri River from Sioux City, Iowa, to Fort Benton, Montana. His purpose was to map major sandbars and snags for those using the Missouri for military purposes or for transportation to the Montana goldfields.

Since that first expedition, the objectives of the COE on the Missouri have been to control bank erosion, improve navigation, and provide flood control. All three goals were placed within reach in the 1950s with the completion of six dams on the river from Montana to South Dakota. Financed mostly by the Pick-Sloan Plan, the dams reduced floods sufficiently to allow the COE to complete their work on bank stabilization and to create a nine-foot-deep navigation channel from the mouth of the Missouri at St. Louis to Sioux City. The coe has also constructed smaller dams on Salt and Papillion Creeks in southeastern Nebraska and constructed levees along hundreds of miles of Missouri River tributaries, including the Big Sioux and Floyd Rivers of Iowa.

The very nature of the Missouri River has been changed by coe intervention. What was once a shallow, swift-flowing river that ranged in width and was capable of moving tremendous loads of silt and sand has been transformed into a relatively narrow, uniform, lowsediment transportation route. Views of the river near Plattsmouth, Nebraska, taken from 1934 to 1983, show the dramatic transformations that have taken place. The strategic placement of wooden and rock dikes has encouraged sediment deposition near the stream banks, leaving flow to be concentrated in the nine-foot-deep navigational channel, which is self-scouring and normally does not require dredging.

The changing nature of society in the Great Plains is reflected in the current debate over the prioritized operation of Missouri River dams. For example, flood protection and navigation have been important priorities when deciding on water releases from the dams. However, because of increased recreational benefits at the reservoirs and the occurrence of several endangered species throughout the river system, there have been calls for expanded priorities. The revision of the COE's Master Manual for the operation of the main stem dams is a subject of ongoing work and controversy.

The COE is organized into eight divisions spanning the United States. The Great Plains is contained within the recently formed Missouri River Region of the Northwest Division, comprising the Missouri and Columbia River basins. The Missouri River Region is composed of the Kansas City and Omaha Districts.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

Rollin H. Hotchkiss University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Brey, Debra, Connie Carman, and Kettie Parks, eds. The Federal Engineer: Damsites to Missile Sites. A History of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1984.

Essayons (Let Us Try): The History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1991.

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