Skip to content

Low snow? Oh no! A visual tour of Wyobraska’s managed water

February 5, 2012

I’ve only had to shovel my driveway once or twice this winter. The ground is bare.

While the urbanites among us may say “yay!”, those with links to agriculture peer warily at the sky and poke the toes of their boots into the soil. (Ok, so that’s a rather dated visual. They are probably checking weather radar and deploying soil moisture probes.)

Last summer we had an overabundance of snowmelt. This year seems to be headed in the opposite direction, which could create a different set of problems around here if the trend continues.

Snow – particularly snow upstream in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado – feeds the North Platte River, which feeds the irrigation systems that feed the agricultural economy in this semiarid region.

Two summers ago, I went on the Scottsbluff-Gering Chamber of Commerce water tour – a two-day excursion upstream into Wyoming to see the North Platte River dams and reservoirs that are the source of Wyobraska irrigation systems. I wrote about it for the Star-Herald. Last summer, Bugman and I took a Sunday drive through the Wyoming landscape to see the water gushing over the Pathfinder Dam spillway – just the eighth time that’s happened in the 100-plus years since the dam was completed in 1909.

I meant to blog about the experience both times, but I got too caught up in my perfectionism and kept setting the topic aside.

The dry winter thus far has prompted me to think about the water upstream. And the following document prompted me to go ahead and put my blog post out there, so I could share a few literary highlights typically unknown in government-sponsored writing about engineering projects: North Platte Project by Robert Autobee of the Bureau of Reclamation.

I’ll put up some quotes from this 1996 document on the history of the North Platte River Bureau of Reclamation projects. Then, I’ll insert some pictures from my summer explorations of the river system.

Despite cave drawings confirming the presence of Indians thousands of years previous, the parade of history was loudest along the North Platte River during a 25-year window in the nineteenth century.


Compared to most languid western tributaries, the North Platte often runs wild and mighty. But, like other rivers in the West, summer saps its strength.


The [Oregon-California] trail confirmed that Americans are a transitory people always looking to get someplace else faster.

And, my favorite:

Perhaps for the first time, Nebraskans saw red, and it was not out of local sporting fanaticism, but out of indignation that their access to the North Platte was in jeopardy.

And now, the pictures, with a map screen-captured from a Nebraska DNR page (which does not show all the dams on the river).

Going from downstream up, the Whalen Diversion Dam comes first.

Photo taken July 2010

Next, the sluice gate and spillway of Guernsey Dam (which gives Guernsey State Park its lovely reservoir).

Photo taken July 2010

Photo taken July 2010

A bit further upstream is Glendo Dam, of Glendo State Park fame.

Photo taken July 2010

Next up, Alcova Dam.

July 2010

Upstream of Alcova is Fremont Canyon and the Fremont Canyon Power Plant, which you have to drive into a 1,692-foot-long tunnel to reach.

Fremont Caynon Road bridge over Fremont Canyon. July 2011

A map showing (from the bottom) the North Platte River, Fremont Canyon Road and the 3-mile tunnel that carries water from Pathfinder Dam to the Fremont Canyon Power Plant

The normally-closed metal tunnel door to the power plant

During the water tour – open sesame! (Note the no-trespassing sign, keycard access control and security camera.) We got to tour the 1960s power plant and gawk at all the vintage equipment down there, including the oldest operational microwave over I have ever seen in the staff break room.

Then, the main attraction – the granddaddy of North Platte River dams: Pathfinder.

When I visited in July 2010, you could walk on the pathway behind the dam to get a better view of things, and even walk on the dam itself.

Old construction equipment at the rim of the canyon adjacent to the dam. July 2010

Stone blocks making up the dam (note itty bitty people walking along the top) July 2010

Outlet at the bottom of the dam. July 2010

Here’s a broad view of the dam posted on Wikipedia:

And here are some images that show why so many people were heading out there summer 2011 to see the spill, and why the walkway atop the dam was closed:

Is that a fire there on the horizon? July 24, 2011

No - it's not smoke.

It's mist!

As you approached the edge of the canyon, the air temperature dropped (mist + dry air = evaporative cooling effect) and the thunderous crash of water-on-rock filled the air. Ephemeral rainbows danced on the thick spray of water droplets, which amassed on the canyon walls to create mini-waterfalls all around. Gorgeous.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the amount of water pouring through that dry terrain.

The view downstream of Pathfinder Dam. July 2011. There's a hiking trail at the entrance to the overlook parking lot that takes you down to the bridge in this photo.

I also noticed, in both 2010 and 2011, evidence of government attempts to save people from their own stupidity.

See the security camera set into the rocks? (Next to the lone shrub at center.) It was trained on the spillway in July 2011, presumably to keep an eye out for bored idiots (see the linked story above).

Which leaves only Seminoe Dam, backing up water to form Seminoe Reservoir of Seminoe State Park, left in the North Platte River sequence:

And with that, my day is nearly spent. (Such a crime to have been indoors all day today – dry, clear and 50 degrees in the sun.)

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend the chamber of commerce water tour.

Copyright 2012 by Katie Bradshaw


6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2012 2:44 pm

    The headwaters of the North Platte River began two miles up from the Manville Hereford Ranch near Walden, CO. This is the ranch that Danny was raised on and his great grandfather homesteaded.

  2. February 5, 2012 6:24 pm

    This is comprehensive–I love the sound of the roaring water–

  3. vnewman permalink
    February 7, 2012 6:36 pm

    Excellent! I wish I would have gone on that tour when I lived there.


  1. Rain, please? « SCB Citizen
  2. The downtown Scottsbluff plaza open house was fun | SCB Citizen
  3. 2021 Crafting Project: Precipitation Scarf – KT Bradshaw

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: