A Slow Death on the Great Plains

June 5 was a “repositioning day” for Elke and me, a long but relaxing drive from the previous day’s storm intercept area near Junction City, Kansas, toward the next day’s forecast supercell potential near the South Dakota-Montana line. Along the way we reveled in the refreshing newness of springtime in the Nebraska grasslands, including a stop to photograph an abandoned, multipurpose building from the homesteading era. The trip became longer but even more worthwhile by stopping briefly to observe a weak, high-based storm between Ogallala and Scottsbluff, and for a sunset experience amidst Carhenge.

All those scenes were special and memorable, but one in particular stands alone for its stark depiction of misfortune.

Lake McConaughy once was the largest High Plains reservoir between Texas and the Dakotas, a 22 mile long aquatic behemoth that impounded the North Platte River, captured Rocky Mountain snowmelt and provided a recreational bonanza for surrounding communities. Indeed, a vibrant regional economy thrived for decades on “Big Mac’s” regionally unique opportunities for hunting, fishing, sailing, windsurfing and boating. Today, much of the lake is gone, and with it, many former visitors and residents, their cash, their property values, and a way of life.

For several years, western Nebraska — indeed, much of the American West — has been in a deep drought, bringing scores of wildfires to the mountain states and causing untold millions in damage and economic loss. The drought also dried up much of Lake McConaughy. We could see this on satellite images, the reservoir’s formerly fat finger of dark gray having withered to a barely discernible string bean. Even that didn’t prepare us for the eerie desolation we would witness.

We pulled off state road 92 on a whim, wandering along a hilly gravel drive through a strangely quiet neighborhood, landing in the parking lot of a marina, convenience store, motel and restaurant. The area is called “Cedar View,” or “Cedar Vue” or simply “Cedar Vu,” depending upon which map or website one browses, and it is about 15 miles uplake or upstream from the dam.

Make that 15 miles upweed.

The scene from the Marina Landing’s parking lot hit me like a runaway coal train. There, the lake was gone. Not down, not shrunken…gone! That much water, all the green liquid that was here, absolutely dried up. Instead, all the way across, a burgeoning forest of young cottonwoods up to 15-20 feet high, along with assorted lesser shrubbery, dotted the parched sandscape from shoreline to shoreline. A narrow, shallow channel ran through the middle, the original North Platte River, drier than it should be in June even if a reservoir never had been there. Only with a keen eye could any of the lake itself finally be seen, in a thin, shallow sliver, far along the southeast horizon.

We had a sense of being strangely alone. All the marina buildings — convenience store, hotel, sports bar — were closed, dark within, devoid of inventory, and seemed to have been this way for a very long time. Sometimes I could hear our footsteps. Sometimes I could hear the chirps of a few birds far out across the basin, their calls from the cottonwoods wafting along with the ceaseless south wind.

My most vivid impression, though, was the sound of an American flag, flapping in the breeze, its ropes clanging against the metal pole, the noise seeming to echo now and then through the houses and buildings.

The marina, of course, was silent, as was the hotel and sports bar. It was a time of day and month when the hustle and bustle of lakeside activities should be spinning the cash registers raucously, boat after boat of fishermen motoring up to their trailers, soon to weigh in the day’s catch, young people quenching their thirst after a day under the canvas, dogs and kids and sunbathers going to and fro, wheels of pickups and SUVs rolling back and forth over the gravel. No, instead, there was only silence, save for that constant breeze, an occasional bird call, and any noise we chose to make.

Now who will launch a boat into a sea of scrubby sand? Drink Heinekens beside a dry lakebed in celebration of a football game on an unplugged big-screen? Cast lures into mile after mile of dry bush?

We saw one person in our half hour or so there — a haggard old chap, himself appearing windblown and dried up. He kept his head down as he unlocked one of the store doors from within, came out, locked it again, and scuttled away to his pickup, unresponsive to my “howdy.” Would he ever return? What would make him want to?

The entire resort was and is on the market, and might remain so for a painfully long time. As we noticed on the way down, “For Sale” signs littered the landscape almost one for one in number with the houses. Not another human was to be seen, not a single kid riding a bike, no mom strolling her baby, no old couple walking their dog — just wind, dust and sun. Cedar View/Vue/Vu, that afternoon, was a modern-day ghost town. At this rate, it’s not hard to envision the entire lakeside development ultimately degenerated into a gridded assemblage of wooden skeletons, some fallen, others standing, decrepit heaps of warped wood, whistling in the incessant prairie wind, crumbling monuments to a time when boat wakes splashed high up where the the big cottonwood tops grow.

That time beside the lake, for me, was one of mourning. It’s something we need to do at times, but seldom does the occasion for mourning announce itself with bells and whistles and flashing neon signs. Instead it comes only after a sad event of some sort for which we grieve the irretrievable, remember what was, long for what can no longer be. I mourned not for myself, the passing traveler who can afford to seek and find elsewhere the rain this lake so desperately needs. Instead I grieved for the stifling misfortune of good folks who have put hard earned sweat, cash and dreams into this place, only to see it all evaporate away with the water.

Life’s ups and downs run in cycles, as do those of drought and flood. What McConaughy needs now, and often, is the flood, at least upstream; for this is its best hope. But don’t hold your breath waiting. By the time it ever recovers, the past may be too far gone to rebuild or even recall. After all, naturally speaking, McConaughy isn’t even supposed to be there. It’s a man-made impoundment of Kingsley Dam, constructed just after the Dust Bowl years (1936), but filled in unrepresentatively lush times of far heavier flow. The lake got big then, nearly 36,000 acres, 142 feet deep and nearly four miles across at the dam. Somehow the lake stayed healthy through lesser droughts, while irrigation sucked away so much of both the surface water it directly captured and the groundwater to which its skeletal remnants feebly seep. Then came this, a condition of dessication not seen since those terrible years of mass exodus from the Great Plains, before the dam rose.

Yes, maybe someday the windsurfers and the jet skis will return, the water high again, the marina motel and sports bar overflowing with holiday revelers. I deeply hope so. For that would mean the the drought is long gone, the surface and ground water plentiful, the shoreline’s economy on the rise with the lake level, the times good again. Will that sullen old fellow live to see it? What of that generation, the ones gone or soon to leave, the folks who built and ran those marinas, who lived in those houses, who served and cooked food at those eateries, who put far more stake in the lake than they probably should have, but also, who did so out of a love for a place?

Their work and dreams, for now, get only this epitaph. Nature, meanwhile, slowly reclaims its own.


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