The awesome power of nature

T-R PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Garry Brandenburg enjoyed seeing once again Spearfish Falls adjacent to Highway 14A along Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the hiking trail leading the the waterfall, a tiger swallowtail butterfly also attracted the attention of my camera. Garry’s mini vacation was made during late June and prior to July 4. Along the journey, observations were duly noted about how the landscape responded to abundant rains this past spring. Water was everywhere it seemed. Grasslands across South Dakota were lush and green. And while camped at my Air Force friends log cabin at 6,300 feet above sea level, it rained on us every day. While Iowans were sweltering in mid 90 air temperatures, we enjoyed warm days in the high 70s and night time temps of high 40s to low 50s. Incidentally, water from Spearfish Falls will eventually join into the Cheyenne River, a tributary to the Missouri River.

The BLACK HILLS OF SOUTH DAKOTA remain one of this nation’s prime attractions for tourists. I have visited the area often, it seems at least once per year for the last 20 years. Going way back in my life history, it was Ellsworth Air Force Base that I was assigned to in 1966-67 that made weekend visits to the Black Hills an easy endeavor. Needless to say, I made good use of my free time while in the Air Force to explore any new place, any new scenic view point, every surfaced and many non-surfaced roadways, and always with camera at hand. I liked being stationed so close to a huge variety of natural resources to hike, explore and read about. I’ve been to the top of it tallest mountain, driven curvy valley roads along canyons, and seen bison, elk, pronghorn, mule and whitetail deer, prairie dogs, coyotes and wild turkey. And it is inescapable that one will see lots of people.

Weather events in the Black Hills and the foothill area around Rapid City can be all over the charts. Having lived at the Air Force base for about one and one half years, I got to see spring, summer, fall and winter in its best of times and worst of times. An example of a worst time was a full blown blizzard in May of 1966 that shut down base operations for a few days. Local highways were impassable. In many respects weather events shape what we do, when we do it, and how we adapt and adjust to the variety of situations Mother Nature offers.

During this most recent visit, it was evident that lots of rain was responsible for every farm pond, small lake and river system to be at capacity. Lush green waving prairie grasses were everywhere as my vehicle transported me along a ribbon of concrete called Interstate 90. Once I arrived at the Missouri River near Chamberlain, it was evident that this body of water, actually part of a series of Missouri River lakes, was residing at a high level. I learned that in fact every lake on the Missouri River from Fort Peck, Montana, to Oahe, Sharpe, Francis Case and Lewis & Clark were also full. Each impoundment had to work in concert with all the others to regulate water outflow to help prevent or at least curtain adversarial effects on the Missouri along all of Iowa’s western border.

A few short months ago, while eastern Nebraska and western Iowa were being hard hit by flooding of the Missouri River, a bit a flashback note I took away from a televised press conference was recalled to my mind. Flooding in western Iowa, eastern Nebraska and parts of Kansas and Missouri was so extensive and so devastating to so many folks, numerous major highways were under water or severely damaged, that it appeared as if Mother Nature had played a cruel joke on everyone. It was in fact a series of heavy spring rainfall events that just seemed to stay over the same territory and dump great quantities of water within the watershed. It soon became apparent that this was a case of too much rain repeatedly saturating the same places. The Missouri River and many of its tributaries reflected heavy outflow in the only way they could … low land flooding.

Back to the press conference as seen on TV. Lots of people attended along with politicians and agency leaders. Their concerns were genuine, real and heartbreaking. Many were pointing fingers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the people responsible, in part, for the devastation. And even now I recall this comment made by a Corps of Engineer spokesperson … “even if every Missouri River system reservoir had been completely empty and dry from Montana, North and South Dakota prior to last winter’s snow melt and before any of the spring rain events, there was nothing that would have prevented the flooding that occurred in 2019 between Nebraska and Iowa.” That comment seemed to go right over the heads of everyone attending the press conference. It was easier to find a scapegoat to pounce upon than face the fact that rivers flood. It is so easy to think mankind is in charge of the weather. We never have been and never will be.

To deal with extraordinary runoff, the Corps must increase releases from six dams this summer and into November, at higher than normal flow rates, in order to prepare each reservoir by March 1 to create space for snow melt and rains in the spring of 2020. I suspect that given the best of summer and fall construction options to repair levies damaged, there might not be enough time to adequately prepare. What will buy time will be a mild winter and no heavy rain events next spring. Mankind is truly at the mercy of Mother Nature.

FOSSIL SITES in Iowa you might want to visit this summer are open and free. Here are just two of them where one can learn about Iowa’s geologic past. That past included millions of years when the land we call Iowa was part of the Great Western Seaway ocean connection between the arctic and gulf region. Layers of limestone deposition products slowly made a record of time so almost incomprehensible that it is hard to understand. But it happened. As proof, go to Devonian Fossil Gorge at the base of the Coralville Lake Dam on the Iowa River near Iowa City. Take exit 244 off Interstate 80 and go 3.5 miles north. The flood of 1993 caused spillway overflow to erode soils below the spillway and expose rock layers rich in fossils. The Corps of Engineers maintains this fossil park where people can learn about ancient sea life. Those fossils attest to life as it was 385 million years ago.

Another fossil site where you can collect as many brachiopods and other samples as you wish is called Fossil and Prairie Park Preserve and Center. It is located 1.5 miles southwest of Rockford, Iowa on county road B47. The fossils here are reminders of Devonian age deposits and shallow ocean life. This site was the former location of the Rockford Brick and Tile Company from 1901 until the 1970s. Iowa at the time was part of an underwater land mass very close to earth’s equator. Plate tectonics has moved the North American plate since then to more northerly latitudes. This county owned fossil park allows collections of brachiopods, bryozoans, gastropods, cephalopods and crinoids.

Our own Marshall County fossil site is not open to the public. However, if you want to see crinoid fossils, these animal remnants now encased in stone are visible at the State Historical Building in Des Moines, the Marshall County Historical Society on west main street, many university geology departments and just about every national and international geology museum across the world. Thanks to the dedication of the late Bernice Beane of Le Grand, crinoid and other fossil evidence was carefully and methodically exposed from slabs of limestone taken from the Cessford Quarry.

This summer, take time to travel to any of the above noted locations to discover things about Iowa you may never have known. Enjoy.

“The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

— Benjamin Franklin


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.


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