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Feds pledge $50 million to help remove failed Spencer Dam
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Feds pledge $50 million to help remove failed Spencer Dam

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March of 2019 was just the start of what will be a years-long struggle to repair and rebuild livelihoods along major Midwest river systems. A massive storm drove river levels higher and higher in mid-March until hundreds of levees across the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas River basins failed. Then came the record rains.The Army Corps of Engineers estimated damage along the Missouri and Platte Rivers alone caused more than $1 billion in damage. The floods of 2019 punched so many holes in the river levee system, just the initial fixes aren't expected to be finished until late 2021. The Corps is now racing to patch as many holes as quickly as possible, but farmers, homeowners, even entire towns are still vulnerable as the 2021 wet season ramps up.The U.S. levee system is a true mishmash protecting millions of people and trillions of dollars of property and infrastructure near rivers. Much of it was built up following the Great Depression with no one agency charged with maintaining it. Some levees the federal government built, but the vast majority are built and maintained by locals. That makes for a massive range in the quality of levees, all of them expected to hold up for the safety of others.Based on data analysis of the National Levee Database, U.S. levees currently protect 19.5 million people, 5.5 million structures and $2.5 trillion in property value.It's an old, incredibly complex system facing a new reality: It wasn't built for floods like this. Experts agree wet seasons that are becoming more and more severe due to climate change will continuously challenge and damage one of the largest infrastructure systems in the country.

The federal government is sending Nebraska $50 million to help remove what’s left of the Spencer Dam after its deadly failure during the flood of spring 2019.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially announced Friday the $50 million would help the hydroelectric dam’s owner, Nebraska Public Power District, “restore the facilities back to pre-disaster design, capacity and function.”

But that was wrong, NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said. And he wanted to be clear: “FEMA knows we were never going to rebuild.”

Nebraska dam had history of ice issues before fatal failure

Instead, he said, FEMA will send the $50 million to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency to help the utility pay for decommissioning the northeast Nebraska dam — tearing it out and restoring the river banks. A FEMA spokeswoman confirmed later Friday the funding could be spent on demolition.

Restoring the 90-year-old dam would cost far more than it’s worth, Becker said. Spencer Dam generated just three megawatts of electricity; by comparison, NPPD's coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland generates nearly 1,400 megawatts.

And the utility was in the process of selling the dam — and its water rights — to a group of Natural Resources Districts when it collapsed in March 2019 under the pressure of the Niobrara River, which had swollen with floodwater and broken ice.

'Swept off the map' — Family loses brother, business when Niobrara dam failed

The resulting wall of water swept away part of the U.S. 281 bridge, a riverside bar and the home of 71-year-old Kenny Angel.

His body was never recovered, and, in June 2019, a judge declared him dead.

Desperation and danger in search for man missing in the Niobrara

His widow, Linda Angel, sued NPPD and the Department of Natural Resources in October 2019, alleging their negligence led to his death. Specifically, her lawsuit said they failed to properly manage, operate, inspect or test the dam, prevent its collapse or warn Angel about the danger it could fail.

That lawsuit is proceeding, and a pretrial conference is scheduled for January 2022, according to court records.

Judge says wrongful death suit filed by family of man killed after dam collapse can move forward

Becker did not have a cost estimate for decommissioning the dam, and he couldn’t say when the work would begin or how long it would last.

“We didn’t know how much money we were even going to get,” he said. “Once we see some funds, we’ll start doing the scheduling.”

1. 11-foot wall of water: One dam breaks, three counties suffer
Desperation and danger in search for man missing in the Niobrara

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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