“We planted grain for four years with just enough to get our seed back in the 1930s. In 1931, I put in winter wheat which winter killed, then I put in spring wheat and that blew out, then I put in corn and it dried out. The following year the crops didn’t even get a start. Nothing but Russian thistles grew, which we pastured, made hay and put of silage of. Prices went all to pot. Hogs sold for $1.90 a hundred. A good critter couldn’t pay for the freight to market. Corn was $.10 a bushel, wheat $.18.”
“A Pioneer’s Dream Come True: The Mirage Flats Irrigation Project”
by Mark Clapp and Rolland Dewing
Jensen was one of a group of Danish enticed to move to the Mirage Flats area in southern Sheridan County after World War I, in search of cheaper land and a brighter future. Like many others in the region, he was overwhelmed by the Great Depression and the devastation the dry years wrought and moved to Iowa.
His story is one of many that homesteaders and later settlers in the Mirage Flats faced. Not all ended in failure, in large part due to the creation of an irrigation project in the 1940s, approved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the country was plunged into an economic downturn.
“John Page, Chief of the Reclamation Bureau, advised me today that the Mirage Flats project has received Presidential approval involving approximately two and a half million dollars of which one and a half million is allocated from WPA funds. I expect operations to commence within 60 days. Congratulations,” said Congressman Harry B. Coffee, who represented the state’s Third District, in a telegram to Carl Horn at Hay Springs. Horn spearheaded the 1940s effort to bring irrigation to the region.
Originally designed to help early settlers manage a typically semi-arid climate, especially during drought years, the system has evolved over the years to bring recreational opportunities to northwest Nebraska and realized the need to also manage flood control during heavy rain events.
The Mirage Flats Irrigation District will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2020, and the need for flood control is a far cry from the trials and tribulations early settlers experienced when they came to the area in the 1800s.
The Sheridan County Historical Society and Heritage Museum, with a grant from Humanities Nebraska, is chronicling the history of the Mirage Flats settlement, from its homesteader days forward. Christine Ambrose and Valerie Humphrey have spent about eight months researching land records, purchase agreements and interviewing individuals about family histories for the project. Their efforts will culminate in a Mirage Flats History exhibit at the Heritage Museum during the Hay Springs Friendly Festival Aug. 23-24 and the publication of a book relating the family histories sometime next year.
They expect to trace the genealogy and stories of roughly 230 families across the years, sharing tales of failure and success, and the sense of community that was born out of both, Ambrose said.
While the pair dives into the history of the Mirage Flats area, work in the irrigation district will likely begin this winter to repair damage sustained during this spring’s Winter Storm Ulmer in an effort to protect the land and those who make their living from it not from the droughts that inspired its creation but from flooding events.
Decades after the first water was released to farmers in Mirage Flats, several entities agreed to construct a watershed structure to protect the project lands from flooding. Working with what was the Research, Conservation and Development district, Sheridan and Dawes counties, along with the Mirage Flats Irrigation District, initiated the watershed project in the early 1970s, likely after a heavy rain event, said Pat O’Brien, director of the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resource District.
“The planning all started when the NRDs were coming into their own,” he said. The UNWNRD inherited the project upon its creation, and that agency, along with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, continues to inspect the Mirage Flats Flood Control Detention Structure annually to ensure it is sound. The Mirage Flats Irrigation District and Sheridan and Dawes counties agreed to build the structure in the 1970s and maintain it for 50 years.
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For at least 20 years, no one at the UNWNRD remembers seeing the structure hold any water, but that changed this year with Winter Storm Ulmer and the subsequent and prolonged wet period this spring, O’Brien said.
“We heard from several people it did hold water this year,” he said. “All of our structures held water this year. They did their job.”
Three watershed structures were built within the boundaries of the UNWNRD with the same funding source.
In the Mirage Flats Irrigation District, the large volume of water in such a short time caused damage to the outlet structure.
“It started making an eddy and cut into the channel,” O’Brien said. “It was shooting out of that pipe. It really degraded that outlet channel.”
Funds available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the NRCS as part of the Emergency Watershed Protection Program became available to repair the damage after the disaster declaration was issued. The two counties involved have been overwhelmed with damage to roads in the wake of spring flooding events, so the NRD agreed to spearhead securing the funding, O’Brien said. Commissioners in both Sheridan and Dawes counties have agreed to the plan, while the NRD still has to approach the Mirage Flats Irrigation District board to receive formal approval.
If approved, the project would add rock riprap and additional seeding around the damaged outlet structure at an estimated cost of $49,461.Seventy-five percent of the cost would be covered through the NRCS Watershed Protection Program funding, with the remaining 25% split equally between the two counties and the irrigation district.
Once all three entities have granted approval to move forward, the NRD will obtain a detailed engineering report, approve contracts and initiate a formal agreement with the NRCS, O’Brien said. The repair work must be completed within 220 days of that agreement, with work likely to begin yet winter, he said.
The 25% matching funds contributed by the counties and irrigation district can be in cash or in-kind through labor, trucking or materials, and the NRD is working with the entities to determine exactly what their contributions will be.
“It’s a significant watershed,” O’Brien said. “It’s still working but it needs some rehabilitation.”
The largest challenge in repairing the area round the outlet structure may be in finding rock and contractors to complete the work, given the large demands for both across the entire state.
Spring flooding resulted in emergency disaster declarations in 81 of Nebraska’s 93 counties this year, as well as five tribal areas, tallying more than an estimated $1 billion in damages.
And while flooding is the reality of the present, drought has been a more frequent obstacle to farming in Mirage Flats, dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when both the railroad and early pioneers were first making their way west. In fact, the WPA-approved irrigation project of the 1940s wasn’t the first effort to establish irrigation on the Flats, as a group of homesteaders attempted the same and formed the Mirage Irrigation Company in 1895.
“It really shaped irrigation in the Sandhills,” Humphrey said.