Last week, Peter Stegen and I drove a 730-mile loop through the northern Great Plains, following the North Platte River from its descent from the Rocky Mountains to its eventual arrival on thirsty fields in the Nebraska panhandle.
Water makes this journey annually as winter snowpack melts from the high reaches of the mountains and flows into streams and tributaries that eventually form the headwaters of the North and South Platte Rivers. But more than a century ago, enterprising western settlers recognized the river as a potential source of critical irrigation water.
With the completion of Pathfinder Dam in 1909, Plains residents were able to hold back some of the annual spring and summer floodwaters, then release them during the hot, dry months to sustain crops, and by extension, towns and an agricultural economy.
Pathfinder was the first in an eventual series of dams and reservoirs that now highly regulate the flows of the North Platte for downstream irrigation, generating hydropower and providing flood protection as the water moves through Wyoming and into western Nebraska.
This was the journey we followed, gathering footage, photos, audio and interviews along the way. After an early departure from Laramie, Wyo., we left Interstate 80 at Sinclair, home of its namesake oil refinery, which dominates the town right along the main drag.
North of Sinclair, the windy two-lane of Highway 351 passes through canyons that look recently hewn, huge slabs of the Haystack Mountains pushing up through the earth. We first meet up with the North Platte on a bend in the road, near a put-in for boaters.
A few miles down the road we leave the river again, passing through sagebrush steppe. We spot a small coyote, a curious prairie dog, and many, many turkey vultures.
Soon we can see the blue waters of the river again, approaching Seminoe Reservoir, the location of one of our permanent time-lapse systems.
We drive down to the aptly named Sunshine Beach, on the edge of Seminoe Reservoir. It’s a popular recreation site but today it’s nearly deserted–just us, a few pronghorn and gulls.
Seminoe Reservoir is the first place the North Platte River is held in the North Platte irrigation project. We climb a nearby bluff to take in the reservoir’s massive expanse: able to hold more than one million acre-feet of water.
It’s a few more miles down a windy dirt road to reach the Seminoe Dam, nearly 300 feet high and 530 miles long. It was finished in 1939 as part of the Kendrick Project, which provides irrigation water for lands further north, near Casper, Wyo.
Our journey continues along the washboard road until we reach Miracle Mile, renowned for its trout fishing. After being used to generate hydropower (about 160 million kilowatt-hours annually), cold North Platte River water flows out from the Kortes Dam, to the delight of fish and fishermen. (I’d fish here if I could ever master the art…)
As the sun starts to shift toward the west, we drive another 30 minutes to reach Pathfinder, the oldest dam on the North Platte System.
Looking down into the gorge of Fremont Canyon below, it doesn’t take long to appreciate the tremendous amount of engineering and manpower required to build this dam. More than a century ago, builders quarried local granite into huge blocks, more than three feet long.
With the oldest water right on the North Platte irrigation project and the ability to hold more than one million acre-feet, today Pathfinder continues to serve the irrigation needs of Nebraska farmers downstream, as well as impress and amaze visitors, including us.
Curious to know where the water goes from here? Stay tuned to our website for forthcoming stories from our trip, including reports from the crop fields, and more about the North Platte River.