The Story Behind the Spencer Dam

A picture sat in the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) conference room of the 92-year-old Spencer Dam glowing in the sun as streams of water flowed through the gate.

The dam is now in ruins.

Technically, the Spencer Dam along the Niobrara River isn’t a dam to control flooding. Its purpose is to create electricity. For this reason, Mark Becker, a Supervisor of Corporate Media and Media Services at the Nebraska Public Power District, called it a “hydro” instead of a “dam.”

On Monday, March 11, Becker and NPPD were keeping a close look out west at what may be coming their way. There were talks of a blizzard. There were talks of more rain. Action was needed, as ice jams developed in the Niobrara River. With the blizzard in western Nebraska and the heavy rains and possible flooding in central and northeast Nebraska, NPPD decided to keep their employees off of the roads.

Then, on the morning of Thursday, March 14, Becker received a call before 6:00 a.m. that the hydro had been breached by ice and heavy water. 

“There was indication that the water and the ice reached up to as high as 11 feet,” Becker said. “We were still trying to determine actually how high this was, but you had all the ice starting to fall and break up, and it was being pushed downstream with other mounts of ice and additional amounts of water.”

NPPD sent crews to Spencer to try to open the gates to let some of the water and ice through. But there was a problem. The gates were frozen shut due to the cold temperatures. The next protocol was to warn anyone in immediate harm’s way. There was only one man who lived near the dam, and he was told to clear the area.

However, he was unable to evacuate in time and was swept away with the floods.

To give an idea of how fast the flooding came about, the Spencer Dam was still operating and producing electricity the night before workers arrived.

The large ice chunks and water eventually broke the dam around 5:30 a.m. 

“They did everything they could and were probably putting themselves at some risk themselves, and they tried everything they could,” Becker said of his workers. “They [the gates] were just frozen solid. There’s just not much they could do at that point.”

The Omaha World Herald reported in March that the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources reported the Spencer Dam was a “significant hazard.” 

Becker disagreed.

“The dam meets all the safety regulations. It’s inspected by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. They came back and said everything that they had done during the most recent inspections had been taken care of,” Becker told Flood Feed Media in an interview. “There were some concerns a few years ago about adding toe drains to the earthen side of the dam. There was some cement concrete on the opposite side that needed some repair work. All that work was done.”

In 2015, a group of natural resource districts approached NPPD about purchasing the Spencer Dam, which is the second smallest hydro owned by NPPD. This process was not completed before the March flooding. NPPD still plans to sell the water rights to three parties associated with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Becker said, and they do not believe the dam will be rebuilt. There are also many more regulations to build a hydro now than there were 92 years ago when the Spencer Dam was built.   

“The question is, how much money are we willing to spend to make sure that any river in the state is flood proof?” Becker said. “I’m not sure you could even come up with that kind of money, and I think that would be a very difficult thing to do.”

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