Look closely at this map of Pottawattamie County, and you’ll notice a polyp-like attachment on the other side of the Missouri River, surrounded by Omaha, Nebraska. That’s the city of Carter Lake, and one must cross the river and drive through a bit of Nebraska to visit it. Which of course I did—who could resist?
I imagine it must be a bit odd to be a resident of Carter Lake. Every official function (drivers license, taxes, street work, utilities, etc.) must be arranged remotely, from across the big river. There’s been a bit of an identity crisis over the years, and legal wrangling. This newspaper article tells a bit of the story, calling the town “either a feisty little Liechtenstein squeezed between Nebraska and Iowa or a gallstone in Omaha’s gut.” Hah! The essence of the story is that the Missouri River had been considered the border between Iowa and Nebraska, but one day it changed course…and left behind a shallow, crescent-shaped “oxbow” lake…and that land whose status was suddenly disputed. This riverine switcheroo has happened elsewhere along the Missouri and other rivers, and in modern times it is more common to survey a line we all agree represents some historical norm, and lock it in legally. This is useful because rivers meander back and forth like a snake slithering across the floodplain. It’s best we prepare to adapt!
Despite the unusual back story, including a shady history of quasi-legal gambling, what I found was a pretty typical urban area: a big tank farm, various commercial properties, hotels, River City Star riverboat, and the large airport (Epperly) nearby. The National Wetland Inventory maps show some of the commercial property as wetland (marsh) but I saw no indication that this is in fact the case. A large levee separates the area from the river, and combined with plenty of sewers keeps the area dry. Such structures are common where humans and rivers interact. I found another over on the other side of the river, too.
I hiked around the riverfront near Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs, yet another example of an oxbow lake. Several small developments ring the water, and a State Park with campgrounds, shelters, boat ramps and other amenities. But I was especially intrigued by the levee and the mix of habitat on either side. The official wetlands map shows five different forested or marshy wetland types in this 500 or so acres (200 or so hectares)…but, there are several others wetland types, too. It’s ground with variable topography, land use-history, plant colonization…and the river working it all: sweeping past quickly, draining slowly, depositing nutrients, leaving behind sediments. These wetlands are a giant canvas painted by a river, and constantly under revision.
Combined with a walk along the riverbank itself, one surely sees the dance between humans and this river. We put in a boat ramp, and the river knocks it around. The water deposits sand and gravel, so we mine the floodplain for building materials. We plant crops or trees and the river covers them with water. We build a long, strong levee parallel to the river, and it towers high above today’s river channel (I’ll estimate 30 feet/9 meters elevation above the river surface that day). But tomorrow the river may be…somewhere else entirely. This river and its wetlands sure seem to get around.