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Book Cover Image: Projects, Products and Services: Celebrating 75 Years of Excellence - US Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District

The Omaha District celebrated 75 years of service to the Army and the Nation in 2009. Read more about our proud history in our Omaha District History book.

History

For more than three quarters of a century, the Omaha District has been serving the upper Midwest and the nation. The district boasts a boundary that includes 1,100 miles of the Continental Divide on the west and nearly 400 miles of the Canadian border on the north. It covers an area of about 700,000 square miles in the northern Great Plains. Currently, the district is executing a total program in excess of $1 billion—a historical peak—across its multiple mission areas in military construction, environmental remediation and rapid response programs, and civil works projects, including flood protection, navigation, hydropower, recreation, regulatory, recreation, flood damage control, coastal emergencies, and ecosystem restoration.
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Established in 1934 as part of the Missouri River Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District started out with a straightforward civil works mission, which involved only navigation on the main stem of the Missouri, and no military responsibilities.

On Jan. 2, 1934, Capt. James Young became the first commander of the new district.  His staff consisted of 63 personnel who worked on the 14th floor of the Omaha City National Bank building.

In the beginning, recurrent, devastating Missouri River flooding and the drought of 1930 led to dam construction on the river.  It was the immediate mission of Omaha District to build Fort Peck Dam in Montana.

The construction progressed successfully and the dam immediately helped control the upper Missouri.  However, in 1943, three exceptionally large floods struck downriver and the nation realized additional efforts were necessary to bring the Missouri River under control.

In response, USACE developed a proposal to control the upper and lower basins of the Missouri River.  Col. Lewis Pick, the Missouri River engineer for USACE, and W. Glenn Sloan, a Bureau of Reclamation engineer, collaborated on a plan to control the downstream flood problem. 

The Pick-Sloan Plan, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, provided for building a set of vast engineering projects to control flooding, facilitate navigation and commerce, generate electricity, and spur agriculture and other forms of economic development in the Missouri River basin.

In addition to Fort Peck Dam, USACE built five massive Missouri River main stem dam projects—Gavins Point Dam, Garrison Dam, Fort Randall Dam, Oahe Dam, and Big Bend Dam.

Today, the six main stem dams generate enough pollution-free electricity each year to meet the needs of nearly a million homes.  They also ensure plentiful, high-quality water for farms and ranches, towns and cities along more than a thousand miles of river.  The dams provide recreation opportunities that no one could have imagined 75 years ago.

The District was engaged in an epic flood fight on the Missouri River from May through September 2011.  In May 2011, heavy rains (three to six times normal precipitation levels) in eastern Montana and the Dakotas took away the Corps’ flexibility in managing the Missouri River reservoir system (the largest in the United States), forcing the need for historic releases. 

A three-month span of runoff from May to July led to sustained, unprecedented high water throughout the basin.  At the peak of the historic flood, the Corps released 160,000 cubic feet (1.2 million gallons) per second of water from five of its six main stem reservoirs.  

People were displaced from their homes, farms were flooded and whole communities from Montana to Missouri were threatened. Despite the hardships, the mainstem dams and levees in high-risk areas performed well under rigorous and protracted conditions. 

The Omaha District’s emergency operations center responded to the disaster, constructing miles of temporary levees and providing millions of sandbags and flood fighting supplies to assist communities in need.   

The Northwestern Division declared the official end of the Missouri River Flood of 2011 on Oct. 17, 2011.  Drawing on disaster relief funding, the district executed an estimated $280 million in repairs on 18 levee repair projects and about $234 million on some 100 projects at the mainstem dams and related flood control structures along the Missouri River.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Omaha District assisted with wartime construction, including prisoner of war camps and airfields.  But when the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, employees returned to peacetime duties.  Still, there was ample military construction ahead.

The Veterans Administration asked USACE to design and build about 70 hospitals across the country to care for Soldiers returning from the war.  The hospitals had different floor plans and contained from 110 to 1,270 beds.  In November 1946, the district started a 300-bed facility at Sioux Falls, S.D., at $12,500 per bed.  Other completed projects included a 200-bed hospital at Grand Island, Neb., and an Omaha facility with 500 beds.

One of the district’s most noteworthy accomplishments in military construction was building the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command Center deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, near Colorado Springs, Colo.  During the 1950s, rapid advances in missile design made the former NORAD site vulnerable.  Even though it could scan the skies of the northern hemisphere for signs of attack, it was itself vulnerable to possible attack.  The project at Cheyenne Mountain represented a great step toward protection against a surprise attack.

Many called Cheyenne Mountain “a city within a mountain.”  It has also been described as a destruction-proof fortress and a super burglar alarm.  The district carved a great hole in Cheyenne Mountain, building a small city in the cavern. The inhabitants of the city evaluate electronic information and interpret it for defense planners.

The district also worked on other military support facilities, building a number of missile silos throughout the upper Midwest, including runways, hospitals, family housing, chapels, control towers and training areas.  All help protect the nation and enable Soldiers, Airmen, and Civilians to carry out their missions.

The current major focus for military construction includes projects under the Army Base Realignment and Closure program and “Grow the Army” Projects at Fort Carson, Colo.

In 1982, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) turned to Omaha District for technical expertise in cleaning up hazardous and toxic waste sites around the country.  The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and the creation of the EPA in 1970 marked a new focus of the nation’s goal to conserve and protect the country’s national resources.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act followed in 1980, which set up a $1.8 billion, five-year “Superfund” for cleanup of America’s hazardous waste sites.

Omaha District’s new Hazardous & Toxic Waste (HTW, radioactive was added later) office was established within the Engineering Division’s Special Projects Branch and began work at the first of many Superfund sites -- Old Forge, Pa., an area littered with PCB-leaking transformers.

By 1984, the creation of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program to clean up HTW problems at both active and formerly used Department of Defense installations had expanded the staff to more than 150 managers, engineers, and scientists.  Work centered on Superfund and formerly-used defense sites across the country.

The experience and dedication of the Omaha District environmental team, including the Rapid Response Program established in 1989, continues to lead the industry with innovative solutions in design, construction, and contracting.

The construction of the six main stem dams on the Missouri River in the 1940s dramatically altered life for indigenous tribal peoples.  “Gone are many of our ancient, river-bottom homes, our medicines, our sacred places, the earth lodge and tipi village and hunting camp sites created by our loved ones,” the Native Americans wrote.

In its more than 200 year history, many of the interactions between USACE and the Tribes have been positive and beneficial to all.  However, that has not always been the case.  In the opinion of some Tribal communities throughout the area, many of the earlier exchanges seemed acrimonious and one-sided, often to the detriment of the Native Americans on whose lands USACE projects often reside.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. government attempted to solidify its relationship and uphold its responsibilities to the Indians, with varying degrees of success, through vehicles such as treaties, legislation, and executive orders.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, much of the work to develop master plans for operation of the Missouri River revisited many old, and sometimes bitter issues related to the Tribes.  Soon after 1987, when the Joint Tribal Advisory Committee developed a final report about the impact that the Pick-Sloan Plan had on the Tribes, the Tribes within Omaha District began demanding an “Indian desk” at USACE.

Omaha District responded.  In 1992, it developed and assigned a full-time Native American liaison—the first of its kind in USACE.  Establishment of that position has since helped provide visibility and accountability by the district on issues that affect Native American interests and cultural resources. 

Throughout the years, the people of Omaha District have developed a rich tradition of responding to floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires with technical skill and know-how.  Since 2001, more than 100 employees have volunteered for service in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and elsewhere to rebuild, and in many cases build, essential infrastructure as part of the Overseas Contingency Operations.  Currently, on average, more than two dozen district civilian members are serving volunteer assignments in harm’s way to help those on the other side of the globe and provide a safer life here a home.

The nearly 1,300 men and women of Omaha District stand proud of their accomplishments and look forward to new challenges that lie ahead.  There are plenty of facilities that need to be built for the Army and Air Force, many contaminated sites yet to be cleaned, and much work yet to be completed throughout the Missouri River basin.  It’s who we are, it’s what we do. 

Much of the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District has been set forth in various historical documents as well as through oral renditions by long-time employees; the facts as represented here are accurate to the best of the agency's knowledge.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had an early introduction to the need for a Civil Works program along the Missouri River. In 1867, Captain Charles W. Howell of the Corps boarded a steamboat at Sioux City, Iowa, bound for Fort Benton, Mont. on a government survey of the river.

Preceded by a long line of explorers, Howell's mission differed in that he was sent to investigate improved navigation along the Missouri. With miners having discovered gold in Montana and military operations growing along the river, the government was ready to facilitate transportation on the upper Missouri.

With Howell's work, the Corps began efforts that led to the formation of the Omaha District in 1934. Today, the District's Civil Works program is the largest in the continental United States and second only to the Alaska District in area.

Between 1932 and 1957, the District built six main stem dams and many smaller dams along Missouri River tributaries. These, along with a system of federal and private levees, protect urban and agricultural property and lives from the ravages of floods. The Omaha District estimates that this system has prevented an estimated billions in damages in today's dollars.

Having begun with the mission of flood risk management, the Omaha District has shifted the focus of its Civil Works program to address watershed and ecosystems for threatened and endangered species. The Missouri River Ecosystem Program is central to these efforts. One of the largest, most comprehensive studies in the nation, it examines the Missouri River basin in its entirety and what is needed to restore the ecosystem.

As part of this, the District is working with 13 agencies and more than 50 Tribes, all of whom have diverse interests in the area. Called the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, the group evaluates how well river management efforts reflect the original intent of the Flood Control Act of 1944 and provides an opportunity for stakeholders to share input on what remains an immensely complex river.

With World War II came the advent of the Omaha District's military group. Previously under the Army's Quartermaster Corps, the mission was transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Teams came together and ramped up to bolster the war effort by building bases that provided support for training programs and building airplanes.

Today, the Corps is the design and construction agent for the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.

The Omaha District's key military focus is the design, construction and revitalization of facilities essential to our nation's defense and the overseas contingency operations.

Over the past 75 years, Omaha District crews have been responsible for the design, construction, and operations and maintenance of facilities that prepare and care for the military personnel that keep our country safe. From Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Bellevue, Neb., to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the District has proven itself capable of delivering the expertise necessary to produce the complex facilities that make protecting our nation possible.

Across the country and throughout the decades, other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Districts and branches of the military have repeatedly turned to the Omaha District for its unparalleled expertise in building structures, roads, runways and railroads that meet the needs of the changing dynamics of protecting our people and our property at home and abroad.

Post War Awareness
The signing of the peace treaties that ended World War II prompted a different direction in the American economy. The nation no longer needed to place urgent demands on its natural resources in support of the war effort. As the country further developed its infrastructure, a new movement began to take hold – conserving, protecting and thoughtfully using our land, water and air.

Environmental Legislation
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both of these led to an expanded mission for the Corps, particularly the Omaha District.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response,Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 – or the "Superfund" Act – pumped $1.8 billion into toxic and hazardous waste cleanup within just five years. This put the spotlight on the Omaha District as it shared responsibility with the Kansas City District as the Corps' Mandatory Center of Expertise for Hazardous and Toxic Waste (HTW). Crews began cleanup work across the country at military installations, and current and former Department of Defense sites.

Innovative Talents, Innovative Processes
The growing expertise of the Omaha District proved itself time and again. Teams created new, efficient and cost-effective ways to address the environmental challenges they faced.

The District formed its own Hazardous Toxic and Radioactive Waste (HTRW) group; a Rapid Response team that could react and be on site immediately to evaluate and contain a chemical rupture or spill; and development of Total Environmental Remediation Contracts (TERC), which significantly changed the way all Corps districts approached contracts for environmental remediation work.

On-going Expertise
Today, the Omaha District is a recognized expert and leader in environmental stewardship. The Corps has cleaned up millions of acres of land on hundreds of sites, improving the land, water and air quality along the way. And in the end, the District continues to make the country a safer, healthier place to live.