Every morning he grabs his backpack and lifejacket — two of the most important items he needs for school since the March flood took out the Mormon Canal Bridge near Niobrara.
Thursday was a good day for a boat ride for Austin Motacek, Katie Ryan and their son, Jacob. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a rain cloud to be seen, but they weren’t enjoying a fun day on the Niobrara River.
The family has been boating across the river for a few weeks in an attempt to save time and money while getting to town. Because of the March flood, families on the west side of Niobrara have been at a loss since the Mormon Bridge floated away.
“There are people who can see the town from their house, but it takes them an hour or more to get there without that bridge,” Ryan said.
For Ryan and her family, who live by Verdel, the trip to Niobrara would normally take about 10 minutes. Now, the drive would take about an hour on good roads.
The county roads are not in good condition, however. The combination of the additional travel due to the missing bridge, and the excessive amount of rain the last few weeks, has put these vital roads in terrible condition.
To avoid those roads, many people have been traveling into South Dakota, driving around to the Standing Bear Bridge and backtracking into Niobrara. This route is a two hour drive—one way.
“We have teachers that live in Verdel, Lynch, Bristow,” Ryan said as the list went on.
For these teachers, the trip that would normally take anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour is now taking up to two hours. That is the equivalent of driving to Sioux Falls to get to work every day.
“Every day, teachers are making that trip,” Motacek said.
Motacek owns a construction company in Niobrara and Ryan and their son have to get to school every weekday.
“I finally got sick of wasting gas and time and beating my pickup up on the county roads,” Motacek said.
He decided to borrow a flat-bottom boat from his friend and set up a vehicle on each side of the river.
With the boat, it only takes 15 minutes on average to get home, depending on weather. The boat also saves money as they only had to fill the boat’s gas tank twice in the weeks since they started boating across the river.
The river is too shallow for a normal boat to get across safely. A boat with a mud motor on it works best because it can run in as little as three inches of water.
“As it warms up, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people start using the river as transportation,” Motacek said.
For Ryan, who works at the school, it is a hard choice if she should continue to work at the school for the summer once students are let out for the year.
“I just don’t know if it is worth the trouble,” she said.
Many who live on the other side of the river are in similar situations. It can cost about $50 a day to commute to Niobrara.
“We have had so many people lose their jobs already because they can’t afford the gas to get around,” Motacek said.
The couple personally knows many people who have quit their jobs or can’t get to their jobs because of the cost of getting to work.
Ranchers who have cattle on both sides of the river also suffer. Calving season was extremely hard on those ranchers. Calves were lost as ranchers couldn’t make it to them and a lot of money was wasted in an attempt to get back and forth every day.
“During calving season, ranchers need to be with them every couple hours,” Motacek said. “Look how many calves still ended up dying because the ranchers couldn’t do chores.”
Niobrara business owners will also suffer. Summer is a huge time for the village with all the tourists coming through the area to visit the Niobrara State Park, which is now just out of reach with the bridge out.
Frustration is definitely building in the community, he said.
“There is no reason why there shouldn’t have been something up two weeks after the flood happened,” Motacek said. “A simple shoefly could have been built, and we would already be across.”
It’s been eight weeks since the flood, and the NDOT has announced that there will be a temporary bridge placed in August, with a permanent bridge planned in 2020. The people of the area are not confident there will be anything in place in August or even before school starts.
Motacek also expressed his concerns for the future of the county roads, especially near Verdel. The “west-siders” will be dealing with the aftermath of the torn apart county roads well after the new bridge is put into place, unless the county uses FEMA money or tax money to fix and maintain those roads, he said.
With the rain and constant travel tearing up the roads, it is getting harder and harder for locals to take care of the road.
“I had to pull someone out of the middle of a county road the other day. You know it’s bad when you can get stuck in the middle of a road,” Motacek said.
The Pischelville Bridge has become a vital route for many after the flood, but even that road has been deteriorating due to overuse. Locals decided to take care of the road themselves.
“The only reason we were getting across that road five days after the flood was because we took it into our own hands,” he said.
Until the conditions of the roads improve and a temporary bridge gets put in, the people on the west side of the bridge will suffer, Motacek said.
“We are pretty fortunate compared to a lot of people,” Ryan said.
“It’s a Godsend that I had a buddy with a boat,” Motacek added.