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New July 4 attraction: gawking at Midwest flood spillway

By Michael Avok

YANKTON, South Dakota (Reuters) - It may not be Niagara Falls but the spillway at the Gavins Point Dam near here has become a major tourist attraction over the July 4 weekend.

After record snowmelt and spring rain, the spillway is releasing a massive 160,000 cubic feet of Missouri River water per second from Lewis and Clark Lake downstream.

This is creating a backup of people and vehicles as visitors come to gawk at the impressive wall of water.

Hundreds of cars are crossing the dam near Yankton, South Dakota, ignoring signs telling people not to do so. Dam traffic is allowed over the holiday weekend, but was closed several times last week to repair a crane.

Gavins Point Dam on the South Dakota-Nebraska border has been a major focus of efforts to control flooding on swollen Missouri River all the way to St. Louis.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages inland waterways, was forced to crank up the amount of water released from the dam to more than double the previous record rate to manage the water above the dam. It is expected to release at that rate through the month of July.

Eager to see history, a viewing area right next to the spillway on the north side of the dam is usually full of people leaning against a railing to get a better look. In a normal year, splashing water would not even come close to scaling the huge concrete wall.

Now, people need to pay attention if they do not want to get wet.

The parking lot, which holds 50 cars, is almost always close to full as vehicles flow in and out. All day long, people stand and watch the rushing water.

They film with video cameras and everyday cellphones. Visitors' license plates range from Texas to Colorado to Minnesota.

"It's crazy," said 8-year-old Davis Honadel of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "I didn't think it was going to get up this high."

His parents, Craig and Lisa Honadel, came to camp for the weekend in one of three campgrounds just downstream from the spillway.

Campers apparently were not concerned about the high water levels. All of the spots in the large campgrounds below the dam were filled for the weekend.

The Honadels had been planning the trip for months, and the massive release of water added to the experience.

"It's exciting when you can get down where you can actually see what's going on," Lisa Honadel said. "It has really been fun, so far."

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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