When Rivers Change: Why is Iowa’s Carter Lake in Nebraska?



Rivers make great natural boundaries, but they aren’t as static as they seem. What happens when rivers change? Why is Iowa’s Carter Lake in Nebraska?

Where Is the City of Carter Lake?

The City of Carter Lake is just north of Omaha, Nebraska, and is considered a suburb of the city. It is west of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and it’s about 2 square miles in size. It’s named after Carter Lake which makes up the northern arc of the city’s boundary.

A little less than 4000 people are citizens of the City of Carter Lake, and all of them are residents of Iowa. However, they cannot access their city without passing through Nebraska. Except where it borders the Missouri River, the City of Carter Lake is bounded on all sides by Nebraska.

The City of Carter Lake is home to one of the shortest highways in the United States at half a mile in length. This stretch of road is Highway 165. 

What Is the State Line Between Nebraska and Iowa?

The state line between Iowa and Nebraska is the Missouri River.
The state line between Iowa and Nebraska is the Missouri River.

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The state line between most of Nebraska and Iowa is the main channel of the Missouri River. However, around Carter Lake, the outer shores of the lake are Nebraskan while the pinched-off P-shaped area between the southern rim of the lake and the river is Iowa.

Iowa became a state in 1846 a few decades before Nebraska achieved statehood. When Iowa’s boundary was established, it was determined that the boundary between Iowa and the then-unorganized territory that is now Nebraska was the center of the Missouri River.

Defining a boundary as the middle of the Missouri River has proven problematic. Before modern river containment, the Missouri River in this region was a braided watercourse. The main channel sometimes shifted as a result of spring flooding caused by breaking ice.

Beginning in 1935, the Army Corps of Engineers established defined flood control measures along the main channel of the Missouri River. Moving forward, the Missouri River is unlikely to shift like it has historically.

July 8, 1877: The Missouri River Flood

The Saratoga Bend was a functioning riverine watercourse that was a piece of the Missouri River until July 8, 1877. In March 1877, a huge flood took place on the Missouri River which shifted the flow of the river about 1.25 miles southeast. A few months later in July, the Saratoga Bend was fully cut off from the main channel of the Missouri River and became known as Cutoff Lake.

This phenomenon that created Cutoff Lake, or Carter Lake, is called an avulsion. An avulsion is a sudden deserting of the current river channel for a newly dominant river channel. This happens when an event happens that makes water favor a deeper channel with higher walls where water can flow without as much inhibition. In this case, the curving Saratoga Bend was pinched off.

The Oxbow Lake: What Is Carter Lake, Iowa?

This Croatian oxbow lake is much like Carter Lake.
This Croatian oxbow lake is much like Carter Lake.


Carter Lake is an oxbow lake. When it was first made, it was called Cutoff Lake. Some sources also refer to it as the East Omaha Lake. It then became Lake Nakoma before it gained today’s name of Carter Lake.

An oxbow lake is when a dramatic curve in a river pinches off from the main river channel and forms a lake. This lake no longer connects to the main river channel. They’re called oxbow lakes because they’re curved like the collar a plow attached to back when oxen donned farm equipment for agriculture.

Why Is Carter Lake an Iowan City West of the Missouri River?

The City of Carter Lake is west of the Missouri River even though it belongs to Iowa. The Supreme Court of the United States in 1892 decided that Carter Lake was part of Iowa because the state boundary follows the pre-flood boundaries of the Missouri River.

Despite this, disputes about who needs to supply postal services, utilities, and other essentials to the City of Carter Lake have been dubious. Iowa claimed the land, but neighboring Council Bluffs refused to provide services even though residents paid city taxes to that Iowan city.

The citizens became disgruntled and decided they wanted to be a part of Nebraska. However, Omaha refused to provide services. However, today it’s settled that Carter Lake is an Iowan city.

Carter Lake receives its electricity services through the Omaha Public Power District. Its gas services are provided by Black Hills Energy which services multiple states.

Carter Lake in Iowa: What Lives in the Lake?

Black crappie are fish in Carter Lake sought by anglers.
Black crappie are fish in Carter Lake sought by anglers.


There are fish native to Carter Lake. These fish include largemouth bass, black crappie, bluegill, green sunfish, channel catfish, and common carp. Once in a while, it’s stocked with northern pike and additional channel catfish.

Birding is a popular activity around Carter Lake. Geese, swans, and ducks are regular fixtures. The area is also a popular habitat for bald eagles. On some days, a dozen bald eagles can be spotted by fortunate birdwatchers.

The Carter Lake Preservation Society is dedicated to protecting the lake’s ecosystems. Volunteers used to meet up occasionally during the warm seasons to work the land by hand, but this hasn’t happened in a few years. While the organization meets up in Nebraska’s Levi Carter Park, it is an Iowan non-profit.

Recreation at Carter Lake in Iowa

Since Carter Lake was created, it has been a major recreation destination. This hasn’t changed, and today it’s a popular boating, fishing, swimming, and lodging destination. However, even though the City of Carter Lake is in Iowa, the most popular recreation destinations are on the northern side of the lake in Nebraska.

Today, there are companies offering jet skiing, water skiing, and boat rentals for use on Carter Lake. Private anglers, boaters, and others are also welcome to bring their gear to the area. 2 public boat ramps are heavily used during the summer.

Levi Carter Park on the north shore of Carter Lake is a good spot for a day trip. There are ADA-accessible fishing spots, bathrooms, and covered picnic areas for public use.


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