Indiana’s Wabash River feels drought’s effects but still flows
The Associated Press
LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Shoals and sandbars rise out of the Wabash River and its tributaries like spines of long-hidden beasts awakening from a long, watery slumber to prey upon the plans of those who dare to venture into the water.
“It’s really low,” 16-year-old Ryan Rodkey of Rossville, who boated on the river last year, said Wednesday afternoon. “There are lots of sandbars that were never even there before.
“You can’t even get on it. You can’t even get the boat to launch.”
These overt signs of the drought might lead those who routinely drive over rivers, creeks and streams to wonder when, if ever, area waterways might dry up.
“It’s unlikely to go completely dry,” said Jane Frankenburger, a Purdue agricultural engineer.
That’s the short answer.
The Wabash and its tributaries continue to flow because they are fed by groundwater, Frankenburger said.
“Our surface waters are hit much harder,” she noted while commenting on the water levels that many people commonly see.
Andy Smith of Lafayette and a friend, Jeff Drube of Chicago, crossed the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge on Wednesday, pausing briefly to look at the river.
“This is proof that this place is certainly dehydrated,” Drube said.
“I’ve never seen it this low,” Smith said. “The perception side is you definitely get concern when you see a lack of water and drought because you think it affects everything.
“The fountain is working, though,” he joked.
Even though surface water, such as the rivers, streams and retention ponds, may be alarmingly low, below the surface, water continues to seep from subterranean wells, feeding the Wabash and many creeks, Frankenburger said.
“We’re not really at unprecedented levels,” Frankenburger said of the water levels in the Wabash and creeks. “The levels we’re at (now) are usually in August or September here.
“We still have a couple more months.”
Some people joke about soon being able to wade across the Wabash without getting their feet wet, but Frankenburger noted that the Wabash’s watershed stretches 475 miles. It’s not going to completely dry up anytime soon.
But there’s no mistaking that the Wabash River is low. The Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service reported Wednesday that the Wabash River at the Brown Street overlook was at 1 foot.
At that same spot in the river where the measurements are taken, Chris Hammel of Frankfort and Tony Romero of Lafayette dragged their canoe from the river just before 3 p.m.
“For the most part, it’s ... anywhere from about half-a-foot to about 3 feet,” Romero said, noting there are the occasional — and rare — pockets of deep water. “There’s some places where it’s a little deeper.”
“We were the only ones on the water because nobody can get anything in there,” Hammel said of their two hours on the river, much of which was spent out of the canoe, dragging it across shoals and sandbars to deeper water.
Some smaller waterways will not fare as well as the Wabash.
“Some other streams will suffer because they’re not fed by groundwater,” Frankenburger said.
And private wells closer to the surface might be a bit parched, too.
“Some private wells around the state are having problems. That’s what I’ve heard,” Frankenburger said.
Those on city water — Lafayette or West Lafayette — have nothing to worry about, Lafayette Waterworks Superintendent Kerry Smith said.
“We’re fine,” Smith said. “We get our drinking water from 100 feet underground.”
Long ago, back when what would evolve into the Gulf of Mexico stretched to southern Illinois, the Teays River flowed north out of what is today Virginia, through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and to points west. The size of the Teays staggers the mind by comparison to modern rivers.
Glaciers covered the once mighty Teays, but what’s left of that ancient river is 100 feet below Lafayette.
“Right through Lafayette, it’s six miles wide,” Smith said. “It’s still there. It’s vast.”
The Teays River aquifer draws water from the ancient river as far east as Virginia and as far west as Missouri.
But on the surface, the Wabash looks peaked, and it’s not as though a good soaking rain is going to restore it.
“A hard rain in Lafayette wouldn’t do enough. It will have little effect on water levels,” Frankenburger said. “Any water that falls — at least several inches of it will be soaked up.”
Starved crops, trees, lawns and flowers would soak up most of any rain the area might receive, Frankenburger said. Very little of any rainfall would reach rivers and creeks, she said.
Clearly, the Wabash is low, but it’s not dire, Frankenburger said. The government tracks the surface water and groundwater. Updates can be found at two websites: waterwatch.usgs.gov and groundwaterwatch.usgs.gov.
Indiana has a water-shortage plan if the governor declares an emergency, Frankenburger said.
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.