Following two weeks of high water in the Marietta area, local residents have voiced concerns about how water control on the Ohio River’s upper tributaries affects the Mid-Ohio Valley.
Officials say though water is released consistently from reservoirs, locks and dams, this does not increase flood risk.
The inland waterways are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ network of navigation systems (locks and dams) and fed by reservoirs in elevated valleys.
“But locks and dams on the river are not flood-control projects,” said Chuck Minsker, public information officer for the corps’ Huntington District, which manages the Willow Island Lock and Dams and the lock system up the Muskingum River. “We open up the dams (on the river) to keep water moving quickly out of our area.”
Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the Corps’ Pittsburgh District, explained that if the “doors” weren’t opened, say at Willow Island, water would be pressed out into the communities north of that site– Newport and New Matamoras.
“Old Man River is a powerful force,” said John Miller, New Matamoras Historical Society president. “Since the new dams were put in up at Hannibal and down at Willow Island we haven’t had as bad of flooding. I recall when I was a kid Beavertown we had the worse floods so in my book the locks have done well for flood prevention.”
But Hawk said that flood prevention is monitored more through a series of reservoirs at the heads of tributaries into the Ohio, namely the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, Beaver River and a series of creeks feeding all four rivers.
“We have 16 reservoirs in the upper Ohio River basin,” said Hawk. “They’re up in the hills of all these systems that feed the Ohio. Their job is essentially to serve as a storage bucket. We collect the rain that falls behind the reservoirs and hold that water until the flood threat passes.”
There are an additional 32 locks and dams monitored by the Huntington District along the Ohio, Muskingum and surrounding rivers downstream.
But that doesn’t mean high water is immediately gone after the flood threat passes.
“That’s when we start to release the water, it’s a precise process and monitored heavily,” said Hawk. “People need to understand that even after a storm our rivers are still high, though within their banks, because we’re trying to bring the reservoirs back down to winter or summer levels in preparation for the next big storm.”
Hawk said the 16 reservoirs the Pittsburgh district monitors on the Upper Ohio River Basin capture 33 percent of the precipitation that falls in the area.
“On the Beaver River there are four reservoirs, the Monongahela has three and the Allegheny has nine,” he explained. “These are big reservoirs that were once valleys up in the hills that were dammed up to hold that water near its origin and control the flow downstream.”
He described the lock and dam system as a chain of lakes to maintain a thoroughfare along the Ohio River for waterborne commerce year-round.
“That’s why they maintain summer pools, in part,” added Minsker. “To keep the water deep enough for your barges and boats to continue through.”
Hawk said summer pools are also maintained to be released in dry times to flush out pollution.
“But during this last rain event, Tygart Lake ( in Grafton, W.Va.) rose 53 feet in three days,” he said. “Obviously we had to release a lot of water to get that down to our winter pool level, but carefully so as not to endanger any community downstream.”
Miller said the northeast side of Washington County knows to take the County Road 9 route to Marietta in the event of flooding based on local markers.
“There’s quite a low place on (Ohio) 7 just as you leave Morningside Drive in Grandview. If water is not on the road there, we know Route 7 is open to Marietta,” he explained. “It’s called Hosie’s Dip after old Hosie Grimes who had a farm there. It’s handy, we don’t have to drive all the way to Newport to know if there’s high water.”
And water will continue to flow, and be released at measured rates as more spring showers pass through the Midwest, said Minsker.
“We can’t stop flooding of what falls outside of the drainage area,” he added. “But hopefully we can reduce flooding to never get as bad as the 1937 flood.”
By the numbers
≤ The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the head of the Ohio River.
≤ The river’s total length is 981.1 miles between Pittsburgh, Pa. and the Mississippi River.
≤ Willow Island Lock and Dams are located on the Ohio River, 161.7 miles downstream from Pittsburgh, Pa., and 3.4 miles upstream from Waverly, W.Va.
≤ The Ohio River discharges 180 billion gallons of water each day into the Mississippi River.
≤ The 16 Ohio River Basin reservoirs managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reduced the crests of the Ohio River’s tributaries in the last two weeks by:
≤ Allegheny: 1 foot.
≤ Monongahela: 1 foot.
≤ Beaver: 1.5 feet.
≤ Ohio River at Wheeling: 4 feet.
≤ Mahoning River at Leavittsburg: 7 feet.
≤ Mahoning River at Youngstown: 10 feet.
≤ The Ohio River at Marietta’s highest crest from the last two weeks was 37.94 ft on Feb. 18.
Sources: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Weather Service.