High Water, Flooding Halts Traffic On Rivers

This high-water season is threatening to break records along the whole length of several river systems. Higher-than-expected rainfalls in the last weekend of February caused high water in the Ohio River valley, and some flooding along the Cumberland and Tennessee River valleys.

And worse is to follow. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said snowfall in northern areas that feed into the river systems—North Dakota, northeast South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and northern half of Michigan—has been up to twice above normal this winter. Soil moisture in the Mississippi River basin is already in the 90th percentile or higher.

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning for parts of the Ohio River on February 26 when it reached a little over 35.5 feet, its 10th highest crest on record but still below last year’s level at this time. The Ohio River was closed at Smithland Lock February 20 until March 9.

Daylight-only southbound operations were instituted at the Markland, McAlpine, Newburgh and J.T. Myers locks, and at the IC railroad bridge at Cairo, Ill., according to American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL). At Cincinnati, Ohio, the river rose above 45 feet and the company was running only daylight transits. The Ohio River was expected to crest at 53.1 feet by March 2.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

On February 22, the Chicago Board of Trade declared a “force majeure” condition on the entire Illinois River. This declaration relieves shippers of penalties. ACBL President and CEO Mark Knoy said that ACBL has declared “force majeure” on Ohio River cargoes.

At Paducah, Ky., local station WPSD reported that the city had installed additional floodgates on February 25 designed to protect the city from flood stages up to 55 feet. The new gates closed off access to the Paducah-McCracken County Convention Center.

The Cumberland River was closed at Cheatham Lock until the second half of March.

On the Tennessee River, all nine dams were operating at maximum capacity to drain reservoirs of previous heavy rainfalls in the Cumberland River and Tennessee River basins. The Nashville Engineer District closed nine locks on the main stem of the river, said Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) spokesman Scott Brooks. That shut a 650-mile navigable stretch from Knoxville, Tenn., to Paducah to commercial traffic. The TVA predicted that many areas along the Tennessee River could see “floods of record,” or the highest-ever recorded flood levels. Kentucky Lock was scheduled to reopen March 8.

“We’ve seen rain levels in excess of 50 to 100 percent of what was forecast last week,” said James Everett, senior manager for TVA’s River Forecast Center. “Right now, we are seeing major flood events around the valley, with extreme flows in the Tennessee River and major upticks in reservoir levels as we work to contain water.”

The Cumberland River received rain ranging from a half inch to 4 inches beginning February 23 and the river crested at 40.93 feet in Nashville, Tenn., on February 24, which is considered minor flood stage. The stage at Clarksville, Tenn., was 50.4 feet, just above moderate flood stage (50 feet).

Anthony Rodino, Nashville District Water Management Section chief, said that when the rainfall system moved out of the region, the water management plan was to begin discharging water to lower the lake levels at Lake Cumberland, Dale Hollow Lake, Center Hill Lake and J. Percy Priest Lake, while taking into account downstream conditions.

Months To Clear
“It will take several months to reduce these lake levels to more seasonal levels,” Rodino said. “What this means is there will be higher than seasonal water releases from Wolf Creek Dam (Jamestown, Ky.) on the Cumberland River, from Dale Hollow Dam (Celina, Tenn.) on the Obey River, from Center Hill Dam (Lancaster, Tenn.) on the Caney Fork River, and from J. Percy Priest Dam (Nashville, Tenn.) on the Stones River, as the Corps manages water levels at these projects.”

Lt. Col. Cullen Jones, Nashville District commander, said the dams in the Cumberland River Basin “operated perfectly” during heavy rains to provide flood risk reduction benefits to the region.

Nashville District’s water managers said the water level in Nashville would have exceeded 55 feet without the dams holding water during recent rains. Wolf Creek Dam in Jamestown, Ky., stepped up releases from 45,000 cubic feet per second (cfs.) to 60,000 cfs. on the afternoon of February 24, the largest ever made from the dam. Coupled with rainfall runoff, the corps said it would “likely” affect areas near the river and cause some backwater along small streams.

Lake Cumberland measured 754.27 feet as of February 24 when a total of 83 percent of the flood control pool was being utilized. With the larger release from Wolf Creek Dam, water managers balanced discharges from other reservoirs to minimize impacts throughout the Cumberland River Basin.

The district said that based on discussions with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center, these increases should not push stages in Nashville or Clarksville higher than current forecasts but will result in elevated stages all along the Cumberland River for quite some time. With system releases, the forecasts are showing the river maintaining approximately a 39-foot stage in Nashville and 42-foot stage in Clarksville.

The Nashville District is also operating Barkley Reservoir in conjunction with TVA’s Kentucky Reservoir to assist with flood risk management operations for the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The stage of the Ohio River at Cairo, Ill., was 54.8 feet at the beginning of the week, with a forecasted crest of 56.5 feet in the first weekend of March; major flood stage is 53 feet.