Two One-hundred Year Floods in Two Months Forever Changed the Landscape of the Basin
Those who depend on the White River for both recreation and to make a living are all too familiar with the huge role Mother Nature plays with respect to how the fishing will be from year to year. Normally, things run in ‘cycles’ where we might see three years of relatively dry conditions followed by 6 years of never-ending rain. There is no way to predict these meteorological cycles, and really, we often do not know exactly what type of cycle we just experienced in until it officially ends and data can be analyzed. There’s a lot to be learned from the history of White River fly fishing
Cycles are deliberate in their action, but every once in awhile, the White River Basin will experience drastic and catastrophic weather events that can quickly change the landscape of the river basin permanently. The Ozarks is in an area that is prone to serious rain – ten-inches in a 24-hour period is quite common, and when we start seeing amounts double that, the Corp of Engineers gets worried. These meticulously designed “flood capture zones” (i.e. the dams and reservoirs) all have a very specific capacity. When water levels near this “breaking” point, the Corp is liable to do whatever is necessary to prevent a dam breach – especially at Table Rock Dam. With its long earthen section and dense downstream population, Table Rock is a dam that will collapse if lake water is able to topple the earthen section, effectively wiping out billions of dollars in property. The loss of life would be staggering, as well. To save face for this miscalculation in how much “free board” (excess storage) was needed to prevent a disaster during a “maximum probable flood”, the Corp of Engineers added five humongous auxiliary spillway gates that will most likely never be used in our lifetime – but the people of Branson and below can sleep just a little easier knowing that extra protection is there. This just shows how constantly-changing strategies and innovative projects must always be devised in order to try and control something as uncontrollable as water.
Because swift and devastating weather events are extremely rare, there are very few accounts available of what happens when the entire system reaches the brink. There are stories of the water covering the Highway Five Bridge in Norfork in ’81, and there were several big floods in the early nineties, but none of these events seems severe enough to etch their way into local cultural history. 2002 was the high-water year that broke a long drought, and late May rains in 2004 brought Bull Shoals up 25-feet in less than a week. Still, these storms were easily handled by the Corp, and up to this point, spillway discharges of any significance had only been utilized sparingly at Beaver and Table Rock Dams.
2008: The year the White River Basin Hoped Would Never Come
The year got off to an unusual start when Gassville, a local suburb of Mountain Home, Arkansas, was pounded by a very large F2 tornado. This was the first sign that some very strange weather was just beginning. One month later, around the first of March, the entire Ozark Basin was pounded with three days of inundating rains. Lake levels at all five reservoirs in the system jumped well into flood-pool, but the Corp had the storage, and they took a pretty laissez-faire approach to the situation; in their minds, I’m sure they felt that they had all spring to manage this water, and everything would be back to normal by summer. Releases from Bull Shoals and Norfork Dams were minimal during March of ’08, as the Corp will often hold back heavy flows in an effort to keep from making flooding far downstream worse than it has to be. While this strategy normally works just fine, ’08 was different; by the time that April came around, Bull Shoals, Norfork, Beaver and Table Rock Dams were just feet from overtopping. Table Rock was in the best shape because the primary flood gates ran extra water into Bull Shoals Lake for all of March, but these heavy releases were unable to cause a significant drop in Table Rock’s level. The system was working, but barely, and all it would take was one significant rain event to put the entire works to the test.
Around April 9th, the worst case scenario became a reality. The flood of March of ’08 was classified as a “hundred-year event”, and this following April storm had all the same tragic characteristics. By the morning of April 10th, it was clear that Norfork was about to breach (the road over the dam was covered with water), even with 40,000 cubic feet per second pouring through the floodgates. Without much thought, this spillway flow was doubled to 80,000cfs, and all hell broke loose. Water poured into Quarry Park, and the two resorts just down from the dam had water to the ceilings in many of their cabins. Both of these businesses’ docks were either crushed, dislodged, or both, and one story tells of the owner of Gene’s unsuccessfully trying to reclaim one of his docks that ended up 20-plus miles downstream on the White River in a flooded field.
As soon as Norfork Lake showed signs of receding, the gates were lowered, but they were not cut off for nearly six more days. The majority of the damage to property, riverside parks and the river itself occurred during the 40,000cfs to 80,000cfs period, and the Norfork Tailwater would never look or feel the same. Unlike with most natural streams or with waterways managed for run-of-the-river flows, the Norfork almost never experiences high spikes in runoff during the spring. This annual process cleans a river and keeps silt and gravel from piling up. There was over fifty-year’s worth of loose sediment and rock that was pushed around during the flood-release on the Norfork and the aesthetics of this fishery took on a totally different feel. Some will say it’s better now, but most locals think a bit more forethought could have prevented most of the devastation. Hindsight is always crystal clear, and in this case, the Corp really had their hands tied. At least the Corp did an admirable job of getting everyone affected to higher ground.
It had been the policy of the Corp of Engineers to hold back all flood waters in the reservoirs until the last possible moment, and in the case of the 2008 White River Basin flood, they waited too long. In retrospect, running one gate for ten days would have done far less damage than opening up all ten gates simultaneously, but if the rains never fell, the Corp would have looked like they jumped the gun – even one gate would have caused minor damage and flooding. The 2008 scenario shows just how fine a line the Corp must walk when trying to manage flood (and drought) situations with everyone’s best interest in mind.
Both the Beaver Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo also experienced extraordinarily high spillway releases around the same time as the Norfork, but the devastation was not so apparent on these rivers. A lot of property got flooded, but there was not nearly as much raw damage due to the different characteristics of each tailwater. Beaver Dam’s flows slow down very quickly away from the dam due to the river’s low gradient, and Taneycomo is protected by a similar dynamic. On the Norfork, flood waters quickly gained momentum, and a virtual tornado of water was unleashed to run its course through the valley.
It’s impossible to say whether the 2008 flood event will be the worst in history, but up until that point, the region had never seen flooding of this magnitude. Thousands of lessons were learned by the Corp and resource users, and it seems that small changes in water-control strategies have already been implemented to try and avoid a repeat of 2008; but if the rains decide to come in full-force, there is little that anyone can do to stem the tide. It took until December of 2008 before all that water from the spring had been released from the lakes, but the fisheries and rivers emerged in prime shape. The flushing of water on all the tailwaters cleaned up the river’s substrate, and this has made for intense and diversified hatches in 2010. Every cloud has its silver-lining, but undoubtedly the Corp and Ozark residents will take a more vigilant role in preparing for potential flooding. Several “thousand-year” floods have been observed within 500-miles of the Ozark Region in the last ten years, and if this type of event hits the area, it could be a scene right out of a horror movie. Let’s pray that a “thousand-year” flood does not happen until the powers that be are better prepared for that cataclysmic scenario.
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