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The Drought of 2012

By Staff | Nov 14, 2012

A barge can be seen navigating around the gravel bar at the mouth of Bares Run where it flows into the Ohio River. This feature is usually obscured by water, but low flow this summer revealed the obstacle. In the foreground is the Hannibal Locks and Dam.

The evening news shows us the images of the damages hurricane Sandy created to states on the east coast. The large storm also brought snow three feet deep to the counties in the eastern part of our state. It will be months for many and for others it may be years until they have returned to what some call normal. But Mother Nature’s winds and rain once again showed all of us just how damaging they can be when they are unleashed on man.

But not long ago, the evening news showed us a much different kind of event caused by water, or should I say lack of it? In the summer of 2012, a great portion of our country experienced a drought of historic proportions. Although the images may not have been as terrible as those from Sandy, they still brought great hardship to those who need water to make a living and survive.

In the Midwest, farmers lost as much as 80 percent of their crops. Cattle ranchers sold much of their livestock to prevent further financial loss. For those of us in the Ohio Valley those images and losses may not seem to have much of an effect on us. But, the reality is the effects of the drought of 2012 will last for months, if not years. Prices we pay in the grocery stores will be greatly affected for the coming future. Cost of products that are corn based have risen sharply and will remain high until next year’s crop. The price of beef dropped as farmers sent large amounts of cattle to market. But that has now passed, beef cost will begin to rise as fewer cattle are marketed and the demand continues.

The drought of 2012 saw the Mississippi River drop to levels that exposed shoreline that had not felt the warmth of the sun for nearly 25 years. The last time the river was this low was back in 1988. This year’s low water caused the Coast Guard to close an 11-mile stretch of the river due to low water conditions.

If you took the time this summer to look at the Ohio River as it passed our community, you may not have noticed it being much lower than normal. In fact, if you looked close at the river surface you could almost say the water was not moving at all and you would almost be right.

The Ohio River stretches for over 980 miles from its source at the point at Pittsburgh down to the Mississippi. This summer, due to the low water flow conditions, it became more like a long lake. At the Hannibal Locks and Dam, Lockmaster Jim Beavers must deal with the changing river levels of the Ohio River to maintain passage of river traffic.

In low water conditions this summer, they operated under a condition called “Low Flow”, or in other words the river’s flow drops to 28,000 cubic feet of water passing downstream each second. If it drops to less than 10,000 CFS it becomes “extreme low flow” classification. If it continued to fall, there is one more level used to describe the river water condition, “Minimum Opening”. This level is 1,000 CFS. This level must be maintained in order to try and keep oxygen levels high enough for the aquatic life that lives in the river to survive these conditions. Most of July, August, September, and October the river was in the “Low Flow category. But on three days in July, one in August, and twice in September the river’s flow dropped to 1,000 CFS.

The Hannibal Locks maintains at least nine feet of depth in its chambers. Most loaded barges draft nine feet of water. Needless to say that this summer some barges rubbed the bottom as they passed through the chambers. On the Ohio side chamber a small stream know as Bares Run enters the river just south of the lock chamber. This summer the gravel bar at the mouth of the small stream became exposed and caused passing barges to steer clear of it on their approach in and out of the chamber.

Low river conditions also affect the Hydro Power plant’s operations in New Martinsville. When river conditions get low the power plant will close its intakes to help maintain pool level. This year when water levels above the dam needed to be maintained, the power plant closed off the east water turbine. Plant management used this as an opportunity to do plant maintenance work. When water levels drop too low, it becomes difficult to maintain sufficient flow through the water turbine to maintain correct RPM for the turbine and generator. The draft tube was opened internally and the turbine blade was inspected and painted.

I spent some time on the internet reading about drought conditions on the area’s rivers this summer. One of the things I learned is that when the river flow drops off, state agency and towns carefully monitor the conditions of the river’s water quality. The science of keeping the river’s water quality high is based on mixing zones along the river. Oxygen levels, suspended solids, and river temperature are important to life in the river. With this summer’s drought conditions and the increased temperatures, it quickly becomes what we all know as “the dog days of summer”. Most years those water conditions do not arrive until late August. This summer they came early and stayed for several months.

The dry conditions have passed for the most of us and we’ve begun to forget about the drought conditions. But if you’re a farmer who hoped for a second cutting of hay or someone whose water well went dry early, it was a long hot summer. Each time we visit the market this coming year each of us will pay higher prices due to the drought of 2012.

Water is a wonderful thing. Without it most life would not be able to survive. But when the rains do not come, it changes our lives. When they come in to great abundance like Sandy, they also can change our lives. Oh yes, there is one more source of water for our world, snow, and before long we most likely will experience that also. Let’s just hope it is enough for a white Christmas without snow covered roads as we look Thru the lens.