Archive for Saturday, August 28, 1993

FLOODING PROVIDES VALUABLE LESSONS

August 28, 1993

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Knowledge comes from experience, and the U.S. Geological Survey won't let the flood of '93 pass without a surge of studies.

At the survey's Kansas district headquarters at 15th Street and Wakarusa Drive, hydrologists and technicians are measuring river levels, testing water samples and mapping river changes in the wake of the state's worst flooding since 1951.

Data collected along the Kansas River will flow into further survey studies downstream -- everything from dealing with chemical runoff in tributaries to predicting new channel characteristics of the Mississippi River.

And it all will be done with the emotional detachment of an electronic river gauge.

"We're impartial," said Johnnie Shockley, acting district chief of the survey's water resources division in Kansas. "We do the research. We're not hired by private interests. We're here to be as objective as possible."

No single study is likely to shake the environmental world, but the data collected will help planners design better roads, build stronger bridges and identify more reliable water supplies during the next 10, 20, even 100 years, said Claude Geiger, chief of hydrologic data management.

The Kansas district's records date back to 1895.

"As time goes on, water resources become more valuable, because of population increases," he said. "This information will give people better numbers."

People analyze the figures for answers to nature's riddles, including the reasons for damage left by the flooding, said Butch Lacock, a hydrologic technician for 33 years. The changes can be radical.

When a channel shifts, he said, farmers even have been known to relocate farms from one side of the river to the other without ever buying new land.

"Whole farms have disappeared, while others have appeared," said Charlie Perry, a hydrologist.

The problem has been reduced considerably by construction of levees and reservoirs, Perry said. Before development, rain-swollen rivers normally would expand naturally to create wetland areas.

"The whole process has been going on for ages, but people like to keep the river from their houses and streets," Perry said. "This creates a problem."

Kansas today has 24 federal reservoirs, including Clinton and Perry lakes. Together, they help control river levels in the Kansas section of the Mississippi River basin, to limit extensive flooding to only the most heavy and sustained periods of rain.

By comparison, he said, Iowa has only one federal reservoir. Des Moines flooded, leaving residents without drinking water for more than a week.

"When it comes down to the nitty gritty -- and we're talking about homes and property -- the system worked," Perry said.

The survey hopes to have its reports completed by the end of next summer, Shockley said. The studies will include analyses of water quality, reservoir volumes, erosion around bridge pilings, sedimentary effects, pesticide runoff and flood-level comparisons.

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