Low, slow Rock River now a stark contrast compared to floods of 2008

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, July 8, 2012

The sun hammered Dick Hovde's face as he sat on a lawn chair, spraying water from a garden hose onto his singed yard that overlooks the Rock River in the Mole & Sadler's subdivision.

"It's all sand and gravel underneath this sod. It's just drinking it up," Hovde said, wiping sweat from his forehead.

Just across Charles Street, weeds wilted in the cracks of an old concrete slab, all that's left of a ranch-style home ruined by the historic Rock River flood of June 2008.

About 75 yards away, at the edge of the sun-baked floodplain of Hovde's north Janesville neighborhood, the Rock River flowed past listlessly. There, along its banks, a retaining wall of railroad ties was in full view—all the way down to the rusted fence posts pinning it to the rocks of the riverbed.

Further south at Afton, river gauge readings show the Rock River's depth late last week at just 2.3 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Flood stage at Afton is 9 feet, and in the 2008 flood the river there crested at a record 13.5 feet.

With river levels now dipping toward near historic lows, it's hard to believe that just over four years ago most of Hovde's neighborhood was under feet of water and residents there needed boats to check sump pumps and gasoline generators at their flooded homes.

Doug Davis, who owns a rental house in the Mole & Sadler's subdivision about 50 yards from the river, recalled how in the 2008 flood the house had water up to the floorboards.

Davis was looking out at the river, past an empty lot and a tree that stood dying in the sun. On the sluggish water, two people glided past in a foot-powered paddleboat.

They were pedaling upstream, almost effortlessly.

"I don't ever remember the river ever being this low in July," Davis said.

Back to 'normal?'

National Weather Service records show the Rock River has dipped to levels nearly as low as it is now twice in the last 10 years—in 2003 and 2005, when it fell below 2.5 feet at Afton.

Yet those readings came in September. This year, the river has fallen early, thanks to a span of dry weeks in June that have dried up streams that feed Wisconsin's 3,800-square-mile Rock River basin.

It's a condition that's difficult to fathom for people who during the 2008 flood saw the Rock River surge to at least 18 feet at Indianford and 15 feet at Newville.

Yet according to local officials, the Rock River isn't low right now. It's actually at "normal" levels for summer, sort of.

"It's a typical low water now," said Boyd Richter, regional fish and game warden for the state Department of Natural Resources. "With flooding the last few years, people just aren't used to low levels."

Summer river flow averaged over the past 12 years has been double the 100-year average, according to U.S. Geological Survey records.

That's thanks in part to a run of wet years between 2007 and 2010 that kept aquifers swollen and the river consistently high throughout the year.

Compare average June flows at Afton in the last 12 years—4,277 cubic feet per second—to the flow in the same spot late last week—a relative trickle at 353 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Despite its drop, Richter said many areas of the river remain fairly navigable by boat between Janesville and the Indianford Dam. Few problems have been reported between the Highway 14 bridge and Traxler Park, where water levels are propped up in part by the Centerway Dam near downtown Janesville.

The DNR and the Rock County Sheriff's Office reports that some heavily used boat slips along the Rock River, such as Dallman's Landing at the Charlie Bluff area of Lake Koshkonong, are becoming treacherous for large boats to get in and out.

Richter said boaters should stay within the center channel in most parts of the river. The DNR has had reports of boaters and even people on personal watercraft running aground on rocks sticking up from shallow parts of the river, especially north of the Highway 14 bridge and near the Indianford Dam.

Sheriff's Deputy Matt Pyne, a member of the recreational safety team, said the mishaps are likely because people have gotten accustomed to the water being high on the river and they've become unfamiliar with gravel bars and other hazards that have always been at the bottom.

Pyne said even boaters with years of experience on the Rock River are finding surprises. In the river's low state, sandbars are now emerging in places they hadn't been before. He said that's happened in part because the 2008 flood shifted sediment.

Small water, small boats

Ali Wilson, who manages Tip a Canoe, a canoe and kayak rental in Afton, said boating with motors has become tricky on the Rock River south of Janesville, but more people than ever are heading out on the river in canoes and kayaks.

That's in part because the smaller waters that feed into it are drying up and becoming impassable, even by kayak.

"You can't go down Turtle Creek. You'd be dragging yourself," Wilson said.

On the other hand, Wilson said, the river at its low and slow state is ideal for people in canoes. She said people are lingering on the water for hours, even mooring off at sandbars that may not soon see again. There, they can have picnics or watch eagles and blue herons.

Such scenes are hard to picture for those who remember June 2008, when the Rock River was a veritable whitewater, thundering through past Afton at more than 10,000 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

If current drought conditions keep up, low and slow could become the new norm in the weeks ahead.

"There's only so much water coming downstream. If the dryness keeps up, eventually, you're going to dry up all the sources," Pyne said.

Last updated: 5:00 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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