Rerouting the Hocking River: Did the River Take a Turn for the Worse

By Ellie Shanklin

In 1968, 13-year-old Tebes Caul and his older brother were told by their father, “By no means do you go anywhere close to the floodwaters.” Disobeying this command, the two brothers playfully trudged through four-foot-deep water near their home in Athens, Ohio. They brought along their water-loving German shepard for a swim in the floodwaters of Richland Avenue. 

“It was a bad flood, and it was popping off man-hole covers,” explained Caul. 

When Caul was ten years old, he and his family moved to The Ridges where the formerly called Athens Lunatic Asylum was located. His dad was a doctor at the mental hospital and his family lived in a house on the hospital grounds. In talking about the location of his childhood home and the chaos that frequent flooding brought, Caul stated, “We had front row seats.” Caul also described his childhood as “kind of like growing up on a state park,” because of the gardens and ponds located on The Ridges. 

When going to The Ridges now, one will not find these gardens and ponds, but instead a large river flowing right in front of it. This is due to the channelization of the Hocking River, the body of water that is to blame for the frequent flooding that Caul and his family experienced. 

The river was channelized in 1971 in order to stop the flooding in Athens, a solution that has not proved to be feasible. Although flooding has subsided after the rerouting of the river, with climate change on the rise, the city of Athens may be in trouble. 

The Hocking River is 102 miles long and joins the Ohio River at Hockingport. The name derives from the Native American word “Hokhokken” which means “bottle-shaped.” The river begins as a small stream and then widens as it goes over a large waterfall and into a gorge located 7 miles northwest of Lancaster, Ohio. 

Plaque commemorating the Cutler Botanic Gardens where the Hocking River now runs through

The river once meandered under the old Richland Avenue Bridge, through the current site of the Baker Center, and into the heart of the Ohio University (OU) campus. The lakes of OU’s Emeriti Park are also remnants of the old riverbed, and several buildings on OU’s campus have been built where the river used to run, including Baker Center, Walter Hall, and Clippinger Hall. 

Founded in 1804, Ohio University was originally located entirely on a hill. In 1955, the university saw a surge in undergraduate enrollment, causing OU to expand. East and West Green were created, which are located on the floodplains of the Hocking River. In the 1960’s, various residential buildings were built on West Green, like Sargent Hall and James Hall. On East Green, 14 residential halls were built in the 1940s and 50’s.

Despite the known history of flooding in this area, OU continued to occupy the Hocking River floodplains. This caused the university to experience a series of catastrophic floods, and in 1968, the 2nd highest flood ever recorded in Athens occurred with floodwaters reaching 24.65 feet. Shortly after this devastating event, the Athens city council voted unanimously to channelize the Hocking River. 

This project was completed by the Huntington District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who straightened, widened, and moved the river from its original location. These changes made the river 0.3 miles shorter. The cost of this project was approximately $11 million and it was estimated to have saved $48 million in damages. The efforts of the engineers ultimately stopped the flooding on campus, making it seem like the problem was solved. 

Not everybody agrees with this notion though, including Jasmine Facun, environmental scientist and expert on the channelization of the Hocking River. She stated that the rerouting of the Hocking River was “not a good solution, period.” 

Facun received her master’s degree from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and has been a long-term local of Athens County. She wrote her master’s thesis on the channelization of the Hocking River. With an interest in ecology, she looked at the ways that management might be altered to be more beneficial to wildlife surrounding the Hocking River. Facun believes that the rerouting didn’t solve the flooding problem, and even goes as far to say that, “If the Army Corps was tasked with this now, they wouldn’t have done it in the same way.” 

The solution to change the path of the Hocking River only stopped the flooding on campus, but there are frequent floods that still occur throughout Athens, like on East State Street. Businesses have continued to be built on floodplains such as Walmart, Kroger, Lowe’s and Menards. 

The average number of years between floods of a particular size is known as the recurrence interval. “100 year-flood” is a term used to describe one such recurrence interval, meaning that this year, a river has a one out of 100 chance of flowing as high as the 100-year flood stage. The Hocking River channel was built to withstand a 30-year flood. 

According to Dr. Natalie Kruse, Ohio University Professor and Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Ohio University, “What we’re seeing with climate change is that the probability of a flood is ultimately increasing.” 

Furthermore, the chances of a 50 or 100-year flood occurring is much higher than usual due to climate change. This size of a flood would be disastrous for the town of Athens, as the channel would not be able to hold nearly that much water. 

“In 1971 when this channel was complete, climate change wasn’t really a word, and nobody had it on their minds,” Facun pointed out, explaining why the engineers only created a short-term solution plan to stop the flooding on OU’s campus. 

On February 23, 2018, the city of Athens anticipated severe weather that was suspected to cause flooding. As a safety measure, Ohio University canceled classes for a day. OU wanted to give students a chance to leave campus, as living conditions may not have been ideal.

In January of 2005, large flooding occurred on East State Street. David Koppel, former Ohio University graduate student, used photographs of this event to try and identify the reason the water levels reached such high levels. He knew that because of the river reconstruction in 1971, it didn’t make sense for water levels to reach this height. 

Koppel found that the construction of the U.S. Rt. 50 highway bridge at Athen’s east end was the cause of the flooding. If the bridge weren’t there, the area under the embankment would be flat, allowing for water to overflow and continue downstream.

Now, water pools behind the highway, flooding East State Street. Before the construction of buildings like Walmart and Menards, the floodplains solved this problem, but now the presence of these buildings and their parking lots cause water to pool. 

In addition to the floodplain dilemma, the Hocking River engineers also didn’t consider the river’s biodiversity and ecosystem. According to Facun, the Army Corps of Engineers created an operations guide for how the river should be managed, which was then given to the Hocking Conservancy District. 

The biggest of these management tasks was to keep the river dredged and the banks mowed. When water passes over plant growth, friction is created, slowing the velocity of water. This leads to a higher chance of water accumulation and flooding. The river management team concluded that keeping the banks mowed would decrease the chance of flooding, which also decreased the biodiversity along the river.

 

Hocking River with mowed banks running beneath Richland Avenue

Since its channelization, little has changed in the river’s management. Facun explained how their thinking is “based on old science that hasn’t really been explored since then,” and she decided to research whether growing something along the riverbanks would actually change the velocity and impact flood potential. 

During her studies she compared mowed areas to non-mowed areas, looking at the plants and the pollinators that were associated with those plants. Her research ultimately found that trees wouldn’t be beneficial to grow along the banks, but smaller plants such as prairie flowers would be a solution to increase biodiversity as they wouldn’t affect the velocity of the water. 

The buildup of silt due to runoff is another effect of the re-channelization. According to Kruse, there are more opportunities for sedimentation in the river, and the buildup of silt is thought to be increasing the frequency of floods. Kruse also explained how the biggest environmental change of the re-channelization is the riparian zone, the strip of land adjacent to the river. 

“When you go from a forested riparian to a mowed riparian, it changes shading, habitat, and vegetation,” said Kruse. She explained how because the rerouted portion of the Hocking River has no riparian or shading, it causes environmental effects like higher temperatures. 

Elaine Goetz, Director of Energy Management & Sustainability at Ohio University worked for Athens in 2006 and 2007 as a legislative aide. She was hired to maintain floodplain issues as Athens was experiencing floodplain mapping complications and spent two years looking into floodplain mapping and management and worked alongside the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Goetz learned that the peak streamflow of the Hocking River has decreased over the past 50 years, while in most parts of the country, peak levels have increased. The Army Corps of Engineers told Elaine that they believed the significant decrease in the Hocking River peak flow is because of the growth of the Wayne National Forest. Most of the forest had been torn down for timber and charcoal during the 1800s mining boom. After the collapse of the coal industry, many of the mining towns shrunk or disappeared, allowing for the regrowth of trees. 

This regrowth also surged in the 1930s when Ora Anderson, conservationist and advocate for forest growth, planted thousands of trees in the Wayne National Forest. Because of this recent tree regrowth in southeastern Ohio, most of the rainwater soaks into the forest instead of running off into the river, causing much lower peak flows.

According to Goetz, “If we were to have peak flows like we had in the 60s, it’s not entirely clear that the re-channelization would actually protect the university.” Goetz also explained that the Hocking re-channelization has no effect on peak flows as “Peak flows are only affected by precipitation and water storage/detention.” 

While working for the city, Goetz also found that the data used for the volume of the river is inaccurate. River management said it’s deeper and will hold more water than it currently does due to all the erosion. 

“It’s hard to tell whether the floodplain maps are actually accurate or not because they overestimate how much water can be held in the river and how much water flows down the river,” said Goetz.

If the river had the same volume of water flowing down like in the 1960’s, she thinks there’s a chance it would overtop the riverbanks. 

“[The Army Corps of Engineers] has no idea if the rerouting of the river actually helped with flooding, and when people say that the rerouting saved the university a lot of money from flooding, we are not sure that’s true,” said Goetz. 

The 1960s, before the river channelization, were a time of severe flooding for Ohio University. The worst of these floods occurred in March of 1963, March of 1964, and May of 1968. Although severe flooding wasn’t new to Athens, these ones remain memorable because the floodplains were now occupied by campus buildings, including student residence halls. 

After plans to reroute the river were finalized, a May 1969 article from the Post read, “The fun will soon be gone. Ohio University students will no longer be able to dive out third floor windows into swirling flood waters. There will be no more floating around campus in homemade rafts, no more wading through waist-high water to attend parties.”

Although there are many negative effects of the Hocking River re-channelization, the project did bring positive elements to Ohio University and the Athens community. Kruse described some of the benefits of the new shape of the river like the bike path built up along the levee as well as the cherry trees. She explained how these areas brought “a lot of social cohesion that come off in the form of recreation and gathering in the area that is now the river.” 

The rerouting of the river not only created social gathering areas but also increased campus population and allowed additional flood protection for homes on the eastside of Athens. The re-channelization solved many problems upstream by pushing them downstream, which is why areas of Athens still experience flooding. All in all, the re-channelization fundamentally changed people’s relationship with the Hocking River. 

The question of whether the rerouting of the Hocking River was a successful project is indeed difficult to answer. According to Dr. Greg Springer, Ohio University Professor of Geological Sciences, “the rerouting of the river was necessary from a flooding perspective.” 

Although the flooding in Athens did recede shortly after the re-channelization, climate change is only getting worse and will continue to increase the probability of future flooding. In the words of Facun: “With climate change, it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. Don’t assume that we’re safe from floods. Learn from our past, and protect your assets, your people, and your environment.” 

Springer reiterated how it is very likely a flood the size of the 1968 flood will occur again, which would result in “deaths and severe damage of property.” He noted that, “We must formulate and familiarize citizens with emergency evacuation plans for the city.” 

Tebes Caul’s mischievous floodwater activities may become the new standard of fun for Athens teens. If individuals consider the flooding to be resolved due to the rerouting of the river, Athens could be in a predicament. The mindset that the re-channelization fixed the flooding problem is a dangerous one, because it doesn’t account for all the harm that it’s caused as well as the issue of climate change. 

From now on, the probability of disastrous flooding will only go up from here, a situation that both the Hocking River channel and the people of Athens won’t be prepared for.

Additional Sources:

Behrens, Cole. “’If We Could Do It All over Again…’.” The Athens NEWS, 22 Aug. 2019, https://www.athensnews.com/news/local/if-we-could-do-it-all-over-again/article_61cc0358-c43a-11e9-b2fb-e3caef533cb7.html

It’s Just Water behind the Bridge | Local News … https://www.athensnews.com/news/local/it-s-just-water-behind-the-bridge/article_4b45f347-d3d9-56b0-8806-51c6c80a3010.html

report, Staff. “1968 Flood Memories.” Ohio Today, 22 Nov. 2019, https://ohiotoday.org/1968-hocking-river-flood-memories/

Ryanaltenbach. “A River Runs through It: The Hocking Rerouting.” Brick Blog, 19 Sept. 2014, https://ryanaltenbach.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/a-river-runs-through-it-the-hocking-rerouting/

Springer, Greg. “Hocking River Flooding v2.” PowerPoint, https://catmailohio-my.sharepoint.com/:p:/r/personal/es872920_ohio_edu/_layouts/15/Doc.aspx?sourcedoc=%7BE678F8C6-5310-4C74-8829FB6CE650E7CB%7D&file=Hocking%20River %20Flooding%20v2.pptx&action=edit&mobileredirect=true

Taylor Johnston / For The Post. “Ohio University Has a Deep History of Flooding Occurring on Its Campus.” Thepostathens.github.io, http://projects.thepostathens.com/SpecialProjects/year-in-review-2018/flooding-histories-ou-campus-athens.html.

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