Ye Olde Mudderland

River’s roar is mightier than pen

The problem with hydrology is that nobody thinks in terms of flow rates –

50, 100, 400 cubic feet per second doesn’t ring a bell, no matter how accepted the standard, nor does translating it into gallons per minute or acre feet per day.

Rapid in “boisterous” mode:  June 2010

Thus my modest proposal:

Let’s convert flow rates into audio equivalents.

Case in point, and custom made for our trail run, is a rapid crevasse in the northern hinterlands of Harford County, Maryland (the place where I grew up) where Deer Creek takes a jagged turn through Rocks State Park.

It consists of a 200 foot run of rapids with a 4 foot waterfall at the end.

Why bother with discharge (left) when sound equivalents (right) works better?

As shown on the hydrograph, I’ve divided its discharge range, numbers courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, into audio descriptors on the right-hand side as follows, from loudest to quietest:

Deafening, thunderous, roaring, boisterous, clamorous, rustling, gurgling and whispering.

You’ll also see from the hydrograph that Rocks is entering into its seasonal “quieting down” mode which in technical hydrologic terms is better known as the summer baseflow recession. Remember, up on the continent spring is the traditional high-water season, not fall as it is in our south Florida swamp.

Currently, Deer Creek is still in “roaring” mode. By summer’s end, however, it should dip into the realm of just clamorous, or maybe even lower depending on how deep into autumn waters continue to fall. Last autumn for example the blaze orange, red and browning leaves fell onto and over a rapid that was – if we look over to the audio vertices on the hydrograph – just rustling.

Very appropriate for the season!  As for accuracy … testing is underway.

During fall the rapid often drops to “rustling” mode, or even quieter

People frequently ask me:

Where would you measure the sound? After all, peak floods would wash away your equipment if you are not careful.

That’s why I recommend taking “audio measurements” of the rapids not from the U.S. Geological Survey’s riverside gauging station which, yes, could be washed away by a flood (i.e., Hurricane Agnes of 1971,) but rather collecting the data from the safe perch of the King and Queen Seat’s outcrop 190 foot high instead.

King and Queen’s Seat is the tried and true standard for making
accurate measurements of the rapid’s sound.

I also don’t recommend equipment –

Just using your ears works fine!

Storm that started the drought?

Do all storms end with drought?

I know you’re thinking. I mean the opposite instead:
That “all droughts end with a flood,” right?

Deer Creek, Maryland at low-water autumn ebb

A meteorologist in the snow-bound climes of the Red River Basin introduced me to the latter saying. To what degree it holds any statistical truth I cannot say. My initial gut reaction was that an observational bias was in play, plus some seasonal slight of hand. But no matter how much I tried to deny it, the saying kepts sneaking up on me wherever I roamed.

Take Tropical Depression Nicole for example. It threatened to make our already high-water rendition of the Big Cypress Swamp all the more wetter but by the flap of the wings of the butterfly bypassed to the east and then onward north to the Atlantic Coast where it drenched those watersheds instead.

Now here’s the catch:

Those watersheds were at the end of their seasonal drought, better known as the summer recession, transforming currents from trickles into torrents overnight.

So yes, chalk one on the board for that old reliable saying!

Case in point is Maryland’s Deer Creek, as measured at Rocks State Park (or just “Rocks” as us Harford Countians call it). Thanks to Nicole it now has a chance to top 40 Empire State Buildings (ESBs) worth of water flow for the year. That would make it an above average year, but not a “chart topper,” a term I reserve for the biggest of big flow years which pass 60 or more ESBs worth of water. That’s happened just four times in the modern era (aka my lifetime), the most recent of which (2003) which was, as predicted by that old reliable saying, preceded by the drought of record in 2002 when less than 20 ESBs worth of water flowed through Maryland’s famed Rocks State Park for the year.

Ha, there it is again!

So, cherry picking not withstanding, I guess that means that, yes, all drought do seem to end with floods.

Does the same saying also apply to the Florida swamps?

Seasonally it happens each year with our winter dry season. By spring the swamps are nearly 100 percent water free and crunchy, just a single lightning strike away from an uncontrollable blaze. But along with the lighting are the thunder that beckon the wet season’s arrival … and the floods that will soon be to follow.

Which brings me back to Nicole:

Instead of flushing flood waters even higher into the swamp it paradoxically reversed the tables by ushering in a week’s worth of dry air in its wake instead.

Meteorologists are calling it an early start to the dry season.

Loop Road near Gator Hook Strand at the wet-season peak

Or in other words,

Call it the storm that started the drought!

Flow rate in time

Usually I see a stream in an “instant” (and then leave).

Always left lingering for me is much it adds up to over a year.

In this case, at Deer Creek in Harford County, Maryland, the answer is 80 cubic feet per second (as filmed on June 29th) and 23 Empire state-sized barrel full per year (assuming that constant flow rate).

I know what you’re thinking:

There’s no holding that water back.

Actually, there is, or rather at least there once was.

Just a few miles upstream is Eden Mill Dam. It used to provide electricity to the Dairy Farmer’s just across the border in Pennsylvania. Now its a scenic spot that attracts hikers, historians and an occasional hydrologist.

As for the water, it just sort of slides on by.

Inner tubers beware!

Warning signs are great …

But wouldn’t it be more instructive to post the current flow rate instead?

That way we could sort of decide for ourselves.

Or at least for those of us that learned the hard way and have a frame of reference to go by (better known as the School of Hard Knocks) could make a more enlightened decision.

Let me explain:

In my early high school years a bunch of us rebel rousers bought truck tire inner tubes, filled them with air at the corner gas station, and then headed off to Rocks to run the rapids.

We were young and didn’t know any better.

It was July and the creek was still gushing in spring flood mode. We knew that. That’s why we went. Like I said we were young and didn’t know any better.

Usually by July the run of rapids is quieting down into its summer recession which by early fall, around say September, causes the creek to hit its annual ebb. Typically that’s around 50 cubic feet per second.

On that fateful afternoon in July, which looking at my historical chart I can see was probably 1984, the creek was still roaring with a spring-like freshet of upwards of 200 cfs.

Whether or not the sign was there I cannot be sure.

We would have disregarded it anyway. Or even if a park ranger had posted a hydrograph on a tree with a nail I am sure too that at best would have had us scratching our heads.

To make a long story short, my brother got snagged by a rock mid run and lost his tube. In a frenzy to escape the torrent of water he jostled and bumped and brawled his way, bruising and scraping himself considerably in the process, until finally, if somewhat pyrrhically scrambling himself to the safety of the top of rock.

Alas, he was on the wrong bank!

The only way across – and back to our vehicle – was by inner tubing down the rest of the rapid.

We retrieved his runaway tube and spun it to him discus style across the rapids. It took a good half hour or so but eventually he did what he had to and completed the run, the exclamation point of which is a 3-4 foot plunge down a waterfall into a boil of water.

Could the accident have been prevented with a good hydrograph?

For that particular incident, my answer is “no.” The Call of the Rapids was just too strong. But as a future reference, 25 years later, I can look at the hydrograph and say, “hey, the creek is over 200 cfs, maybe it’s best if we sit this one out.”

Of course I can’t vouch for my friends.

Patriotic lighthouse

Naples doesn’t have a lighthouse.

That makes me wonder why.

Maybe it did at one time, or never did, or instead had lights equipped at the edge of its pier which in the era before trains and automobiles was the spot where the passenger boats docked in.

Compare that to Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre De Grace, Maryland at the mouth of the Mighty Susquehanna River.

It’s the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation in the United States …

Or so the sign says.

It’s also a famous spot in the War of 1812 …

Albeit for an event that happened the following year.

Florida didn’t even become a state until 1845.

The lighthouse is strong – almost 4 feet thick (of solid stone) at its base,

And at 36 feet high has a pretty good view.

Of course it was built high not for the view,
but to make it seeable from far away:

For boats coming up the Chesapeake that was 8.5 miles away.

That doesn’t seem far compared to the horizon on the open ocean which, if I remember correctly, is around 12 miles.

But that’s open water:

Chesapeake Bay is narrow and twisty.