Ozark residents worry about spring flooding

Sunday, March 1, 2009 | 8:13 p.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — Business owners and residents still recovering from floods that did millions of dollars in damage last year in the Ozarks are worried that conditions are ripe for them to have the same problem this year.

A group of marina owners recently asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to act to avoid more flooding this year, but corps officials said they won't change their operating procedures.

Last spring, rains pushed Table Rock Lake to a record 933.25 feet above sea level last year — about 19 feet above seasonal depth.

The waters didn't recede at Table Rock or Lake Taneycomo until August, costing lake communities and businesses lost tourism dollars, some destroyed homes and boat docks and $7 million in damage to public parks.

This year, the spring rainy season is about to begin with ground saturated from recent rains. The lake is at 915 feet — the target elevation for this time of year to provide water for hydroelectric generation, the trout fishery and other things.

"We track lake levels and know what averages are any day of the year, and we're worried about it," said Ryan Hamilton, manager of the Port of Kimberling and head of the Table Rock Marina Owners Association. "If they don't drop the lake, we're in for more."

Hamilton's group recently met with Table Rock's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials to discuss its concerns.

But corps officials said the agency can't release water below 915 feet to prepare for anticipated spring rains.

"We never have and never will. It's not something we will do," said John Kielczewski, a White River System engineer based in Little Rock, Ark.

The corps is required to follow a Water Management Plan developed when Table Rock, three other lakes and three dams in the upper reaches of the White River system were created decades ago.

That plan requires the corps to maintain target levels at certain periods so the lakes can fulfill hydroelectric generation and other water demands and still avoid flooding downstream, corps officials say.

"If the forecast said we're going to get 6 inches of rain, and we lowered the lake and used up the hydropower water and drinking water — and then it didn't rain — we'd be in a heap of trouble," Kielczewski said.

The corps lakes can accommodate normal and above-normal rains under the plan. But it was overwhelmed last year when the lakes received a rare 4.5-inch rain in 24 hours, Kielczewski said.

Hamilton cites several reasons why he thinks Table Rock and surrounding lakes could flood again this year.

Table Rock Lake is hovering around 915 feet today, just as it did on March 19, 2008, before the one-day, 4.5-inch rain. The lake rose over 927 feet by April 10, when nearly 2.5 inches pushed the lake to 933 feet. More rain fell in May.

Hamilton also believes springtime deluges come in two consecutive years, citing a corps document showing yearly minimum and maximum lake levels. That document shows that in 1973, Table Rock peaked at 929 feet, then hit 928 the next year. And in 1984, it peaked at 927 feet, then hit 929 feet in 1985.

The pattern didn't hold up in 1961-1962, however, when the lake hit 932.51 in 1961 but had a typical level the next year, the record shows.

National Weather Service meteorologist Gene Hatch in Springfield said it's too early to predict how much rain will fall this spring.

The Climate Prediction Center near Washington, D.C., predicts equal chances of above-normal and below-normal rainfall for the region.

"It will take far less rain this year to cause an unordinary high-water year," Hamilton said. "Maybe not to get to 932, but I don't think anyone's interested in getting to 928, either, and it will take less rain this year than last year to get to that higher level."

"I know there's a lot of anxiety out there," said Greg Oller, Table Rock Lake manager for the Corps of Engineers. "We're monitoring the lake level as everybody else is, but we're not concerned."

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