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Floods Flushed State's Rivers 20 Years Ago
By: Scott F. Davis
sdavis@nwaonline.net

December 1, 2002

Buffalo River Flowed Like Mississippi, High-Water Marks Make Impression on Scientists

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Buffalo River flowed like the Mississippi River.

The severe and widespread flooding that swept through much of the state 20 years ago is hard to comprehend -- even with witness descriptions, photographs and statistics.

On Dec. 3, 1982, much of northern and western Arkansas suffered major flooding after rainfall exceeded 12 inches in 24 hours at some places. It was the worst flood to hit Arkansas since at least 1945.

Benton and Washington counties missed the brunt, but the nearby Buffalo River reached the 100-year flood level or came very close to it throughout the basin. Other parts of the state endured 500-year floods.

"It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of these floods using a statistical comparison like a 100-(year) recurrence interval. I like to tell people that the Buffalo River nearly reached the steps leading to the general store in Gilbert or that it flowed over the handrails at the north end of the (Arkansas) 14 bridge. The South Fork of the Little Red River overtopped (U.S.) 65 at Clinton immediately north of the bridge crossing by several feet," said Shane Barks, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Peak discharges reached or exceeded a 100-year recurrence interval at 19 gauging stations and a 25-year recurrence interval at 12 additional gauging stations during the 1982 flood, according to the Geological Survey.

A 100-year recurrence interval means that the given flood peak could be expected to occur an average of once per 100 years or that there is a 1-percent chance of the flood peak being exceeded in any given year.

The flood was difficult for scientists at the time to measure, because highway and bridge flooding limited access. Scientists estimated high-level marks of streams from the aftermath of the wake.

The average discharge of the Buffalo River at the Arkansas 14 bridge during the flood is estimated at 212,000 cubic feet per second, which translates to almost 1.6 million gallons passing by each second, according to U.S.G.S. reports and officials. Maximum velocities could not be determined.

The flood discharge of the Buffalo River on Dec. 3, 1982, is roughly the same as the average flow of the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tenn., in September, according to National Park Service officials.

Alan Hall, U.S.G.S. hydrologist, said that high-water levels are the most memorable result of the flooding along the Buffalo. Most people can't visualize stream flow based on cubic feet per second, but they understand high-water marks, he said.

At St. Joe, where the U.S.G.S. had its lone gauging station at the time, the river rose about 47 feet in a few hours, he said.

"What would amaze you is the height the water got to," Hall said. "That's what really impressed me.''

Hall said that, like other scientists, he was unable to gain access to view the worst flooding along the river because roads and bridges washed out.

"If you did live there to see it, you didn't see it," Hall said of the river during its peak stages.

One longtime, local resident remembers water lapping over the Arkansas 14 bridge.

Joe Barnes, 83, who lives 14 miles south of Yellville, said that he was struck by how fast the water level rose. He remembers helping remove the handrail from the Arkansas 14 bridge.

When he crossed the bridge on Dec. 2, the day before the flood, the water was "clean, pretty and blue as a bell," he said. When he returned at about 5 p.m. the next day, the water was over the bridge, he recalled.

"I got tools from my shop and took handrails off the top of the bridge so trash wouldn't build up. I don't know how (the bridge) ever stood what it stood. That water was powerful. It looked like the beginning of the end," he said.

Hall said that he was able to make it to the Arkansas 16 bridge over Greers Ferry Lake, where the normally serene lake appeared to be a raging river.

"That's normally just a pool there. It looked it was a river in flood, instead of just a lake. Big logs, trees and everything were coming down," Hall recalled. "You see this stuff and you never forget it. That's probably something I'll never see again in my life."

"I never understood the power of water until that day," said Suzie Rogers, Buffalo River National Park historian.

The flood accelerated water flows and swept away or destroyed many fixtures in its path, including the home of Cal Myers, a maintenance foreman who lived downstream from the Arkansas 14 bridge.

One scientist remembers hay bales moving rapidly down stream during the 1982 flood.

"Hay bales were being carried down Illinois Bayou near Scottsville at nearly 20 miles per hour. Near the peak of the event, the force of the floodwater ripped up and scoured away approximately 200 feet of the Arkansas 164 pavement and road embankment on the west side of the river," remembered U.S.G.S. hydrologic technician Autry Meeker.

The mission of the U.S.G.S., a bureau of the Department of the Interior, is to provide scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize the loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.

The U.S.G.S. and the National Park Service contributed to this report.

┬ęThe Morning News /NWAonline.net 2002
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