By Betsy Biesenbach
Biesenbach is a Roanoke freelance writer, title examiner and author of “Bits O’ Betsy Biesenbach.”
The Aug. 7 edition of Time magazine featured a story about the severe flooding along the Mississippi River after years of record rains. Unfortunately, bigger floods are coming, and decades of mismanagement have created a disaster in the making.
The story was interesting, but I figured it had little to do with us, since the Roanoke River — unlike the New River — is not in the Mississippi’s watershed. Then I thought about the kayak trips I’ve recently made on our river. There is no comparison between the two waterways, of course — the Mississippi is a vital transportation route for a huge section of the country, while here, near its headwaters, the Roanoke looks like a creek. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe from flooding or from poor planning.
Kevin Myatt, the Roanoke Times’ weather expert, says 2018 was our wettest year ever. Over 62 inches fell — the previous record was 59 inches — with some gauges registering over 70 inches south of Roanoke. The river hit flood stage twice, Myatt said, but it didn’t damage any homes. However, cloudbursts caused some tributaries — notably, Mud Lick Creek — to flow out of their banks in May and October that year. Totals for early 2019 weren’t remarkable, but the ground was already saturated from the year before.
My friend Joy and I have kayaked the river from Mill Lane to Wasena Park several times a year over the past 20 years. During that time, channels have gradually filled in while others have opened up, and we adjust our route accordingly.
In 2018, we only went twice. The river was almost always too high, but when the rains stopped, it seemed to get low very quickly. We joked that somebody must have poked a hole in the bottom. When we went paddling this year, we were surprised by how different everything was. The river changed more in the past two years than in all the previous years we’d been on it, and we had to learn it all over again.
One feature, which we call “the chute” because it gets narrow and swift as it passes under a bridge, is twice as wide as it once was. A wooden wharf left over from the days when garbage was dumped directly into the river has been swept away, as were the remains of the terminus of an 1825 mill race. We were delighted that one of our favorite places — a rolling run around a small island — had filled with water again, but chagrined because a new rock bank below it turned one of our favorite swimming holes into a wading spot.
But the biggest change was at the confluence of Mud Lick Creek and the river. Until 2018, this was a shady, green, peaceful, spot with a sandy beach that came and went as the silt levels at the mouth of the creek changed. We never knew what we would find there. Once, three deer swam across the river right in front of us, and one hot summer day, I rounded the bend to see a large naked lady perched on the lap of a rather small man who was sitting in lawn chair. The creek itself disappears into the woods beneath a teardrop-shaped culvert built in the early 1900s by the Virginian Railway.
Shortly after the May flood, we were shocked to see that the trees had been bulldozed away and replaced with chunks of limestone rip-rap, and that the bank supporting the railroad tracks had been pierced through with a large corrugated metal culvert.
My guess is that for the first time in over 100 years, the tracks were threatened by floodwaters and needed another outlet. I also figured the flooding had as much to do with runoff from new development along the creek as it did with the rain.
This year, we discovered three more metal culverts poking through the bank. But Mother Nature had gotten her revenge. Most of the rip-rap had washed away, and a new rock beach had formed on the opposite bank.
It’s ironic that this lovely spot was ravaged just as we Roanokers are rediscovering our river. Joy and I used to have all to ourselves, but now, we almost need bicycle bells to make our way through the weekend crowds of tubers, swimmers and paddlers.
Flood control is necessary to preserve life and property, but we also need the foresight not to do to our fragile little waterway what’s been done to the big river to our west.