Until the late 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for the Hocking River to flood the Ohio University campus. Year after year, thousands of dollars and hours of labor were poured into efforts to restore flood damage at OU.
In 1969, the Army Corp of Engineers, using money from Congress, began a project to reroute and channel the Hocking River to prevent almost yearly floods in Athens.
The Army Corp of Engineers straightened the river to reduce the friction of the river — the total of the characteristics of a river that affect the speed that it flows at — and to allow for water to flow through faster, resulting in less flooding in the area. They also widened the channel and eliminated most of the vegetation along the river.
South Green and West Green were among the most frequently flooded areas of campus. Although the area near the then-newly created West Green dorms would flood heavily enough to cause evacuations, the university was still trying to expand itself to account for an influx of new students.
As a result of the university’s plans for further expansion into commonly flooded areas, the project was presented before Congress and received funding to straighten 22,000 feet of the Hocking River channel, which eventually opened 500 acres of undeveloped land in the Athens floodplain, according to a 1965 edition of The Post.
“Basically, it created a much more efficient riverbed,” Jim Schray, a water management specialist at the Army Corp of Engineers in Huntington, West Virginia, said. “Historically, the Hocking (River) would have meandered through the through the area. (There) would have been lots of bends associated with it. There would have been wetlands in the middle of it, lots of trees. All those things result in friction, and friction results in higher water levels.”
By trenching and straightening the river, the Army Corp reduced this friction and even shortened the Hocking River, Schray said.
“Environmentally, when you take all those things out … the habitat is very simple,” Schray said. “So you end up with just a very efficient flow through the areas, no real deep pools for fish to hide in … you're trying to prevent aquatic vegetation to come in because that all adds friction.”
The Army Corp of Engineers no longer considers this method a first or even second option to reduce flooding today, and often does the exact opposite in restoring rivers instead, Schray said.
“For us to do this today, it would take a very significant evaluation of the environment … it was something we did a lot of back in the ‘60s before we started evaluating environmental effects, but it's not something we would do (now),” Schray said.
The environmental effects of this action were devastating to the organisms that relied on the stream, Dr. Guy Riefler, a professor of civil engineering, said.
Before the river had been changed, it would naturally develop pools of water, including deep pool areas and a series of shallow areas, often with little waterfalls, called “riffles,” Riefler said.
“That sort of varied terrain provides a good habitat for different kinds of critters, some critters like to be in the riffle section, some like to hang out in the pool section,” Riefler said.
The flat, wide alterations to the channel would not be the ideal environment for the organisms who once lived there, Riefler said.
Riefler said another issue that affects the environmental composition of the river is the removal of trees and shrubs along the river bed, which usually increases friction and alters the environment for fish and other organisms.
“(The plants) act as a buffer against pollution and they create shade for the water so that it's cool. And they contribute things like leaves and stuff that critters will eat,” Dr. Greg Springer, professor of geological sciences, said. “All of that is gone. That part will never recover, because they're never going to let the river trees grow in the river channel now.”
The straightening of the river also caused a much heavier flooding effect for people down stream.
Anytime a river is straightened and channelized, Springer said, flood water flows through easier and faster. Downstream of these altered areas, the flooding is going to be worse because there is no friction to slow down larger quantities of water flowing through.
“That's not good for people downstream,” Springer said.