Hidden history: This well that was replaced in the 1970s, is usually entirely submerged, but due to the low level of the Wabash River it is now several feet clear of the water. 
Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
Hidden history: This well that was replaced in the 1970s, is usually entirely submerged, but due to the low level of the Wabash River it is now several feet clear of the water. Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
Like nearly everything else, the Wabash River is being changed by this strange year.

Folks strolling the riverfront sidewalk through Fairbanks Park this week likely spotted a peculiar sight. A sandbar in the middle of the stream is visible. That’s not normal. (I know, that phrase runs on a loop in our brains these days.)

The water level is remarkably low.

“In my lifetime, it hasn’t carried this depth for this long,” said Brendan Kearns, a longtime Wabash advocate and outdoorsman.

Kearns explores and observes the river routinely by boat, and the low depths have made those excursions more complicated lately. Now a Vigo County commissioner, Kearns served for several years as a program specialist for the state of Indiana’s Healthy Rivers Initiative. He’s among a small legion of people closely following the river’s changes and qualities.

Statistics on the river’s level involve asterisks.

The river stage stood at 3.42 feet on Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. The low-water record for the Wabash of 2.4 feet was set in 1934. However, the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors the river levels, modernized the gauge at the Theodore Dreiser Memorial Bridge in 2018. That change meant river stage depths would read 2 to 2.5 feet higher than the old gauge.

Thus, in old-school Wabash River terms, the river stage is around 1.5 feet, Kearns said.

Indeed, the Wabash has been shallow through late summer and fall. The river stage stood at 3.8 feet at the end of August. And, just a third-of-an-inch of rain fell in September. The U.S. Drought Monitor puts Vigo, Vermillion and Parke counties at the “moderate drought” level — its second highest — while fellow Wabash River counties to the north and south fall under the “abnormally dry” category. The Monitor’s forecast indicates the drought will persist in parts of Vigo, Vermillion and Parke counties.

River levels are expected to drop this month, too. The National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service shows Wabash River stages nearing 3.2 feet by Oct. 11, said Aaron Updike, a NWS meteorologist in Indianapolis.

The Geological Survey charts the river by its water discharge, or the overall volume of water, said Paul Baker, field office chief for the USGS in Indianapolis. Using that measure, the river’s flow packed a volume of 2,050 cubic feet of water per second. By contrast, other drought years measured at 1,300 cubic feet per second in 2012, 1,050 in 1988, and 950 in 1934.

“We’re very low, but we’re not pushing that record just yet,” Baker said.

Unusual climate events etch themselves into our memories. The 1988 drought proved fortunate for me. I decided to reroof our house that summer, stripping off every layer down to the trusses. Given that I’m not a trained roofer, it took longer than I anticipated. A plastic tarp covered the house that sheltered my wife, our newborn son and me. Day after day, I watched the skies and local forecasts like a hawk. Only a few scattered drops of rain fell before I finished.

The current drought is revealing changes in the Wabash itself.

Ducks strutting over the sandbar in the stream near Fairbanks Park appear to be walking on water. That sandbar is the result of erosion on the east bank, Kearns said. “We’re seeing the bank gradually move east,” he added.

Erratic flooding, with the river rapidly rising and falling, has become more common in the past decade, causing the erosion.

”The bank along Fairbanks Park needs to be shored up,” Kearns said. “[The sandbar’s formation] is because of a lack of bank stabilization.” Another river town to the south, New Harmony, solidified its Wabash bank with rock. “I’d love to see that get done” in Terre Haute, he said, offering his support of any effort.

With the water level so low for so long, now, Kearns sees possible changes in the Wabash’s path near its confluence with Otter Creek. Another large sandbar has emerged there, and heavier river flows in the near future could cause the Wabash to cut a new course there, perhaps creating an island as large as 10 acres.

”I think two more 20-foot rivers will do it,” Kearns said.

The low water also has odd impacts on wildlife. At Dewey Point, the pesky Asian carp — an invasive species that has exploded in population in the Wabash through the 21st century — have gotten trapped in shallow areas of the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area.

”So it was like a buffet for the birds,” Kearns said. He spotted 20 bald eagles and dozens of great white egrets and blue heron at the site. Furry critters benefited, too. Eagles discard the fish heads, and animals such as otters eat those.

”It’s interesting how the ecosystem comes alive when the water’s this low,” Kearns said.

Curiosities arise, too. Kearns has fielded lots of questions about submerged trains, buried beneath the water after crashes in 1892 and 1900. Wheels from a train are indeed in that area below the Big Four railroad bridge, but remain nearly 7 feet under the surface, he said.

He has collected some oddities — “treasures,” he calls them — left stranded by the receding stream. Still, Kearns is a veteran boater on the Wabash and he cautions people to resist the temptation to walk into its shallow spaces. The river bottom is wildly uneven, dipping some places from a few feet to nearly 50 feet deep. Boats can get stuck, and trouble could follow.

”You’ve got to treat it with respect,” Kearns said. “She’s going to do her own thing, and now is not the time to go and try your boat out.”
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