Flooding, drought the new normal?

So how was YOUR week?

It was a little damp around the Matile Manse this past week, what with a sudden deluge of more than 5 inches of rain on Wednesday and into Thursday morning. All that rain led to some fairly severe localized flooding in the Oswego-Montgomery area that resulted in road closures and other irritations. Including water in the Matile Manse basement.

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This bench at Hudson Crossing Park in Oswego was given a flood debris overcoat during the community’s latest freshet on April 17-18. (Sue Matile photo)

Some roads will remain closed for weeks or even months, thanks to bridge damage caused by rampaging flood waters. And area parkland along local creeks and the Fox River will be closed for days until the water subsides, and then days more as park district crews work to clean up all the mud and debris.

We’ve had floods before, actually quite frequently during some periods, but most of the biggest ones were spring floods—called freshets by our ancestors—that resulted when the ice on the Fox River broke up.

The worst such freshet, local historians agree, was the 1857 event that scoured the river along its entire length, removing dams, mills, and bridges.

On Feb. 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record reprinted a piece from one of their exchange papers describing that flood;

The Freshet of 1857.

The Batavia News contained the following, which may interest our river readers:

A number of our citizens wishing to know the date of the last freshet, we give below the time, etc., as furnished by Mr. N.S. Young, who has kept a chronicle of events which has happened in Batavia for a number of years and which will be interesting to all.

“The great freshet of 1857 occurred on February 7th. Three very heavy rainfalls on the 5th, 6th, and 7th, upon a body of snow nearly two feet deep was the immediate cause of the rise of water in the Fox River Valley at that time. Every bridge from Elgin to Ottawa except the stone bridge at Batavia was swept away. Huge piles of ice were lodged upon both banks of the river, remaining there till far into the month of April.”

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year's flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Hudson Crossing Park was mostly under water after this year’s flood as the normally placid Fox River surged out of its banks.

Those early freshets were all driven by the break-up of ice on the river, which developed into thick sheets behind the mill dams that dotted the river. And while 1857 had the largest such event, it was far from the only serious spring flood on the Fox. Just a decade later, the Record reported on March 12, 1868 that the new iron bridge at Oswego, built just the year before, had been badly damaged by that spring’s flooding:

The Freshet of ’68.

The “breaking up” of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks. Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.

Spring flooding continued throughout the Fox Valley even after all those mills and many of their dams had passed into history. As settlement accelerated and then matured, many of the valley’s wetlands were drained to create more farmland and creeks were channelized to speed water runoff into area rivers. And as environmentalists and engineers know, it is not necessarily the volume of water that creates destruction during times of high water, it is the velocity of that water. The new emphasis on getting stormwater runoff away from agricultural fields and into rivers meant flooding events just as large as those old ice breakup driven freshets.

On March 24, 1948, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that:

A few weeks ago we mentioned that the snowstorms kept farm life from getting monotonous. Now two flood-sized rainstorms within a week have kept farmers and city folks busy. Seldom, if ever, has so much rain fallen in so short a period in this vicinity.

Water in the basements, bridges out, and roads impassable in places. Water over the highways. The railroad track washed out above Oswego so no train service, irregular mails, or none at all.

Numbers of people have had autos stuck on gravel roads with farm tractors busy day and night pulling out those unfortunate ones. Not all of the school buses were running on Monday. Some telephones are out because of the wet weather and the electric storms on March 15 and 19.

We’re still dealing with the problem of stormwater runoff velocity, although there are, here and there, efforts to recreate some of those water-slowing wetlands and to recreate some of the meanders in local streams to slow their flow. But no matter what we do, we’re still going to get floods because that’s just what Mother Nature does. And with the advent of global climate change, we’d all better be prepared for flooding and drought and other extremes to become the new normal.

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Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Kendall County, Montgomery, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

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