BROOKVILLE – Robert Barr studies Hoosier rivers. "He’s spent a lot of time on the Whitewater," coordinator Chris Fox said at the Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District annual meeting Feb. 16 at the Franklin County High School cafeteria and auditorium.

Barr, an Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis Department of Earth Sciences research scientist, reported, "It’s always interesting to talk about the Whitewater River … to me, it is fascinating to study."

On June 7-9, 2008, more than 650 sections of road, 60 bridges and 100 culverts were flooded in Indiana.

Following that devastation, Barr joined a group called the Indiana Silver Jackets to learn more about how Indiana rivers work in an effort to reduce flood hazards. The group, funded by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, is comprised of representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Purdue University and the Polis Center at IUPUI.

He noted, "Indiana rivers are strikingly different. Whitewater … has the dubious distinction of being first in a number of categories. It has an unusual geologic history, flow pattern, slope, mobility … It also makes it an extremely popular destination for people to come to visit, but is darn hard to live next to."

"Northern Indiana rivers … are very slow moving. They flood differently than southern Indiana rivers. You don’t see big flashing discharges like you have here. It can go from zero to full in an instant."

"We put those data together in a program called StreamStats online ( It will let you develop a drainage area. It will tell you how big it’s going to be."

The speaker noted the Whitewater River Watershed – "834 square miles of drainage. 886 feet wide, 6 feet deep – is long and narrow," so it doesn’t take water long to get into that channel. "You have a lot of places for it to gain energy." The data helped researchers "understand how much it might move from side to side. The Whitewater moves more like Flatrock, less than the Tippecanoe River."

"By and large, you can expect a river to move at its maximum about eight times its width. The Whitewater doesn’t play by the rules." Typically, it is 180 feet wide, but sometimes it grows six to eight times that width and in other places 22 times its width, according to Barr.

The Indiana Silver Jackets looked at 42 drainage basins. Sixteen of those river systems moved quite a bit. "Guess which one moves the most? The Whitewater. Not only does it move the most, it moves more than twice as much as its current neighbors."

He pointed out the Whitewater's West Fork boasts enormous gravel bars. "The Whitewater carries more sediment – gravel and sand – than any other river its size in the state." The sediment is "one of the things that makes it meander so much."

He said group members always think about the potential for dam discharges. He will advise city officials, "Don’t put a hospital near a dam." Barr told attendees, "You have done a much better job" than other state regions of placing buildings away from the river.

For every county in Indiana, the group produced maps that predict how much rivers might move. "We want these maps to be useful," he said. County managers, EMTs, commissioners and other leaders can see where potential problems are. They also can determine a river's proximity to bridges, roads, railroads, power lines, pipelines, dams and water treatment plants.

Before the dinner, Barr was out exploring. "Levee Road is the reason why my shoes are all muddy." He has been asked, "'Is the river going to keep moving toward it?' Almost certainly. Now I see the road is gone in some places."

The work of the Indiana Silver Jackets is to inform, not regulate, so people can reduce hazards. He noticed a 19th century brick home on Levee Road is closer to the Whitewater River than ever before. The dilemma: "How can you protect homes near there, but not pass the problem on to another area?"

"That’s a delicate balancing act" to gently convince water to go a different direction. "That’s called river management."

In Indiana, 1,128 assets are potentially threatened by erosion. Eight counties have 57 percent of the vulnerable assets. Franklin County has 97 for the No. 3 position. Only Putnam and Parke counties have more.

New Indiana Fluvial Erosion Hazard Program initiatives:

• Guidance for fluvial (river) erosion management

• Workshop on erosion management methods

• Flood vulnerability assessment preliminary screening method

• Development of post-flood response guidance

Barr contended Hoosiers must get better at responding when it does flood. Persons can find out more about the researcher and this program and send questions by accessing

A handful of attendees had questions. One asked how to mitigate flooding. Barr suggested doing it "in such a way you don’t transfer the energy to someone else and you don’t use a material that ends up in the river." Some barriers simply cause water to erode the soil behind it.

"Did we dam the wrong fork, the east fork?" Barr responded, "No, you’re the poster child for flood prevention" with the river's flow dropping from 85,000 cubic square feet per second to 37,000. "It’s still wild, but nothing like it used to be."

To manage that flow, could gravel bars be removed? He answered, "They’ll be right back." Physics and the river's shape are depositing gravel there. Removing it “is an exercise in futility.”

"How long do you think it will be before the house on Levee Road gets water to it?" Barr asked, "Is that your house?" as spectators chuckled. "I don’t know that water will get to it. It’s up higher than the surrounding area. I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t get ringed,” with water, but stay dry. Other structures are in more dangerous spots.

"Are gabions (baskets, cages or cylinders) filled with rocks effective" as water barriers? another asked. "We’ve tried to use them in a number of situations .... Water gets behind them." Gabions were used to protect areas near the Wabash River. "They had a big event the next year and we’re still looking for those gabion baskets. They’re gone."

Debbie Blank can be contacted at or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.

Spotlight on young attendees

• Farmers Grow Rural Education (, sponsored by the Monsanto Fund, helps farmers positively impact their communities. The program gives farmers the opportunity to nominate a rural public school district to compete for merit-based grants of either $10,000 or $25,000 to enhance math and/or science education. Franklin County High School FFA member Shelby Kolb asked area farmers to nominate FCHS by April 1. If awarded, the grant would be used to build a greenhouse.

• About 115 posters were submitted for the 2016 National Association of Conservation Districts/NACD Auxiliary contest with the theme “We all Need Trees.” County winners go on to the state and perhaps national levels. "We’ve got a lot of talented artists here," reported district coordinator Chris Fox. Winners in grades K-1: first, Stephanie Wagner; second, Maddy Smith; third, Brandon Weekley; grades 4-6: first, Jack Stirn; second, Grace Roth; third, Clare VanMeter; grades 7-9: first, Ashlan Hill; second, Jaime Stortz; third, Sarah Schuman.

• First-grader Ethan Short won $50 after his 2015 Local Heroes poster featuring a bumble bee and insect ("your hard-working pollinators") earned state first place and national honorable mention awards.

• 2015 4-H winners at the Franklin County fair were applauded: Alexa Brehm, forestry grand champion; Katrina Murray, soil and water grand champion; Karen Kahles, forestry reserve grand champion; and Alex Livers, soil and water reserve grand champion.

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