Wednesday morning, a pontoon pilot approached the Lake Monroe causeway—it’s where SR 446 crosses the reservoir, leaving a gap at the south end for boaters to navigate under the road.
But the captain reversed his engine, brought his craft about, then idled, floating maybe 30 yards west of the underpass. He and his crewmate made quick work of the task that allowed them to navigate through the opening: They unclipped the guy wires and lowered the frame that held the canopy aloft.
They might have had enough clearance to scrape under the bridge, without lowering the sun shade. But the record-high levels of the lake—for this time of year—meant that it would have been close.
The normal level of the lake is 538 feet above sea level. But through Wednesday, Lake Monroe registered about 552.6 feet on the USGS gauge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which manages the lake, typically reports water levels using the number of feet above the normal pool. That’s currently 14.6 feet.
The high water is apparent even to an untrained observer. Along the causeway, the water laps at the canopies of sycamores and maples. At Cutright State Recreation Area, the road to the boat ramp is under water.
The absence of Fourth of July fireworks at Fourwinds Lakeside Inn will be noticed a week from now. They have been rescheduled for Sept. 1 because of the high water levels.
That’s because the water levels aren’t expected to drop even close to normal by July 4.
Looking at the trend over the last few days, Lake Monroe’s water level looks like it might have started to level off.
The National Weather Service weather forecast doesn’t call for a lot of rain for the coming week. But the water level won’t start dropping significantly until the USACE starts releasing more than the current 244 cubic feet per second into the tailwater below the dam. (That works out to about 1,825 gallons per second.)
According to Shannon Phelps, the USACE natural resources park manager for the Lake Monroe Dam, the gate opening for the current release is set for 200 cfs. But the increased hydrostatic pressure from the extra water in the lake right increases the rate to around 244 cfs. Normally, the minimum allowable release is 50 cfs, which is enough to keep the fish in the creek alive. But under flood conditions, like now, the figure increases to 200 cfs, Phelps said.
Phelps told the Beacon that the Louisville USACE office checks three White River gauge levels—at Bedford, Shoals, and Petersburg—before giving the Lake Monroe dam permission to release more than the minimum. Each of those gauges, downstream from Lake Monroe dam, is supposed to read at or below “minor flood stage” and be dropping, before more water can be released from Lake Monroe.
On Thursday morning, the Bedford gauge reading was at 19 feet, which is under the 20-foot minor flood point and headed downward; and at Shoals, it was at 17.5 feet, also below the 20-foot minor flood level for that gauge.
But at Petersburg, the gauge read 23.9, nearly 8 feet higher than the 16-foot minor flood level for that gauge. The Petersburg gauge reading is decreasing, after hitting a high of around 25 feet.
The absolute record high for Lake Monroe (since 1983) came in May of 2011, when the water level hit 557.26 feet. It was the same year when a combination of mountain snowpack runoff and spring rains caused severe flooding along the Missouri River in South Dakota.
Did the situation along the Missouri River in 2011 impact Lake Monroe releases? That is, were high water levels in Lake Monroe caused in part by holding back water to help avoid exacerbating the flooding situation in the Missouri River basin? No, according to Phelps. The USACE looks to the three gauges on the White River, but not much farther downstream than than.
Phelps said the amount of water the Lake Monroe dam can release has “minimal effect even as far downstream as the Ohio.”
The maximum discharge recorded in the USACE’s online data since 1983 show a record discharge from Lake Monroe dam of 2,925 cfs. To put that in perspective, in 2011 the USACE released more than 100,000 cfs through the Oahe Dam on the Missouri River in Pierre, South Dakota.
The record 2011 Lake Monroe levels, Phelps said, resulted just from more rainfall than usual.
This year, Phelps said, after the heavy rains that fell in February, it wasn’t possible to bring lake levels down far enough to make room for the rain than has fallen more recently.
The current lake level, Phelps pointed out, is just below what it was earlier this year. In late February Lake Monroe peaked at around 553 feet. For about a month, from early February through late March, this year’s water level set a record for the time of year. On Wednesday, the current level of 552.58 feet was the highest the water has been on a June 26 as far back as records go, which is 1983.
The next highest levels on June 26 came in 1996, 1998 and 2008, when the gauge logged a level of at least 511 feet.
This year’s water level looks like it could maintain its record-for-the-date trend from now through July.
Here’s some additional photos taken on Wednesday.