Drought-parched Little River reveals dangers with water level drop [photos]


When rainfall is plentiful, particularly in spring, Little River Falls east of Fort Payne, Ala., spills about over a 45-foot drop across a rock formation that is about 250 feet wide. The river is popular with kayakers in the spring when water levels are high enough to create challenging rapids. The Little River flows on top of Lookout Mountain for most of its length along a narrow canyon to its end at Weiss Lake in Cherokee County near the Georgia state line.Source: National Park Service

While most effects of the historic drought in Northeast Alabama are bad, the lack of water flowing on the Little River in its namesake federal preserve revealed dangers that had been lurking underwater for years.

Little River Canyon National Preserve officials said that during the 2010 project to replace the G.E. Hill Bridge with the new Alabama Highway 35 Bridge, crews thought all the pieces of the old bridge had been removed. But as this year's summer sun baked the water out of the Little River, it revealed old bridge supports and sharp pieces of steel rebar used to reinforce concrete, according to interpretive park ranger Larry Beane and park superintendent Steve Black.

Much of the exposed rebar was bent down but "still posed a hazard for visitors to get caught or impaled on," Beane said.

He said this summer is the first time the river's flow has dropped so low in modern memory. Even during the drought of 2007, water flow didn't stop, he said. Beane said he's talked to local residents in their 70s and no one remembers such a dry summer.

"This is the first time in 21 years I have witnessed pool levels this low and the effects on the forest this severe," he said.

Beane said the park in the last couple of weeks also has endured wildfires that consumed about 325 acres, but "the fire hasn't been that devastating." The impact has been similar to what occurs when officials do controlled burns to clear away underbrush, he said.

Meanwhile, Black developed a plan to make the river safer for users.

The drying riverbed had standing water in one larger pool that had to be drained with fire pumps to reach the hazards. Park crews cut off the rebar flush with the concrete chunks from the bridge and used a sledgehammer to countersink other pieces of rebar that still protruded. Other hazards were covered over with large rocks.

The work took about five hours, Black said.

Beane said the water level was down but still flowing well during the bridge project six years ago. Construction crews sometimes struggled with the steep rocky cliffs and difficult terrain, he said, once losing a timber platform for a crane.

"It rained and washed the beams away and they had to wait for the water to go back down to clean it up," Beane recalled this week.

Water levels since then concealed the hazards until recently.

"The pools above the falls, which are a welcome respite from the summer heat for thousands of visitors, are much safer now," Beane said.

Officials are watching the impact on wildlife, too.

"A number of small fish that were stranded in the pool were caught and moved to a deeper pool upstream," Beane said. Species that live in the Little River include exotic rainbow trout, redeye bass, sunfish and more well-known largemouth and spotted bass and catfish.

Wading birds are feasting on the fish as they become more concentrated, he said.

Park officials monitor water quality once a month to keep an eye on conditions, Beane said.

The dangerous bridge parts came from the structure built in 1948 that was named for DeKalb County Commissioner and Board of Revenue Chairman G.E. Hill. Hill worked for more than three decades to get the canyon recognized as part of the state park system, and he built quality road around it with trails leading down to the river. The old bridge was dedicated in 1954.

The new $7.6 million replacement bridge was recognized by the Sierra Club, which named the span to its list of "Best U.S. Transportation Projects for 2012."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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