Great Flood of 1913 led to MWCD, system of dams and reservoirs

March 24, 2013

By today’s standards, the devastation from exactly a century ago still is mind-boggling and heartbreaking.


Easter Sunday of 1913 (March 23) always will be recorded as the day the rains started in Ohio during The Great Flood of 1913, and four days later, six to 11 inches of rain had fallen over the state as part of the nation’s greatest known natural disaster, with a dozen states impacted by the massive storm that compares to Hurricane Katrina, only spread across a larger area.


The flood wiped out homes, effectively eliminated the canal system in Ohio, covered downtowns and led to more than 400 deaths in the state, including 11 in the Muskingum River Watershed in Eastern Ohio. Half of the overall property damage occurred in Ohio and some experts estimate that in today’s dollars the state’s damage would have been around $3 billion.


Throughout much of the Midwest of the United States, where the storm was concentrated, ceremonies and other events have been held and are scheduled over the next couple of weeks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the flood


“Many experts who have studied the flood and its aftermath have concluded that The Great Flood of 1913 changed the country in many ways, and they are correct,” said John M. Hoopingarner, MWCD executive director/secretary. “In the Muskingum River Watershed, leaders of the region eventually organized the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District and implemented its plan to construct dams and reservoirs to reduce the effects of potential flooding and capture the floodwaters for beneficial public uses.


“Their incredible vision and dedication has led to a system of dams and reservoirs that has saved more than $10 billion of property damage from flooding, saved lives and produced lakes and lands that are enjoyed by millions of people each year, while contributing to the conservation of the region’s rich natural resources.”


The Great Flood of 1913 effectively dumped on Ohio about three months of rain over a five-day period, flooding every stream, creek and river in the state, and destroying or severely damaging a total of 69 bridges in the area of the Muskingum River Watershed alone.


In Zanesville in Muskingum County, some portions of the downtown area were swamped with water more than 20 feet deep as leaders in the city wrestled with how to respond to the needs of the affected citizens, businesses and schools, as well as how to develop a plan to reduce the future loss of life, destruction and damage.


Twenty years after the storm and following the leadership of Bryce C. Browning, the manager of the Zanesville Chamber of Commerce who raised $2,500 in the 1920s to begin a study to develop potential solutions to mitigate future flood damage, the MWCD was organized in 1933. Browning became the MWCD’s first secretary (or executive director), and oversaw the development, lobbied for funding assistance and later led the implementation of the MWCD Official Plan that called for the eventual construction of 16 reservoirs and dams in the Muskingum River Watershed, which is the state’s largest wholly contained watershed taking in an area of all or portions of 27 counties and covering more than 8,000 square miles. Through a partnership with the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the USACE owns and operates the dams in the system and the MWCD manages much of the reservoirs behind the dams where floodwaters are stored temporarily for their safe release downstream as part of the coordinated operation of the system.


The results have led to billions of dollars saved in potential damage from flooding, the development of open, public lands and waters that offer free access for varying outdoor recreational activities, and a water resource that can be tapped for beneficial public domestic and consumptive uses.


“The dams and reservoirs certainly cannot stop flooding in the watershed, but they do reduce the potential damage and negative effects from flooding,” Hoopingarner said. “And for many people, they are a source of relaxation and fun that they and their families look forward to visiting throughout the year.”


Perhaps no single event has demonstrated the MWCD Official Plan in action with more clarity than during the January 2005 flooding in the Muskingum River Watershed, which was the most significant flood on record since the construction of the reservoirs and dams in the 1930s. Seven of the system’s 16 dams set records for the depth of floodwater levels reached behind the dams. But unlike the Great Flood of 1913, there were no deaths from the flooding in 2005, an estimated $400 million in potential property damage was averted through the flood-reduction work and strategies of the USACE, and property damage reports themselves were virtually non-existent. That’s because the system worked as designed with the dams holding back the potential damaging floodwaters on lands that the government purchased easement rights on nearly 80 years ago for temporary storage of floodwaters until they could be released safely downstream.


“The pictures and stories from 1913 and its aftermath are absolutely riveting and heart-wrenching,” Hoopingarner said. “Lives were changed forever and the great leaders and citizens of those days certainly were thinking about the long-term future of the Muskingum River Watershed when they went about the enormous task of planning what became the Official Plan of the MWCD.


“In our region, there may be no greater story of the dedication of ‘paying it forward’ than to look at the development and eventual operation of the Official Plan of the MWCD. Saying ‘thanks’ is not merely enough, it seems, as we pause to reflect on the 100 years since this watershed and much of the Midwest of this country were ripped apart by The Great Flood of 1913.”


For more information about the MWCD, visit and follow the MWCD on Facebook and Twitter.


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