Rock Creek reveals: “the biggest thing people don’t seem to see” about living like a river

This weekend I got the chance for some pillow talk with Rock Creek  — I slept right on the banks of my old friend. My hostess reported that the stream was “crazy” this year during runoff. “It almost came over the banks!” Here’s what the stream itself whispered the next morning:

June 5th was my peak this year, and it WAS a decent one — but look it up on your gauges, crunch the numbers, and  you’ll see it wasn’t unusual. In the long haul, I end up peaking at least this high in three out of four years. Unless someone messes with my shape, I should actually top my banks every five years in this particular spot. Of course that’s because I’m a river of rapids and hence (surprisingly to some) the most moderate. Most of the flatter streams get out way more often, yet somehow people look at our stream banks and think it’s “normal” for us rivers to keep inside our channels. It’s not and we don’t. That’s the biggest thing people don’t seem to see about us. We are not just our channels. We are “supposed” to do what you call “flood.” It’s the norm, not the exception.

I verified everything Rock Creek said with the United States Geological Survey’s lovely stream gauge data (I love USGS data!). Rock Creek’s been behaving “normally.”

And my old friend’s also right that B-type streams like Rock Creek don’t spread out on a big floodplain as often as the streams we see in wider, typically human-occupied valleys (the skinny, deep, meandering E-types or the point-bar dominated C-types). When you average it all up, our most familiar creeks top their banks two out of three years or even more.

Why, then, does “flooding” always catch us humans by surprise?!

Why do we think the word “flood” equates with disaster??

Perhaps for the same reason it shocks us when our human lives spill out of our constructed boundaries — though that too happens regularly.

Maybe we’d rather all that energy stay in one tidy-looking, seemingly controlled channel. Or maybe we just spot some orderly constructs and assume they’re not to be breached — ever. Likely we worry our floods are dangerous.

But river water leaving the banks is natural. And for good reason:

Torrents of water must come every so often — during annual snow melt or seasonal rainstorms. If that water stayed within the channel’s width, it would have to flow incredibly fast. All that power would erode the river’s foundation out from under it.

And so the river builds a flat area adjacent to its banks. When large flows come, the water spreads out onto this plain and instantly slows, spreading harmlessly across the land, saturating the soil with not only moisture but fine material, nutrients, and seeds. The whole ecosystem flourishes. The floodplain is fully part of the river — not an accidental bystander.

When our human lives overflow, we too are saved by spreading out and slowing down. If you’re living like a healthy, wild river, then you don’t need your floodplain every minute, but you do need it regularly.

<<Every person’s floodplain looks a little different. What’s yours? It could be friends, family, alone time, a pet, nature, your favorite city, reading, music, moving your body in some way, clarifying your feelings, or something I’ve never dreamed of!>>

If you’re living like a river, then whatever kind of floodplain you have benefits from your floods as much as you benefit from your floodplain’s ever-ready presence.

<<Can you entertain the possibility that those people/places/activities/things that save you are not only okay with their role but nourished in return?>>

And yet the fact remains that a flooding river can hurt buildings, roads, and even people. Possibly you’re thinking that you yourself have damaged those around you with your own personal floods. Here’s the important thing:

Floods only cause damage when we humans ignore reality by obstructing our floodplains with artificial structures or trying to stop the overflow. The floodplain is fully part of the river. It cannot be eliminated.

Can you honor your floodplain and keep this integral part of your wild nature intact?

I hope we all can see the way things really work as “normal” and create room for our streams — and our selves — to live like real rivers.

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