Floodwaters within the Illinois River watershed are receding to levels expected to accommodate floating by the holiday weekend, but rafters are being urged to exercise extreme caution.
Two major floods within the watershed during the past month, officials say, changed the course of the Illinois River in places, creating a variety of hazards. Any additional rain during the next few days could cause new problems.
Larry Setters, administrative assistant with the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission, said he has heard of some hazards caused by spring floods.
“There is a transmission line that used to run alongside the river, and now it is in the river in places,” Setter said. “We don’t know what trees or fences are going to be in the water that used to not be there” before this week’s flooding.
According to the National Weather Service in Tulsa, the Illinois River at the Watts gauge crested at 25.19 feet at about 7 a.m. Tuesday.
At the U.S. 62 gauge east of Tahlequah, the river was expected to fall below the flood stage of 11 feet by 1 a.m. today.
While forecasts predict river levels will be low enough to float by today, officials urge those who plan to visit the Illinois River this weekend to check for updated information in advance.
While officials stayed busy this week getting out the message about safety on the river, outfitters were crossing their fingers that predictions of lower water levels would come true.
“It’s looking better every minute — the water keeps going down,” said Barbara Kelley, who along with her husband owns and operates Diamondhead Resort. “We should be ready for Memorial Day.”
The Kelleys, along with most of the commercial float operators located along the upper Illinois River, experienced extreme flooding in April. The record-breaking floods caused a lot damage, forcing outfitters to scramble to get ready for the first holiday of the summer season.
Kelley said repairs to the resort’s bath houses had just been completed when the scenic river flooded again this week. Some of the work, she said, will have to be redone. But the facilities will be open for the holiday weekend.
“We’re trying really hard,” Kelley said Wednesday, noting plans for two concerts scheduled today and Saturday at the resort. “The show must go on, so come on out.”
In addition to advisories for higher-than-normal water levels at the Illinois River, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality asked everyone who plans to visit state lakes, rivers and streams to exercise caution.
Skylar McElhaney, an ODEQ spokeswoman, said swimmers should be aware that certain bacteria, viruses and other micro-organisms can be present in untreated bodies of water. Some of these organisms, McElhaney said, can cause ear and eye infections, intestinal diseases and some forms of meningitis.
ODEQ recommends swimmers use protective gear — ear plugs, nose plugs and swim goggles — to avoid exposure to harmful bacteria. McElhaney also said swimmers should avoid swimming in areas where there are storm drains, floating debris or stagnant water.
• Floating should be restricted to rafts.
• Poor swimmers and novice floaters should only float with experienced floaters.
• Children younger than 11 years should not float this weekend.
• Always wear a personal flotation devices while on the river.
• Avoid the consumption of alcoholic beverages while floating.
• Consult commercial float operators before floating to get up-to-date information about river levels and potential hazards.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or email@example.com.