Facts and Figures
And what is good, Phdrus,
And what is not good...
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?
Robert M. Pirsig (1991)
January 21st 1992 - We pile into the minibus, there's been some rain and something must be going in the area. The first river has flood debris on the banks and is just off spate levels. We decide to check out some lesser-run spate classic and drive for another hour to find it dry, another river just over the hill is also without water, where did the rain fall? Eventually we make it back to the first river. It has dropped to middle levels, oh well at least we know it's fun, would have been better earlier when it was at the ideal level.
The Advantages of Knowing a River Level
It is debatable what the ideal level for a river is, there has been some talk of a "design" level but this and the optimum level for paddling do not necessarily coincide. Assuming that when a river is "bank-full", i.e. you can see just the top edge, or the water is level with the top of the bank, then you have the so-called "design" level, the maximum amount of water that the river can cope with.
It is important to note that the difficulty of a river for white water paddling may be too great when the river is running at bank-full. Thus, on some rivers having a good idea of how the water level effects the difficulty of the run will mean, at the simplest level, the difference between a great day out and an epic adventure. In the more extreme cases the consequences of getting on and getting it wrong could be much greater.
Every good river guide will give a water level indicator and describe the associated features of the run at a given level. Usually the descriptions are based on what the author will view as the optimum level however in some cases, and considering the reliability of the majority of UK rivers, it is often a rare occasion where you will find a river at the author's optimum level. Level indicators are usually visual clues, a certain rock at the put-in, or an assessment of the rapid that you can see from the take-out. For example a common description may suggest that if prospective paddlers are happy with the take-out rapid then they can be confident that it showcases the standard required for the rest of run. Obviously, given variable levels, then paddlers begin to discuss experiences of particular stretches in slightly different conditions, the aim usually to find the optimum level or run the river next time and the time after at progressively higher flows.
Should have looked closer at the gauge.
Is it paddleable when you can jump across it?
The comparisons have many uses for paddlers. A safety margin is introduced on a relatively unknown river and the overall suitability of a river for a particular group's skill level can be easily assessed. Probably most significant is that bar room ego boosting is easily supported and given substance by the use of choice phrases such as:
"You should have seen it, at least two metres over the handrail on the footbridge." Or
"I've never seen that rock before, you know the one usually underwater by the slab. I guess you could say it was a bit bony."
The Situation for UK Paddlers
January 21st 2002 - A depressed harassed teacher at work. During lunch I log onto the Dart web-cam and see that the Dart is unexpectedly in spate. I yell with joy and don't notice the other kids in library shying away nervously. Immediately I email my friends, who are without this instant river information, to gloat about how great my weekend is going to be whilst they'll be driving round the countryside in hoards hunting for the rivers running at the ideal level.
Guidebooks are littered with useful snippets of information about suitable water level indicators or describe the general weather conditions required to ensure a river is in "good nick". To the experienced eye it is pretty obvious whether a river is low, bank-full or in spate (flood) and then the level indicator is more useful for archive purposes or for embellishing tall-tales.
Recently in the UK the wealth of river information has improved, that is to say that in a small number of locations it is possible to find out whether your local river is on flood alert or what release is on such and such a river. In some cases you can check what a particular river gauge is currently reading and its associated grade. This allows the weekend warrior to lay siege (for the week prior) to a chosen destination armed with level information weather reports and forecasts and plan an efficient and effective excursion into the paddle-zone to maximise weekend shenanigans. This is great news for the Environment (less driving in search of the perfect water level, less damage to the bed of the river) and for the UK paddler (less frustration and more quality paddling days). Lets hope that the amount of information available increases and becomes more detailed, an issue that should be taken up with the Environment Agency who have continuous 15 minute updates in real time from a large number of river gauges countrywide. Calibration of such information by interested parties would be trivial, there is a large population of web-developers who could and would calibrate and publish these figures online in the interests of disseminating this valuable data to the general public.
An informative discussion on this topic was held at floodforum.net in February 2002, a public consultation by the UK Government Scientific Office. The topics were many and varied but in terms of river level data, questions were as such: Is it necessary to make this very detailed data accessible? Why hasn't it been done already? Is it perhaps that the EA are frightened to have Joe Public peering over their shoulder examining their work? Or are they developing a service that they hope to charge for and so are holding back until the system is deemed to be worth paying for? Some posters suggested that we should compare the current situation in the UK to the USA, the UK has a lot of catching up to do.
The Situation for US Paddlers
Prior to our trip to Northern California in March 2002 I was quite pleased with the situation in the UK. A few, too few, rivers in useful locations had current level information available and based on these reports, past and predicted weather and local comments it was fairly easy to guarantee a good weekends paddling at a suitable destination. Ideal, the last two seasons in the UK have allowed me some quality, usually optimum boating at a number of locations based entirely on this technique. However through our experience in California it quickly became obvious that it could be so much easier particularly when it is clear that real time river level information could be made available to us from an existing government funded network.
We had heard rumours, on the web, from respected paddlers that Californian snow pack was poor this year the exact phrase was "California has 21 year low snow pack! Just thought you should know." Unfortunately when we stumbled on this message we had already booked flights and so the process began of trying to find out exactly what the snow levels and consequently the expected river levels would be for our trip. This was all very easy. In fact an awful lot easier than attempting the same thing in the UK, and the results looked promising. It turned out that parts of CA were indeed short of snow, but were generally only a little below average with more snow predicted. The Water Resource Department of California State has very comprehensive information on all aspects of the naturally occurring wonderful resource that is H2O. In fact there is so much information that you might argue that a PhD in hydrology was required to decipher it all. Luckily for us white-water paddlers much of the information is broken down into pretty little pictures with appropriate colours so that it is easy to find out the "real" information.
Not only is the data a monstrous yet easy to use facility but it is also priced with paddlers in mind. For example The US Geological Survey "streamflow" data is free. The ideal price!
In the above picture the coloured dots on the map depict stream flow conditions as a percentile, which is computed from the period of record for the current day of the year. Only stations with at least 30 years of record are coloured.
The gray circles indicate other stations that were not ranked either because they have fewer than 30 years of record or because they report parameters other than stream flow (e.g. stage only). At a glance you can see where the water is and then you can choose to zone in on your chosen area. This data has been utilised by kayaking and angling organizations to provide useful and relative information about particular rivers.
Armed with this sort of information we were confident that we could predict where some quality boating would be and we were determined that we could prove the rumours wrong and compete with the weather, outwitting it to maximise the paddling in our two-week trip stateside. However our early season trip meant we were at the mercy of the weather a little. A lot of the paddling in California is snowmelt, as a few people have pointed out since we got back it has to snow sometime! We were also very lucky to hit an unseasonable heat wave, if we hadn't we would never have got our kit dry.
How did we do it?
Frequent weather reports from USA Today and the Sacremento Bee kept an eye on what the weather was doing and combined with the detailed river level information from the American Whitewater Association and dreamflows.com websites we knew what the majority of rivers were doing and where we should head next. It is also possible to get river level information delivered direct to your mobile if you so wish, which considering the difficulty that we had finding internet terminals, might be a better option. We were relying on our experience a little to fill in the gaps where we knew the last three days river levels and the weather information.
Generally though, we were successful, paddling every day on a section that was usually at optimum level, according to the guidebook, or at least was within the paddleable range. Imagine that capability based on the data available in the UK, it's a distinct possibility. Think of the different groups who could make use of such detailed data. For example the emergency services, planners, education, water leisure users to name just a few. Convince these people of the usefulness of the existing data, minimise hassle for the data providers by automating the publishing of the information so that it is freely available on the internet and think what a facility we would have as paddlers, oops I mean they would have!
I believe I have seen the future of UK paddling.and it works (In the US anyway!).
January 21st 2010 - What a great day, those electric buzz chairs are great for controlling the kids it's so much easier now you can directly upload the lesson to the MS Learning chip, shame about the scars though. With the weekend approaching I log onto the BCU River Information Portal, I'm checking up on the message I received earlier telling me that my favourite local river was at my favourite level and should hold until the weekend. The successful lobby in 2002 helped secure access to all of the UK's rivers and the Environment Agency provide free unlimited information from all their river gauges. The BCU has painstakingly calibrated this information so that each river on the interactive map flashes its status. I find that not only is my favourite section going-off but a whole host of other rivers are predicted to be working by the weekend based on the high accuracy Met Office rainfall 5 day forecast. Bring it on.
Selected Web Links and References
Pirsig, R 1991. "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance." Re-issue ISBN: 0099786400
Andy 'Roo' Evans