Q. Could you please explain how to read the river stages in the weather section of your paper? How can you have a negative water level when there's water in the river? Does "current" refer to the present condition or speed of the water?
-- M.D., of Belleville
A. If you go to a public swimming pool, it's easy to find the depth of the water -- for obvious reasons. Pools don't want people high-diving into the kiddie end so accurate distances from the pool bottom to the surface are usually clearly marked.
How easy it would be, then, if someone had just measured the deepest part of the Mississippi near the Eads Bridge and marked that number on the gauge that the Army Corps of Engineers uses to note the river depth each day. Such a figure would be as readily understood as those swimming pool numbers.
But life is sometimes not simple -- and, as you've noticed, that certainly applies to the depths of the Mississippi. So let me try to clear the murky water for you:
Back in the 1800s, people who used the river wanted to establish some standardized way of measuring the river so they knew how deep or shallow it was at various points. But instead of seeing how much rope with a stone on the end it took to reach the bottom, they simply chose zero as some arbitrary river level.
Years ago, I was told this zero was the average water level at St. Louis when that 1861 river gauge was put in place. Today, however, Mike Peterson at the Army Corps of Engineers says that may not be exactly the case.
"My understanding is that it was a pretty arbitrary pick," Peterson said. "Kind of a, hey, that's really low, so that will be zero. But it's definitely not as low as the river can get. When the river level is 'zero,' there's still more than 9 feet of water underneath the surface of the river at St. Louis."
A century ago, all steamboat captains needed was a relative depth. So if they heard that the river stage was 10 at St. Louis and zero at Cape Girardeau, they knew the river was running high near St. Louis but normal at the Cape.
Now, of course, things can be measured to a millionth of an inch, so here are more exact answers to your questions:
First, you probably can add a fudge factor of about 12.5 feet whenever you see or hear a St. Louis river stage, a former chief of potamology (study of rivers) told me years ago. So if they say the stage is 20 feet, it's actually more like 32.5.
"Current" does mean present conditions. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the river level at St. Louis was negative 2.1. Obviously, as Peterson joked, that doesn't mean the river is dry. Instead, it means the river is 2.1 feet below that arbitrary zero and, as we all know, is running low.
Flood stage in St. Louis is 30 feet above that arbitrary "zero gauge." In the past 150 years, area residents have seen river levels as low as 6.2 feet below zero gauge on Jan. 20, 1940, to 49.58 feet above on Aug. 1, 1993, well above that 30-foot flood stage. By Dec. 14, we will be approaching that record low with a forecast reading of 4 feet below gauge zero, a drop of a foot from this Friday.
If you want to get really exact, gauge zero at St. Louis occurs when the water surface essentially is 379.94 feet above sea level. Each city along the river has its own gauge zero level, flood levels, etc. For a detailed look go to www.mvs.usace.army.mil and check out "River and Reservoir Gages (sic)."
For Peterson, however, the most important number is 9.
"The Corps has to make sure that we have 9 feet between the surface and any obstructions underneath it," said Peterson. "That doesn't mean exactly 9 feet. There could be 12, 15 or 20 feet underneath. We have to guarantee 9 feet over a width of 300 feet."
Q. Can you tell me if Schifferdecker Kitchens and Baths has gone out of business? My sister had a kitchen remodeled by them and is having some issues.
-- F.H., of Belleville
A. A fixture in Belleville since 1953, Paul Schifferdecker's Schifferdecker Kitchens and Baths closed its doors at 3901 North Belt West last summer. If you're having problems with a specific brand of furnishing, you might try contacting the company; otherwise, I'm not sure what you might do.
Out of 77 winners, how many Heisman Trophy candidates have been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
Answer to Sunday's trivia: Four credited cast members of 1939's best picture are still not "Gone With the Wind." Topping the list is 96-year-old Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), who was recently seen alive and well in Paris on "60 Minutes." Even older is Alicia Rhett (India Wilkes in her only movie role), 97. Also surviving are Mary Anderson (Maybelle Merriwether), 92, and Mickey Kuhn (Beau Wilkes), 80. Ann Rutherford (Carreen O'Hara), 94, died last spring. Uncredited cast members still living include former Belleville resident Greg Giese, who was 11 days old when picked to play Beau Wilkes and Bonnie Blue Butler as infants. He recently told Bill Santanello, of Millstadt, that Patrick Curtis and Ricky Holt, also uncredited, are still living, too.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com