Great Falls of the Potomac in flood. Photo from Great Falls National Park Facebook page

This year is nearly in the books, and for whitewater paddlers from Pennsylvania to Georgia, 2018 will be remembered as the year of water. In fact, much of the region has seen its wettest year on record. Cities near whitewater hubs including Roanoke, Va., Beckley, W.V., and Washington, D.C., have new record amounts of precipitation, some gaining over 20 inches more than their annual averages. Even Asheville, North Carolina will surpass its record mark. With over 5 inches last night through today, it now has its wettest year recorded: well above the 2013 total of 75.22, with just over 79 inches and counting.

Precipitation of this magnitude provides a stark duality: The rain events carry with them degrees of destruction. Homes and even lives are at risk. Reuters reported 51 fatalities in the wake of Hurricane Florence, and the Wall Street Journal reported the storm's cost at up to $50 billion. Yet, as river-runners we can't help but wait in anticipation for such intense amounts of rainfall, each storm delivering a new connection to elemental forces, and a yearning for exploration.

The new normal

Popular stretches of river have been at runnable flows almost the entire year, and even running at what is considered ‘high water’ on a regular basis.

"Levels that used to be incredibly rare seem to be the new normal," says Jason Beakes, owner of Potomac River outfitter Active Nature, as well as a longtime local paddler in Washington, D.C. "It's been a year like none other on the water." The district reached its average annual rainfall back in September, but the rain hasn't let up yet. The Ronald Reagan National Airport has recorded 64.78 inches as of Dec. 25, surpassing the previous line of 60.83 inches in 2003. The Potomac regularly exceeded 20,000 cfs through the capital's popular whitewater stretches of Great Falls, Mather Gorge, and Little Falls.

While the rain in D.C. itself contributed some to these levels, headwaters precipitation in the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains had greater impact. There, record precipitation influenced not only the Potomac, but other eastern rivers such as the Cheat, Youghiogheny, Gauley, and New.

"The consistent water was great," says Fayetteville, West Virginia paddler Josh Collins. "You could go anywhere in the state to get on epic whitewater." Collins works as a video boater with rafting outfitter Adventures on the Gorge, and also collaborates on whitewater media with Boof and Destroy Entertainment Feed. Fayetteville paddlers sit at the crossroads of some of the most accessible and celebrated rivers in the country. Being local means catching gems like the New River Dries the few times a year it is navigable. But in 2018, the regularly diverted section of the New reached these navigable flows in all but one month. For extremely high flows, when the world-renowned freestyle spot known as the Put-in Wave forms, Collins says this year has stood out. "I can never remember a time being able to surf it as much as this fall."

A perfect storm

There is no one reason that 2018 received such a multitude of water events in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, but rather a few.

"It's what is referred to as a convergence of weather systems," says David Easterling of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What’s converging? Combine large winter storms with multiple tropical storms, add a prevailing ridge of high pressure in the western U.S. (one that has kept a trough of low pressure on the East Coast tracking moisture over the same area), and you have a year-long perfect storm. Just why these storms dropped so much rainfall though is not a random coincidence. That's the other part of the story, according to Easterling, where climate change plays its part.

"When you have warmer ocean temperatures like we are experiencing you have a lot of evaporation," says Easterling, who works in NOAA’s Center of Weather and Climate in Asheville. "These low pressure systems are driven by evaporation and condensation."

What goes up must come down. In turn, we see extreme rain events along the likes of Hurricane Florence, which dumped two feet of rain on coastal North Carolina. An outlook of warmer oceans means we can expect to see more intense precipitation, as observed in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a multi-agency report overseen by NOAA. The regional paddling outlook in Easterling's words, “We have an atmosphere trending toward more water vapor.”

2018 stats that stand out

Asheville, N.C. precipitation as of December 25: 73.99″
Current record set in 2013: 75.22″
Average annual amount: 47.39″

Months in 2018 the New River Dries has reached navigable water levels: 11
Maximum water level from the Hawks Nest Dam in 2018: 24.23′ (approximately 80,000 cfs) on April 17

Washington, D.C. 2018 precipitation total: 64.78″ (as of December 25)
Number of times the Potomac River at Little Falls has crested over flood stage in 2018: 4
Maximum river level of Potomac River at Little Falls in 2018: 176,000 cfs

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