Wednesday, January 24, 1996
Without gates, Covington is a water park

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As ducks paddle over treetops and people marvel at the amount of water flooding the Ohio River, Terry Hughes has the serious job of keeping Covington from becoming the Venice of the Bluegrass State.

As Covington's city engineer for the past 26 years, he's the man who makes the call to close the town's floodgates. Hour by hour, he checks the river's level and consults his copy of a dog-eared manual wrapped in a pink cover and prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers.

''There are three things in my life you don't mess with,'' the engineer says, ''my mother, my wife and,'' tapping the pink cover, ''my manual.''

That manual shows how to maintain the 42-year-old system of massive, earthen levees (25 feet tall and 175 feet wide at their base) and 14-inch-thick concrete walls that close in Covington and close out the river.

Without this flood-control system, there would be no modern Covington with its riverfront hotels, the IRS Center that gladly accepts our tax dollars and the yet-to-be-completed convention center. During flood season, the city's downtown would be just one great big water park. And, with the river expected to crest at 56 feet Thursday, this is definitely flood season.

The river talks

At a quiet shoreline stand of trees just west of the Covington Landing, I hear the hushed sounds a flood makes as it prepares to attack a riverbank.

Waves lap at the shore. High and higher they go. Cold water pats against wet mud.

All around, a soaking sound fills Tuesday afternoon's wintry air like the chirping of crickets on a summer night. Sometimes, it's a gurgle. Other times, it's a slow slurp, like a giant sponge absorbing the waters of a river gone wild.

Even on the grassy bank at the levee's base, the ground is so saturated you sink at least 2 inches with every step. The muck underfoot tears at your soles and wants to suck the heels from your boots.

Retreating to higher ground, you see that a flooding river uncovers as much as it covers. The rising waves point to a riverside passion pit from drier days. Two empty 40-ounce bottles of ''Big Jug'' malt liquor lie on their sides by a discarded jockstrap and a pair of pink panties. Nearby, the hatband around a Styrofoam derby declares: ''Happy New Year!''

River watchers

To some, this flood can be a source of amazement, an ever-flowing natural wonder. To others, it's lunch with a view.

''Look at all that water,'' says Ethel Dean while watching the rising river rage past Covington Landing.

She's from Pittsburgh - where they have an ample supply of flood water. But, still, she can't help but be amazed.

After taking another glance - from the dry confines of a parking garage - she adds: ''The current's so fast. It makes you realize we have no control over nature.''

Churning up cafe au lait-colored ripples and swirls of water topped with floating debris, the river whizzes by the Landing's floating restaurants. Spreading out as it goes down river, the water creeps up the Ohio's north and south shores.

Trees that normally stand high and dry look as if they are sinking low and wet. Ducks float idly around the trees' soaked trunks. Unfazed by the cold and a constant drizzle, they search for food before paddling into the mainstream.

Down shore, two guys dine on cheese coneys in the Waterfront's partially submerged parking lot. Between bites, Dave Schneider says he's on his daily lunch break and river watch.

Chris Stover, the other coney eater, says they park in the same spot every day to gauge the flood's progress. Today, the Waterfront is sitting so high on the water, it has blocked the Cincinnati skyline.

Dave Kuhnhein sits a few rows down in his truck. The Newport plumber, whose business card says he specializes in ''unusual repair work,'' is checking his scratch-and-win lottery tickets and pondering an unusual repair. He's thinking about the money he'd make if he could fix the big leak that's running past him.

''If I could figure out how to make all of this water go away,'' he says, still scratching, ''I wouldn't have to play the lottery.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.