Lost Cove floods after February rain storms. Photo by Vanessa Moss (C’20).
By Vanessa Moss
2018 was Sewanee’s wettest year on record according to Domain Management, but 2019 is quickly catching up. In February alone, southeast Tennessee received 12 inches of rain, leading to school closures in Franklin and Grundy Counties, and 19 counties across Tennessee declaring state of emergencies.
Damage has been limited on top of the plateau, while drainage off the Mountain into surrounding coves perpetuates flooding in communities surrounding Sewanee. Damage within the Domain has been largely restricted to Lost Cove, a roughly 3,000 acre parcel acquired by the university in 2009.
A seven mile long recess from Sewanee to Sherwood, Lost Cove is a geologic anomaly; on maps, it looks like a pockmark on the otherwise regular sandstone face of the plateau. The valley dips into the layers of limestone underlying our familiar Sewanee Conglomerate bluffs, climbing up again before reaching the low elevation of Cowan or the other “valleys.”
The Cove is a karst landscape, meaning its rock is riddled with subterranean channels and eroded limestone rooms that collapse into large “sinks.” The karstic nature of the Cumberland Plateau is what gives east Tennessee and Kentucky such renowned cave systems, and most water caught within Lost Cove is known to drain out of South Cumberland State Park’s Buggy Top Cave as Crow Creek.
The largest drainage for Lost Cove is the “Big Sink,” a collapsed room that gurgles and slurps water, sometimes seen sucking a spiral of water like a drain in a tub. But after all of February’s rain, even the Big Sink wasn’t draining quickly enough–after two weeks of consistent downpours, Lost Cove had over ten feet of standing water.
Sandy Gilliam, Domain Ranger for the University, took Dr. Keri Watson’s students pursuing watershed capstone projects across the “Lost Cove Lake” in a small boat, rowing two people at a time toward the Big Sink.
“Flooding’s always been a problem, but not as bad as it is now.” Having spent time hunting and exploring in Lost Cove since he was ten years old, Gilliam is closely familiar with the land’s history. “It used to be a seven inch rain over two days would flood the cove, and now just a two inch rain. The sink’s stopping up, and the rain’s coming in so frequent that it’s not having a chance to dry out any.”
According to Emmitt Logsdon, owner of the Lost Cove bison farm alongside his wife Lizzie Motlow, water was 40 feet deep above the Big Sink. During the peak of the flooding, Logsdon’s bison corral and barn were both partially submerged by the ephemeral lake.
“It’s always flooded,” Motlow explains. “I’m not sure that this was the worst flood that we’ve ever had, but it would be one of the top three in my time. And it lasted longer than any other. The water table was so high already that there was just no place for the water to go.”
When two members of the Prince family, old inhabitants of the Cove, revisited the Big Sink, they told Motlow and Logsdon of how they used to burn the debris inside and the forest around it.
“They used to have dances down there, because the acoustics were beautiful. And it was so different then, they had a natural picnic and dance floor.” But Motlow and Logsdon haven’t burned in their time, and the university is hesitant to burn the area again though it may speed flood drainage.
“We talked to the state, and they said they didn’t want all that debris coming out through their creeks,” explains Gilliam. “Though I don’t know if it would, folks used to do it all the time.”
Domain Management has looked at computer models for weather over the next three years, and the intense rainfall is predicted to persist. With flooding is becoming increasingly frequent, there is little for Logsdon to do beyond replacing current fencing with a more flood-hardy variety and build a new hay-barn on higher ground.
“The rain messes everything up,” Motlow shrugs, “It will mess up our grazing, cost us some irritation and money and time, but in the big sense it’s not going to hurt Lost Cove.”