Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 14
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  • FRANKLIN F. SNYDER 1910–2008


    FRANKLIN SNYDER, a noted pioneer and leader in hydrologic engineering for various government agencies and national and international clients, died of cardiac and respiratory failure March 13, 2008, in Peachtree City, Georgia, at the age of 97. He had been considered both nationally and internationally as one of the foremost surface water hydrologists.

    He was born November 11, 1910, in Holgate, Ohio, and attended high school in Toledo, Ohio. Upon graduation, he entered the University of Toledo in 1928. In 1930 he transferred to Ohio State University, where he received a bachelor of civil engineering degree in 1932. Subsequently (1942), Ohio State University awarded him a professional civil engineer degree. Although he graduated during the Great Depression, when promising engineers often encountered difficulties finding employment, Snyder obtained work in state and federal agencies.

    Snyder’s interest in hydrology began as an undergraduate when he co-authored a thesis, “Runoff as a Function of Previous Precipitation,” as one of the requirements for his degree. As a junior hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1934 and 1935, his work assisting in rainfall runoff studies was published in the Survey’s Water Supply Paper 772. Although very young, Snyder gained a reputation for his expertise in the relationship between rainfall and runoff. He continued similar work with the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1935–1937, where he developed flood routing procedures that were applicable to existing and planned reservoirs in the Tennessee River basin. These procedures enabled hydrologists to calculate the course and character of floods as they progressed through a river reach or a reservoir system.

    With enactment of the Flood Control Act of 1936, the U.S. government initiated an ambitious cooperative flood control program to protect urban and rural areas. As the program developed, the necessity for reliable hydrologic data became apparent in order to establish reservoir, spillway, and channel capacity and to improve flood forecasting. Given these circumstances, Snyder’s innovative work and writings were attracting a wider audience, and his skills were becoming more in demand.

    The act also piqued the interest of the states and Snyder joined the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters in 1937 as a hydraulic engineer, where he supervised studies of rainfall and runoff as part of the state’s effort to promulgate a statewide flood forecasting and warning plan. While with the Department of Forests and Waters, Mr. Snyder’s study of watersheds in the Appalachian highlands led him to develop the concept of a “synthetic unit hydrograph.” This was the first meaningful methodology for application of the unit hydro- graph theory to ungauged watersheds. Unit hydrographs, as used by Snyder, were discharge graphs for one-inch of surface runoff from a given area for a typical or specified type of storm over a unit of time. A 1938 paper, “Synthetic Unit Graphs; A Concept of Runoff Phenomena, and Predicting Headwater River Stages Directly from Precipitation,” published in the Transactions of the American Geophysical Union outlined the concept and the procedures. The concept became known as the Snyder Synthetic Unit Hydrograph; the magnitude of this contribution is best illustrated by an observation that essentially every hydrology text published in the ensuing 40 years included the Snyder methodology. Eventually, by analyzing a large number of drainage basins over time, Snyder was able to develop values for the duration of the runoff and flood peaks for different types of basins under varying conditions. His procedures allowed hydrologists to study and analyze drainage basins up to 100,000 square miles in area for which records were not available or were unreliable.

    In 1940, Snyder joined the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., as an associate hydrologic engineer responsible for flood forecasting in 75 river districts. During his tenure, his reputation in estimating probable rainfall and runoff and forecasting floods was used in making predictions for the swollen Potomac River. His expertise was considered so critical that when Pearl Harbor was attacked, he received one of only six local weather maps that were produced—the others went to the White House, to Capitol Hill, and the chief of the Weather Bureau. Snyder prepared a thesis on this event entitled “Flood Forecasting for the Potomac River Basin” that described the development and application of flood forecasting procedures. This thesis was used in part for qualifying for his professional engineer degree cited earlier. It is well to note that Snyder made several notable accomplishments relevant to objective methods and procedures for prediction of river and reservoir levels and flood warnings, as well as to the technology and literature, early in his career.

    In 1942 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers persuaded Snyder to join the headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., where he remained until retirement in 1966. He served in progressive assignments culminating as assistant chief of the Hydrology and Hydraulics Branch. His responsibilities involved hydrologic and hydraulic oversight of the Corps’ nationwide mission in planning, engineering, construction, and operation of flood control and multipurpose reservoir projects. The duties involved formulating policies and basic procedures, preparing technical instructions and manuals, reviewing field proposals, and developing hydrologic techniques related to flood forecasting methods and reservoir regulation procedures. In addition, he served as a technical advisor to upper management, as well as on major projects such as the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. In 1944–1945 he was on special assignment in Europe supervising flood forecasts of Rhine River stages for assault crossings by Allied Forces.

    In summary, Franklin Snyder contributed to both theory and practice of flood hydrology and flood control engineering through significant innovations in (1) the mechanisms of flood peak formations from rain or melting snow; (2) flood routing theory and practice; (3) synthetic hydrology through application of the unit hydrograph; (4) evaporation, particularly from large lakes; (5) understanding the statistical nature of floods and the use of probability in the economic design of flood structures; and (6) spillway design theory.

    Mr. Snyder was a prolific writer, particularly in the early stages of his career. In addition to the publications mentioned previously, other treatises published were, “Flood Routing,” in the Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers; “Cooperative Hydrologic Investigations” by the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Waters, “Storm Runoff,” a section in the book Engineering Hydraulics by Hunter Rouse, “Large Floods from Melting Snow and Rain and Evaporation on the Great Lakes,” in the Proceedings of the International Association for Scientific Hydrology, “Synthetic Flood Frequency,” and “Spillway Design” in the Hydraulic Journal of the American Society of Civil Engineers; and “Floods from Breaking Dams,” presented at a workshop of the Water Resources Council.

    After retirement from the Corps of Engineers, he continued his profession as a private consultant on government and private projects in Mexico, Columbia, Greece, Jamaica, Canada, Pakistan, India, Sudan, and the United States. The latter assignment included preparing maximum probable precipitation and flood estimates, as well as other hydrologic studies, for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He also served as a board member on the International Joint Commission on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project and on the U.S. National Committee for the International Hydrological Decade, in which he was credited with adding to the prestige and effectiveness of the committee in the United States and internationally.

    Other organizational affiliations and honoraria include being elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985, fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, member of Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi, member of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, registered professional engineer and land surveyor in Ohio, named to the Corps of Engineers Gallery of Distinguished Employees, awarded the War Department’s Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his contribution on the Rhine River, awarded the James R. Croes Medal from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and receipt of the Outstanding Civil Engineer Alumni Award from the Ohio State University Civil Engineering Alumni Association.

    Franklin Snyder was married to Mary Elizabeth Bruton in 1938. She died in 1995 as did a son, Gregory, in 1996. Survivors include Marilyn Kay Stack-Lutz of Peachtree City, Georgia; Carol Garnett of Remington, Georgia; 11 grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.

    His daughters Marilyn Lutz and Carol Garnett wrote:

    Our father was a great parent, wonderful grandfather and kind and gentle great grandfather. He was always thinking of ways to help his family. Dad seemed to know when we needed extra help. No matter how many things were on his schedule for the day, he would fit in our needs. He kept busy with repairing, replacing and building projects for the house. There was nothing he would not tackle.

    One of his interests was hunting deer, often going with our brother or friends (“Hobbs or Nunn”). Weather was foremost in his mind, keeping records on rainfall and snow for decades. In addition to tracking rainfall, he would make trips to waterways in Chesterbrook Wood and Four Mile Run in Arlington to observe flooding. Travelling with our mother was on the calendar, combining business trips with pleasure and later, after retirement, to all parts of the world. In later years, his interests included mastering the use of the computer along with following the stock market and futures trading.

    We still think of him every day and wish we could ask him some questions about his life or for advice on some matters. He is greatly missed.

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