Thursday, March 20, 2008


It was pretty strange hearing NPR's Steve Inskeep mutter the two words "Elllington, Missouri" earlier this week. Ellington's a sleepy little town in the Current River Hills, one of many towns that witnessed the full brunt of a 12 inch rain event. The images from the Ozarks plastered on the news reminded me of typical high spring rain seasons in America: swollen, brown rivers, lots of debris, water everywhere. The images could have been from Pennsylvania, California, even Houston.

But you see, water normally runs clear in the Ozarks. These gruesome images of roiling waters coursing through normally pristine Ozark rivers this week made me realize that most Americans viewing these same images don't have a point of reference; they, too, could be looking at Buffalo or even the Susquehanna. Most Americans don't know how alarming these pictures are to those of us who appreciate Ozark rivers. Naturally, I did what I had to do when the rain totals flashed across my screen Tuesday. I scoped out available roads and drove through the Ozarks to witness for myself some of my favorite streams and rivers that I was, actually, planning on floating in a week or so. The Gasconade is cresting tonight, lapping over the Hwy. 63 bridge. The Meramec has flooded my canoe rental outfitter, located a half mile away from the river bed. Most of the Meramec Valley is flooded and the cresting river has closed part of I-44, sending interstate traffic through Forest Service roads. Never before has Western Star Savanna, tucked away in the Mark Twain National Forest, seen so many cars. Huzzah Creek, a small, shallow tributary of the Meramec, is almost as wide as the Missouri River in some places.

Land use practices in the watershed have seriously compromised the water quality and quantity of the rivers into which smaller creeks and streams drain. 200 years ago, a huge rain event would have likely flooded rivers, but most of the water would have seeped slowly into the ground, recharging aquifers and nourishing woodland soils. Before this week, I thought the Missouri's Ozarks had at least enough protected woodlands to keep most of the sediment out of the rivers. Au contraire....

Sediment loads to the degree we're seeing now in the Ozarks may be commonplace in the Mississippi Valley, unfortunately, but for the most part, Ozark waterways are generally clear. Now I'm seeing how dramatically modern land use practices throughout the region have compromised our waterways. All of the rainwater draining off fescue fields, off construction sites, off degraded land in general has caused this massive sediment load in our rivers.

To test my theory, to make sure the waters surrounded by alternative land use practices were different from waters surrounded by managed woodlands, I went to Hawn State Park (beautiful, wonderful LaMotte sandstone and preCambrian igneous outcrops, all in one place...shortleaf pine trees, lots of ferns and lichens). Coursing through Hawn's vast acreage is Pickle Creek, a permanent stream that normally runs clear. Pickle Creek is fed by small tributaries outside the park, making it subject to muddy rain waters. Next to Pickle Creek is a smaller tributary, beginning at a small spring within the park's boundaries, surrounded for its entire 4 mile distance by dry sandstone woodlands. The entire 4 miles ran fast, roiling clear water.

Finally, because karst topography dictates spring water, I'm attaching two pictures of a spring in Camden Co. The recharge area for this spring is 17 miles wide and includes plenty of managed chert woodlands, but also fescue pastures, impermeable surfaces such as roads, and degraded woodlands deprived of fire and other forms of management. It was an awful sight to behold this afternoon.

I don't know how long it will take before the Jack's Fork, Eleven Point, Current, or even the Meramec Rivers are clear again. I know four people taking off tomorrow with kayaks in tow to the upper Jack's Fork to take advantage of the challenging waters. Maybe all of these awful images of Ozark rivers will serve as a deterrent to tourists who would otherwise crowd the rivers, throwing beer cans into springs and hollering around the corners.

Oh! While in the upper Ozarks, I saw my first bloodroot of the season today. Get out to see them soon because they only bloom for a few days each year. Remember, check mesic sites, bottomlands, limestone-based soils...


alfred_hybrid said...

What's a young republican doing listening to NPR?

Matt Moon

Jim said...

Are both of those pictures from Blue Spring on the Jack's Fork?

Allison Vaughn said...

Yes, I'm a junkie for the Jack's's cleared up now, but it took a while.