Monday, May 05, 2008

Monday on the Niangua River

A crisp, clear night with stars so near you could kiss them proved the perfect time to rekindle my love affair with the Niangua River. It's been several years now since I first canoed the Niangua; relocation to southeast Missouri allowed easier access to the Eleven Point and Current Rivers, but it was the Niangua, in fact, that made me fall in love with Ozark streams. Fast-moving, clear, cold water. Lots of crayfish, birds, mussel beds, riparian vegetation. In 2003, the Niangua enticed me so fervently that despite the paltry salary I was making, I was staying in the Ozarks. The Niangua is one reason I came back after the storm.

The past five years haven't been too kind to the Niangua. While it meanders its way through dolomite outcroppings, changes in land use throughout the watershed has seriously impacted the river's health. Development along the banks (in the 10 year floodplain, no less) has resulted in cleared riparian woodlands and subsequent erosion. Cattle grazing in the watershed has seriously compromised water quality. The shallow reaches of the river, from Bennett Spring down, are ripe with green-brown cyanobacteria and sediment washed in from pastures. I've never seen anything like it in Missouri. Crayfish were noticeably absent today, but they have to be there somewhere. With all of the sediment in the river caused by the mismanagement of the land around the river, I simply can't imagine Ozark hellbenders thrive here anymore. I was reminded all day of my old saw: you can't manage your wetlands without managing your uplands.

Sometimes it's hard, really, to imagine what Missouri must have looked like before timber harvest, cattle grazing, channelization and all the other veritable lagniappe associated with settlement. I've finally reached a point emotionally where I can enjoy what's left, cherish the natural history of the Ozarks, seek out the least impaired places. It was, after all, a great day to be on the Niangua: Molly enjoyed her time in the shady riparian areas more than her time in the canoe. Worm-eating warblers and red eyed vireos were concentrated in the Niangua Basin today, singing their curiously complex little songs. I spied a dolomite overhang covered in my favorite fern (Woodsia obtusa). We had a good fire, good food, a decent night's rest listening to whip-por-wills, coyotes and barred owls. The heron rookery is still there on the Niangua supporting at least 30 separate nests. We saw, on two separate occasions, wood duck hens followed by tiny ducklings. Too, the big flood event must have flushed elsewhere all of the Bud Light cans and Mardi Gras beads that normally litter the riverbanks. Yes, you look for the good in the landscape and work assiduously to repair the damage.


Ted M. said...

I've not yet floated the Niangua - never really considered it, always heeding the siren call of the more remote southern rivers. Perhaps I should reconsider.

"Lagniappe" - your Louisiana heritage is peeking through!

Allison Vaughn said...

No, don't waste your time. With grant money, we can hopefully change the course of this rapid deterioration of the Niangua, but it will be a while. Stick to the Jack's Fork. The Big Piney's nice, too. The Osage Fork of the Gasconade is pristine.

Anonymous said...

Hi Allison, I have been floating the Niagua for 14 years now. I am sad to say your comments hit home. I no longer can float it on weekends for the simple fact I would try and lecture all the people that seem to have no respect for the natural beauty of this river. I have seen it at it lowest point. I will say in the past year or two some things are changing for the better. Water Patrol has actually started to enforce laws on this river and it has helped. I would encourage floaters to see this river in early spring before the beer floaters. I actually floated it New Years Day and was reminded why I love it so much. I would encourage everyone who enjoys these lovely rivers to continue to educate and help keep them for all to enjoy..Thanks