Sunday, May 22, 2016

Filthy Rivers

According to local hearsay, the rain event earlier this week brought much needed water to the Ozarks. Tuesday, I set out into the interior in search of nice streams, bottomland woodlands, and breeding birds. The three to four inches of rain came mostly on Tuesday, with Wednesday's forecast reaching the upper 60s and sunny. It's not unusual to have a drenching rain in mid-May, but apparently, as evidenced by the flooding rivers, the ground was already saturated.

Wednesday morning, at every turn, the creeks and streams were in flood stage. Not the devastating floods that came in December that sent the Meramec River so far over its banks that entire towns flooded, but in flood enough to close roads. Current River? Flooding. Niangua River? Flooding. Meramec River? Flooding. Historically, when the world was mantled in grass-forb mix and contiguous woodland cover, a spring thunderstorm system in karst topography really wouldn't impact the rivers this way; historically, water would seep into the ground and slowly percolate through carbonate rock and end up in springs. Hence, the clear, swift, blue water streams that we normally associate with the Ozarks.

But that was in a different era. The Meramec River, for example, has long been heralded as a biodiversity hotspot, but also a threatened resource. Mussel, crayfish and fish diversity were (in the not too distant past) considered globally significant. Many conservation initiatives to protect biodiversity in the Meramec watershed have occurred throughout the years, but the river is seriously imperiled. Development in the watershed including large, ranch style homes built on the banks,improperly managed septic systems and cattle grazing have resulted in significant sediment loading and a truly filthy river. Mussels that depend on clean water don't have a chance. The long pincered crayfish that depends on slab bedrock-bottomed streams are probably extirpated with all the gravel loading and interstitial spaces filled with soil from the bottomlands and cyanobacteria. Drum? The trash fish of lousy rivers? Thriving. Probably Asian carp and largemouth bass, too.

After driving almost 300 miles in search of clean water and a good place for streambank breeding birds, I ended up at Maramec Spring, a little city park near St. James. This area had the same rain event that the rest of the Meramec watershed had, but, unlike the big river, the watershed is mostly protected by the forested cover of the Mark Twain. This small trout park that still has the cultural relict furnaces from the early years of iron smelting during the height of the age of extraction. The bottomland woodland along the spring branch still had some blooming violets, nice flowering sedges, big trees, good streambank birds. The spring branch was really quite spectacular for the trout fishermen at this trout park.

Walk the distance of the spring branch to the confluence of the Meramec River after a rain event and you'll see this:

All of the runoff in the Meramec River watershed, all the creeks and streams that feed into it turned the river into a flowing stream of chocolate milk. The karst protected waters of the spring and spring branch show a sharp contrast that illustrate the difference between protected lands and imperiled watersheds. But the Current River at Akers Ferry resembled the muddy Meramec the same day. All of those feeder streams in the watershed with pastures and logged land around them have seriously impacted water quality. Eventually, the sediment will settle, filling in the spaces that normally give rise to waterpennies, caddisfly larvae, and other aquatic invertebrates upon which fish diversity depends. Watershed conservation planning and protection is the only way to protect these streams, but the increased urbanization and external threats will only continue in the future. So seek out the good places and enjoy them while you can.

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