Wetlands Redux

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

Jim Loveless stabs the air toward the Missouri River's bluffs near Columbia. "There's an immature eagle," says the wildlife biologist. The bird tilts in the high breezes above Plowboy Bend, named for a 19th century steamboat that had some hard luck here.

Nearby, both Loveless and the eagle spot mallards, pintails and snow geese among the thousands of fowl feeding and courting in the marshy pools of this bottomland. Just out of sight, the Missouri River barrels toward Jefferson City.

That young eagle doesn't know it, but hunting here hasn't been this good in a long time-unless you were hunting soybeans, that is. But in 1989, the beans bit the dust when the Department of Conservation embarked on perhaps the most innovative wetlands restoration project in the world. The Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, managed by Loveless, combines recycled wastewater with river water to create wetland conditions that used to be widespread in Missouri, conditions that supported a wealth of plants and wildlife.

Wetlands-marshes, swamps and fens-formerly made up more than one tenth of Missouri's landscape, Loveless says. Many were created by the spring and fall flooding of rivers and streams, which left behind sheets of nutrient-filled water on the rich bottomland soils. Acre for acre, wetlands support more animal and plant life than most any other kind of ecosystem. Ducks, geese and other migratory birds found abundant food when traveling these riverways on their spring and fall migrations.

Missouri's 4.8 million acres of wetlands were a little too rich for their own good. Farmers figured the soils were too productive to leave to the frogs, water lilies, geese and beaver. During the late 1800s, millions of acres of swamp in southeast Missouri were drained for farming.

For decades, levees and dikes have confined many rivers and streams to relatively deep and swift channels. Although this opened bottomlands to farming, the swamps and marshes shrunk to about 10 percent of their original size.

That's where the Conservation Department and Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area come in. Recognizing that wetlands are our fastest disappearing ecosystem, the Conservation Department created an ambitious plan to boost the quantity and quality of wetland acreage on public and private lands all over Missouri by the year 2000. The plan calls for more than twice the amount of wetlands than existed in 1989. That will mean not only more habitat for wetland flora and fauna but also more opportunities for outdoor recreation.

The 4,269 acres at Eagle Bluffs have a special place among these projects, Loveless says. This area's unique combination of specially treated wastewater and wetlands restoration has drawn attention from civil engineers and environmentalists from around the United States and the world. The project has benefited from the cooperation of a variety of players, including the City of Columbia, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Eagle Bluffs is managed primarily as a wetland habitat and as a place where the public can learn firsthand about life on the marsh. Limited hunting and fishing are allowed, too.

Loveless spotted the eagle from the deck of a building he calls the junction box. It's a one-of-a-kind building at the heart of what makes this project so unusual. To satisfy a wetland's need for lots of water, the building is designed to combine Missouri River water with a daily supply of 13 million gallons of recycled wastewater from the City of Columbia.

The Columbia water comes to Eagle Bluffs free, after it has been treated at a plant and run through a series of large cattail ponds, where the plants' roots remove even more pollutants. When more water is needed, it is pumped in from the river.

The area has 15 shallow pools totaling about 2,300 acres. Loveless controls their water level with a system of levees and valves. Parts of Eagle Bluffs will remain flooded year-round. But in most of the pools Loveless will mimic the natural rhythm of spring and fall flooding, which will welcome migrating ducks and geese.

At other times, he'll drain the water to encourage the growth of nutritious plants, like smartweed, and to discourage other plants that would choke the pools. During a recent fall and winter, with only a fraction of the pools flooded, Loveless estimates that 15,000 birds splashed, dabbled, dove, courted and fed on the area.

More wet habitat is provided by blew holes, says Devona Weirich, a former fisheries management biologist. These steep-sided holes are formed during floods when scouring water excavates bottomland silt and sand. Eagle Bluffs' blew holes range from 2 to 24 feet in depth and from less than an acre to 5 acres in size. Weirich's research showed that the water is relatively murky and low in oxygen. Even so, the holes contain about 36 fish species. That's about 10 times more species than you'd find on farm ponds of comparable size.

During the flood of 1993, when Eagle Bluffs was under several feet of water, the blew holes gained some new inhabitants. These include sauger, white bass and yellow bass.

The flood of '93 did more than move fish around. Eagle Bluffs was only weeks from opening when the flood hit, dropping anywhere from a couple inches to several feet of sand and silt on the area. Clearing the pools and channels has been costly and time-consuming. A handicap-accessible parking area at the river was all but washed away. It had to be rebuilt. The 1995 floods added insult to injury.

On the positive side, the floods were a boon to researchers who had studied the area's plants, animals, soils, ground water and surface water before the flood. By looking at these things now, they'll glean useful information about how floods may affect other wetlands.

The whole river bottomland, from bluff to bluff, was under water in 1993. Although flooding damaged the lowlands, the bluffs' stone faces are still as varied and striking as ever. Some are great, smooth gray strips like ships' hulls. Others are pocked with dents as big as a grizzly's back. Hikers and bicyclists get a great view from the 4 miles of Katy Trail State Park that hugs the valley's eastern bluffs.

Nearly 355 acres of Eagle Bluffs' timber adjoin the nearby University of Missouri's Schnabel Woods. With luck, you may spot a three bird orchid on this registered natural area, says natural history lands coordinator Greg Gremaud. The bluff tops also contain small areas of prairie as well as wildflowers, such as bloodroot and sweet cicely.

Someday, Loveless says, the Conservation Department may build a spur of the Katy Trail that takes hikers and bicyclists through the high woods and prairies. Since the view up there overlooks 13 miles of river bottomland and bluffs, an observation platform may be in the area's future.

Observers could trace former river channels in the bottomland which still contains the remains of the steamboat called Plowboy. The thousands of birds passing along the Missouri River during spring and fall migrations make for a spectacular view. One could almost imagine how this river valley might have looked 150 years ago.

How to Reach Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

Driving south from Columbia, the trip to Eagle Bluffs is a little like the nearby Missouri River itself-a meandering downhill ride with a variety of habitat along the way. You'll pass fields of crops and cattle, patches of woods and human habitats, ranging from trailers to passive solar palaces.

Take Providence Road (163) in Columbia south from Highway 70 then route K. Eagle Bluffs is about 12.5 miles from I-70. (From University of Missouri's Faurot Field at Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road, it's 10.3 miles.)

Find information about the area, including handicapped-accessible parking and observation areas, by stopping at the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area office or by calling (573) 445-3882. The office is a white house close to the road on your left just before the terrain bottoms out at McBaine. Just .3 mile farther on the right is a Katy Trail State Park parking lot and access.

To reach the wetlands themselves, drive past the village of McBaine, cross Perche Creek then turn left on Star School Road. Star School Road goes through the middle of the wetlands.

What is a wetland?

Wetlands are transition areas between aquatic and upland ecosystems that either contain standing water or are periodically flooded or saturated. These moist conditions cause soils to lack oxygen part of the time. Wetlands are home to plants that are well adapted to life in water. Some of these plants, for example, can pump oxygen down to their roots. The following descriptions touch on just three wetlands types:

Marshes are treeless wetlands, often lying in low areas in the floodplains of major rivers and streams. Marshes typically contain a mix of emergent vegetation, such as cattails, grasses and sedges, and open water.

Swamps are something like marshes with trees, such as silver maples, American elm, black willow, cypress, cottonwoods and river birches. These areas also have shrubs and mosses. Sometimes swamps succeed marshes as trees grow in, but they may also develop in the beds of sluggish streams or in floodplains.

Fens and seeps are unusual wetlands that form in Missouri, mostly in the Ozarks at stream terraces and at the base of bluffs. They are fed by ground water, which means their soils stay wet much of the year. Because the water comes from the ground, it may be alkaline or acidic, depending on the local geology.

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