A Mandate to Save the Meramec

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

from the report, had a profound effect on the public, elected officials and both proponents and opponents alike. The intervening period between the issuance of the report and the 10-county referendum 39 months later were fraught with demands for justifications, threats, allegations of "fake science," and accolades or censor, depending on which side of the controversy you stood.

These objections to the dam did not by themselves stay the course of history. During this time, the political pendulum also was swinging against funding federal water projects. Many initiatives, including Meramec Park Lake, wound up on a Presidential "Hit List." They also lost congressional support. Local newspapers pushed for a definitive up or down public vote.

Swaying to public pressure in 1977, the Missouri General Assembly called for the 10-county referendum. In addition, private citizens from the Meramec Valley and elsewhere collaborated to develop an alternative plan that featured a free-flowing river. The tide was turning.

As the eve of the referendum approached, I sought solace by reading from notes by Mr. E. Sidney Stephens written in 1941. Mr. Stephens was the philosophical founding father of the Missouri Conservation Commission. He noted that, if given facts relating to the impacts to fish and wildlife associated with the 32 dams and reservoirs that were proposed at the time on Missouri's Ozark rivers, the people of Missouri could be trusted to make the right decision. The job of the Commission was to make those facts known.

Mr. Stephens likely never dreamed that 37 years later his words would prove prophetic. On the eve of the referendum, I prayed that we, whose jobs were to present the facts, had served the public well.

On August 8, 1978, a little more than four years after our family's memorable float trip, the people of Missouri from a 10-county area surrounding the Meramec resoundingly defeated the dam project in a public referendum by a vote of two to one. I believe Stephens was right. The facts had helped convince people not to accept known losses for uncertain gains.

Given such a public rebuke, the Meramec Park Lake project was deauthorized by Congress in 1981, ending, for the time being, more than 50 years of controversy. The people had spoken. There would be no dam on the river, and my children, their children and all future generations would have the opportunity to experience a wild, free-flowing Meramec River.

My family celebrated by taking a victory float. I wasn't able to accompany them because I was busy incorporating the will of the people into law. I was with them in spirit, however, and content with knowing that my little girl's wishes had come true.

Not much has changed in the intervening years. JJ is now dealing with a proposed federal dam in her own professional jurisdiction. Substantial disparity remains, and probably always will remain, over how water and rivers should be used.

The one thing that we have learned is that the public--the citizens of this great land--deeply value our wonderful rivers, forests, mountains, prairies and oceans. While the people, acting through their elected officials, may give us tools like NEPA to do our job, our work is not done until the people are informed and understand what is at stake, and what they stand to gain or lose. Only then can they make a wise decision.

What was gained for JJ and future generations more than 25 years ago is as temporal as a grain of sand on a gravel bar. With the next flood, public opinion can change.

I'm confident, however, that as long as people are willing to speak out and hold accountable the elected officials and agencies assigned to protect and preserve our national treasures, our rivers will remain free flowing.

"Daddy, you've got to do something!" has reverberated in my mind for more than 25 years. I am committed to bequeath that same mandate to others.

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