Diamonds in the Rough

By Dave Erickson | June 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 1997

Our "Big Muddy," the Missouri River, has always been unruly, but in 1993 and again in 1995 it became especially temperamental. With six upstream dams affecting its flow, and channelization and levees girdling the river on its downstream reaches, the Missouri River simply rebelled.

Heavy rains falling on saturated soils caused devastating floods. Costs in property and human suffering were immense. Many other rivers also flooded, but impacts along the Missouri were especially damaging.

A few Missourians are only now recovering. Some once-productive (and vitally important) agricultural lands may never recover. But the receding waters and public dialogue that followed exposed what may be the finest opportunity in decades to improve the way we coexist with our big rivers and their floodplains.

The floods showed the public that society may have gone too far in confining the flows and regulating the actions of this mighty river. By narrowing the river's channel and elevating the height of levees, people had actually worsened prospects for flood damage when floods exceeded the height of adjacent levees.

We had created a false sense of security. In addition, the process of water overtopping the levees created high energy impacts - scour and sand deposits - that would have been less damaging had the river simply spilled from its banks onto its floodplain.

If we provide the Missouri River with a little elbow room, floods might be less damaging. The river and its floodplain are vitally important to Missouri for their agricultural production and fish and wildlife habitat. The river also has a role in commerce.

In response to the flooding, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan formed a Task Force on Floodplain Management to reassess the costly situation. The task force asked the Conservation Department to make a plan to purchase some floodplain lands from willing sellers.

The Missouri Conservation Commission heeded that recommendation by providing money and directing Conservation Department staff members to work closely with other agencies involved in flood responses. Staff members also helped to seek money from partner organizations.

An important grant was obtained from the North American Wetlands Conservation Council under provisions of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation provided additional funding, while The Nature Conservancy, Quail Unlimited, land donors and other organizations also helped.

Thus far the Conservation Department has purchased about 14,000 acres of land in the floodplain of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in an effort known as the Partnership for Missouri Riverlands. These areas are truly diamonds in the rough. One day their value to society and wildlife will shine through.

Riverland purchases have been significant for several reasons. They are an outlet for farmers who want to sell critically damaged crop lands, and the Conservation Department is working with other groups, including, the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Wetland Reserve Program and Emergency Wetland Reserve Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Project.

The Partnership for Missouri Riverlands remains a work in progress, but many of its features are already evident. Here is what Missourians can expect from the effort:

On some lands where the Conservation Department is the sole owner of a floodplain segment, the river will be given room to accommodate a portion of the volume of future floods.

Damaged levees may not be rebuilt. The elevations of certain others may be reduced so they flood more frequently than neighboring farmlands.

In some locations, Riverland tracts have farmer neighbors next door. The Conservation Department will cooperate in maintaining needed flood protection levees so that livelihoods of neighbors are not imperiled.

Conservation activities on Riverland parcels will restore aquatic habitats that have been lost as the river was reduced in size and diversity by channelization. Key aquatic environments, such as side channels and chutes, that flow during high river stages and provide placid waters at other times will provide an important boost to fish populations by creating spawning and foraging sites.

Deep scour holes created by the floods will be managed as fish habitat and provide wonderful fishing.

Much of the land will become floodplain forest supporting an array of forest creatures during all seasons and yielding valuable forested wetlands during high river stages.

We should expect willow and cottonwood stands to predominate in the young forests. Other floodplain trees - hackberry, ash, sycamore, maple and others - will become common as the forests mature. Changes will be gradual.

Shallow scour sites will provide wetlands of value to many species of fish and wildlife. Most of Missouri's wetlands are associated with the state's rivers and streams. Riverland purchases create opportunities to restore wetlands that will benefit fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and resident as well as migratory birds.

Pump stations and major levees for water management are unlikely, as the wetlands rely on changing river flows for water recharge. The contributions of these wetlands to wetland-dependent species of fish and wildlife will be immense. Opportunities for birdwatching and waterfowl hunting will be exciting.

Where possible, managers will seek to restore bottomland prairie and other native plant communities, such as wet prairie, sedge meadow, emergent marsh and others.

We must not overlook that Riverlands will provide wonderful sites for public use and outdoor enjoyment. Floodplain forests and wetlands are dwindling habitats. They will attract and hold an interesting assemblage for avid birders and nature enthusiasts.

Citizens who fish will find many miles of river frontage and other sites to satisfy their interest. Hunting will occur as it does on other conservation lands. Game species of note will be waterfowl and forest game, such as woodcock, squirrels, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Where possible, access sites for boaters will be developed. A walk-in or boat-in character will develop at most sites, and we believe many Missourians will enjoy this feature.

The Conservation Department's Riverlands project is an exciting one. It works with other agencies, with funds from varied sources and with the cooperation of willing sellers of land.

At the same time, the effort will restore fish, wildlife and natural features that were lost in an era when mankind tried unsuccessfully to completely dominate the river. It will provide Missourians with sites to enjoy our outdoor heritage.

Many years from now we will cherish the mature floodplain forests, wetlands and backwater habitats of the river. Those diamonds in the rough will have become valued public treasures.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer