A Mandate to Save the Meramec

By Joe Bachant | November 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2003

It was July 4, 1974, Independence Day, but the memory is as clear as though it happened yesterday. The prow of our canoe had hardly touched the gravel when my canoe partner jumped out, planted her feet solidly on the gravel bar, put her hands on her hips, turned to face me, and with trembling lips declared, "Daddy, you've got to do something!"

This passionate mandate was issued by my young daughter, JJ. The scene was the end of a memorable family float trip on part of the Upper Meramec River, a river apparently doomed to be dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I was floating the river that day because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation had decided to "reinvestigate" the impacts of the proposed dam on this particular stretch of the river. I was the MDC employee assigned to assist with this effort.

As we meandered downstream, I pointed out proposed reservoir levels, as well as what would be lost. Lost bluffs, lost riffles, lost overhanging branches, lost gravel bars, lost places to seine for fish. We would be losing a river, a legacy and a way of life. These were changes JJ and Jeff could comprehend.

My son, Jeff, and JJ grew quieter as we pulled out at the site of the soon-to-be-constructed dam. Surveyors' ribbons festooned nearby trees. A cleared path ran perpendicular to the river up the bluffs on both sides, creating a scar marking where the centerline of the dam would be.

Sensing a loss too profound for words, my daughter turned to the adult in her life who was supposed to make everything better and defiantly demanded that I right this wrong. My mission on this project immediately took on a very personal bent.

JJ is now a grown woman with a remarkable conservation career of her own. I'm not sure she recalls that particular float trip or the challenge she hurled at me that day. She will never know the heaviness in my heart as we left the river. I knew that the beauty and soul-refreshing experience my family enjoyed on the Meramec that day was worth its weight in gold. Quantifying that experience into data meaningful to others was to be an all-consuming challenge for the next six years.

To the newest generation of conservation workers, it is worth noting that those were opportune years for professionals trying to protect our natural resources from detrimental environmental impacts. The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act and other new laws addressed the concerns of the people. Our challenge was to figure out how to effectively use these tools.

Despite a national trend toward a more environmentally conscious society, the Missouri delegation in Congress in 1974 and the Army Corps of Engineers still supported building the dam on the Meramec, as well as four more dams on other streams in the basin. Our daunting task under the new federal mandates was to educate federal decision makers of the merits or impacts of each individual project based on scientific evidence of cause-and-effect consequences to fish and wildlife.

Regarding the Meramec River, creating the proposed 23,000-acre flood control lake where one never existed before, and the resulting conversion of miles of free flowing Ozark streams to flat water, indicated there would be significant gains and losses.

Naturally, this issue spawned the question of whether the good outweighed the bad. People in the region that would be affected had to ask themselves what they really wanted. Project advocates, who were primarily interested in advancing their cause, had ready answers to these questions.

NEPA, however, spawned deeper, more specific and more pointed questions. Furthermore, it demanded science based answers to questions stemming from concern for the tradeoffs to both natural habitats and human society. In short, it changed the definitions of desirable and undesirable, as well as the definitions of good and bad.

As a young professional with Missouri Department of Conservation, I had the good fortune of working with the leaders in the emerging science of assessing environmental impacts to wildlife habitat. In the fall of 1974, we applied our tested methodologies to the affected habitats in the Upper Meramec Valley. Results confirmed that habitat losses would be substantial and devastating.

Hours of work culminated in a federal report published in March 1976 that told the whole story: The 34,000 acres directly affected by the project would destroy or degrade 109 miles of unique clear-water stream habitat, and more than 38,000 acres of valuable terrestrial habitat. Large numbers of caves and springs would be inundated.

Secondary adverse impacts would also result from induced development on about 125,000 acres surrounding the project, and on some 39,710 acres downstream.

These figures, and the 37 pages of text 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler