Healthy Waters

By Brett Dufur | May 22, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2012

MDC is celebrating the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight MDC’s conservation areas and the Department’s other public land stewardship efforts that benefit the state’s people and wildlife.

Healthy waters are one of the foundations of our quality of life. We are fortunate to live in a state that has abundant water resources, from the meandering bends of the country’s two largest rivers to clear Ozark streams. Missouri has more than 110,000 miles of streams, about 276,000 acres of public lakes and about 300,000 small private ponds. The state bubbles with a thousand springs, including some of the largest in the world. Ensuring that these waters stay healthy benefits our communities, our neighbors downstream and the state’s fish and wildlife.

“What is truly amazing is that even though just 2 percent of the state is water, at the same time that our population has doubled, we’ve seen many of those waters improve through conservation efforts. That is a tremendous accomplishment,” says Joe Dillard, retired MDC fisheries biologist. “That benefits our anglers and our communities as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on our state’s streams, rivers and reservoirs.”


Our state has one of the greatest varieties of freshwater fish in the nation. The state’s waterways connect anglers with a wide assortment of sport fish, from smallmouth bass in spring-fed Ozark streams to big catfish lurking in our northern streams and in the murky waters of our big rivers. From countless ponds, lakes and reservoirs, we fill our pastimes with friends and families, hoping to reel in a keeper.

Fishing continues to be one of our most popular outdoor activities. More than 22 percent of Missouri residents fish sometime during the year. But healthy waters do more than just support great fishing. Missourians depend on both surface water and groundwater sources for drinking water and other uses. Half of the state, including Kansas City and St. Louis, use surface water for their drinking water. The Missouri River is the source of tap water for more than a million people. And many rural Missourians get their tap water from wells.

“Ensuring healthy waters involves many things,” says Chris Vitello, MDC fisheries division chief. “MDC works to provide enjoyable fishing and also to maintain aquatic biodiversity, reduce the effects of nuisance species, protect waterway habitats, and inform and educate the public about Missouri’s aquatic resources.”

The health of Missouri’s waterways is directly tied to the health of the lands around it. “By using a watershed approach to conservation, which is looking at all the

land that drains into a particular body of water, we can improve water quality by making sure that habitat along stream banks are healthy,” says Lisa Allen, MDC state forester. “For example, a healthy forest helps to reduce erosion by making sure that sediment doesn’t enter a stream and block out light, killing aquatic plants or preventing their growth. And forest canopies help shade waters and keep stream temperatures constant, which benefits stream life.”

Broad partnerships make watershed conservation work. MDC works with citizen Stream Teams, as well as other agencies, such as the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to ensure that healthy waters continue to benefit people and wildlife.


Stream Teams help Missourians conserve and improve more than 110,000 miles of streams through stream cleanups, tree plantings, water quality monitoring, storm drain stenciling and by leading educational projects.

4,321 Stream Teams throughout the state focus the can-do attitude of more than 76,000 volunteers, which contributed more than 146,000 hours last year to enhance and restore Missouri streams. Since the program began, Stream Teams have performed 1.7 million hours of volunteer work and have removed more than 8,000 tons of trash from Missouri’s waterways.

“The benefit to Missouri streams is incalculable. This is citizen-led conservation at its best,” says Sherry Fischer, MDC stream services program supervisor. “After gaining a firsthand knowledge of the problems, solutions and needs of Missouri’s streams, volunteers are also better equipped to speak out on behalf of healthy waters.”

Missouri Stream Team is a joint effort of MDC, the Conservation Federation of Missouri and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Today, Missouri’s Stream Team program is nationally recognized and serves as a model for other states. Anyone can join. For June 2012 Missouri Conservationist help forming a Stream Team or finding an active one in your area, call 1-800-781-1989 or visit


Watersheds link our land and communities through water. Regardless of where you live in Missouri, you are a part of a watershed that drains to a local creek, which in turn eventually joins the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. We each play a part in ensuring that healthy waters reach our neighbors downstream.

The quality of our water depends on how we use the watershed surrounding it. Natural landscapes easily absorb rainfall. Altered landscapes, including both rural and urban development, cause higher rates of runoff. Urban landscapes include mostly hard surfaces such as pavement, buildings, roads and roofs. Even lawns, with their shallow root systems and compacted soil, act like impervious surfaces.

When rain hits these areas, everything in its path, including pesticides, fertilizers, trash, detergents, pet waste, motor oil and more, can flush into storm drains that lead directly to streams and rivers. This creates polluted storm water that can harm aquatic life and make rivers unsafe for swimming and fishing. The large amount of impervious surfaces in urban areas also increases the quantity of storm water entering our waterways leading to erosion and flooding problems.

“A typical city block can generate five times more storm water runoff than a forested area of the same size,” says Angie Weber, MDC community conservation planner.

Ensuring healthy water involves the efforts of everyone. Fortunately, many communities, such as St. Louis, are doing their part to improve watershed conservation. In conjunction with MDC’s community conservation planners, St. Louis installed specially designed pervious concrete sidewalks and 52 rain gardens to capture and treat storm water along South Grand Boulevard, helping to improve area streams. The rain gardens are basins with native plants that act like a sponge, soaking up rainwater that runs off roofs, roads and other hard surfaces. Rain flows through the pervious sidewalks into rock storage areas below, and then water slowly filters into the ground.


MDC is also active in promoting healthy waters and habitats along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. “Missourians are becoming more connected to the big rivers,” says Mark Boone, MDC big river specialist. “The public fishing opportunities are great thanks to MDC sport-fish management efforts, and MDC has greatly improved access with more conservation areas as well as boat ramps developed in partnership with communities all along the rivers. Additionally, national attention on big river water quality has helped promote important habitat conservation work along th Missouri and Mississippi rivers.”

The Department strives to provide healthy and sustainable fish and wildlife habitats along the big rivers. MDC works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal and state agencies to implement ecosystem-based management of the Missouri, Mississippi and White rivers and their floodplains, which focus on natural resource conservation and enhancing recreational opportunities. For example MDC has been able to increase and enhance wetland habitats such as seasonal wetlands and bottomland hardwoods. MDC cooperates with other agencies on the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program for biological monitoring and habitat restoration, and provides input to the Upper Mississippi River Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program, both funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Improvements to wetlands at conservation areas, such as Fountain Grove, Eagle Bluffs, Duck Creek, Columbia Bottom and B.K. Leach Memorial, just to name a few, provide critical habitat for resident animals and migratory waterfowl. These areas also provide important recreational value for Missourians,” says Paul Calvert, MDC fisheries division field operations chief.

“Interested landowners and conservation groups have also been instrumental in wetland conservation,” says Calvert. “The Confluence Partnership is an excellent example of the value of partnerships and citizen conservationists in improving fish and wildlife habitats.”

The Confluence Partnership is a team of nonprofit partners, such as the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance and Ducks Unlimited, and a core of 20 cooperating local, state and federal agencies. They have conserved more than 13,000 acres of land near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to help improve water quality and provide more outdoor recreation opportunities.


Wetlands once made up almost 11 percent of the state’s presettlement acres, or 4.8 million acres. Today, wetlands cover close to 850,000 acres in Missouri, up from less than 640,000 acres, thanks to several restoration programs available to landowners. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is considered the nation’s premiere wetland restoration program, having vastly increased and improved our country’s wetlands.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the WRP program. Beginning in 1995, wetland emphasis  teams made up of NRCS and MDC personnel were developed to assist landowners with all aspects of their wetland management plans.

“This blend of expertise is why Missouri is one of the top five states in the nation for restoring wetlands,” says Kevin Dacey, Missouri NRCS state office natural resource specialist and WRP coordinator. “Missouri’s success is proven in the numbers. Almost 900 WRP tracts cover 137,000 acres of restored wetlands.”

“There are numerous benefits from wetland restoration,” says Dacey. “Wetlands are like sponges during floods. They retain floodwaters and then release them slowly. They also recharge ground water and help improve water quality. Many wetland plants and algae absorb excess nutrients in the waters passing through the wetland. One of the best features of wetlands is the recreational opportunity they offer seasonally from hunting and fishing to bird and wildlife watching.”


Partnerships are also improving stream connectivity, important for many fish species. In one recent MDC cost share project, a Niangua River clear-span bridge was constructed at Williams Ford in Dallas County. This bridge improves access for residents during floods and enhances critical habitat for the state endangered Niangua darter by improving stream connectivity and aquatic organism passage. Projects that stabilize and improve Niangua darter habitat benefit numerous other aquatic species.

In another project, MDC assisted the Shannon County Commission with installation of a low-water articulating concrete mattress crossing on Mahan Creek. Mahan Creek is a tributary to Jacks Fork River, which is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The original crossing used the natural stream gravel bed. The county used to dump truckloads of road rock after every high-water event. The new articulating concrete mattress allows for the passage of sand and gravel over the crossing during high-flow events while maintaining stability and provides an ideal surface for aquatic organism passage.

To help fund both projects, MDC secured a grant from the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation through their Stream Stewardship Trust Fund, and other sources. MDC provided engineering design and technical guidance and local governments installed the projects. Similar projects involving a variety of partners and designed to enhance aquatic organism passage are underway at selected locations across the state.


Missourians have proven that healthy waters are important. They remain dedicated to that foundation of our quality of life in many ways. These efforts continue to benefit people and wildlife, wherever we live. MDC works with Missourians from throughout the state to involve and inspire them to get involved with Stream Teams and with community efforts to improve water quality.

“Missouri is a world-class place to hunt, fish, float, bird watch, hike and experience nature,” says Robert L. Ziehmer, MDC director. “Those opportunities wouldn’t exist without the hard work done by countless generations to ensure the health of our state’s vast waterways. For the past 75 years, MDC has worked with Missourians, and for Missourians, to make sure that healthy waters benefits us where we live and where we go to enjoy the outdoors.”

 “Canaries” For Healthy Waters

Aquatic threatened and endangered species are often the equivalents of “canaries in the coal mine.” They are indicators of healthy waters—both above and below ground. Working to conserve these endangered species generally means improving

 water quality, which ultimately benefits other aquatic species as well. It also ensures healthy waters for the people who depend on it for drinking water and other uses.

One such species, the Ozark hellbender, could be readily found in many of Missouri’s clear cold-water streams until the 1980s. But the populations of these long-lived, large aquatic salamanders have declined significantly due to habitat degradation, poor water quality and other factors. Habitat restoration and population reintroductions are attempting to reverse this decline. Hellbenders depend on crayfish for their main diet, so the loss of the species could trigger a shift in the aquatic food web. Poor water quality may also result in the decline of other cold-water stream species.

Mussels are another water quality canary in the coalmine. They feed by filtering water through their gills—often purifying the water in the process. They are indiscriminate filterers. What they don’t actually consume is released back into the water, becoming food for small invertebrates. Mussels are not tolerant of elevated pollution levels, so a drop in numbers can signal water quality issues that may soon affect other aquatic species as well.

Small headwater dams, road crossings and diminished flows reduce the continuity of streams and the usable habitat for fish. The Topeka shiner, a minnow that once occurred throughout prairies in the Missouri River watershed, is now endangered and found only in a few small, isolated headwater streams. As prairies have experienced disruptions in flow and stream continuity, drought and sedimentation have become more intense. The lack of adequate habitat for Topeka shiners is similar to a lack of air for the canary in the mine.

Many aquatic canaries in our underground streams and caves are much harder to see and understand. The Tumbling Creek cavesnail is a tiny snail found in only one cave system in the world—in Taney County. In the 1990s, surveys showed this cavesnail was in decline. A decade ago, only 30 were found in the entire cave, probably due to poor land management and leaky septic systems in the watershed above the cave. Private landowners have reduced erosion and repaired septic systems, which have helped improve conditions for this species.

A watershed approach to preserving a healthy underground habitat for this tiny snail invigorated the local community and school to work toward improving water quality above and below ground. This ultimately benefits the community, their neighbors downstream and the lowly cavesnail.

If an aquatic species is declining due to poor water quality or lack of water, it’s important for us to take notice. They could be our canary in the mine, warning us to improve our streams—otherwise, our community’s healthy waters may soon be at risk, too.

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler