Ozarks Water Watch
By Ray Jones
Note: This month the Ozarks Water Watch column was written by Ray Jones, an Ozarks resident of Greene and Stone Counties for the past 42 years. He is a board member of the James River Basin Partnership and an annual participant in River Rescue, Table Rock Lake Shoreline Cleanup, Adopt-A-Shoreline, and Lakes of Missouri Volunteer Program.
A few of you might recall the hot summer day back in 2001 at the celebration after the annual River Rescue clean-up of the James River held that year in Galena on the grounds below the historic "Y Bridge" which crosses the river. The headline entertainment was the hugely popular band "Big Smith", members of which all grew up on the James River and its tributaries. One of the songs they played was "Dirty Old James", a lamentation about the river’s degradation, which they had personally witnessed in their lifetime. For the large audience of river-loving listeners, it was hard for anyone to disagree with the song’s message.
My first personal association with the James River was in the fall of 1969 at a college fraternity party held at a beautiful riverside location along the upper part of the river. During the following spring semester, several of us in a freshman biology class replicated portions of a study of the river’s water quality which had been conducted by a federal agency two years before. Our results indicated notable decline in the “measurables” in just those two years.
For the next 20 years, as a resident of rapidly growing Springfield, friends and I floated many sections of the river several times a year and would often refresh at favorite swimming holes. Unfortunately, over the years, the river’s clarity began to diminish, along with our enthusiasm.
Moving south to Table Rock Lake in the early 1990’s to live on a peninsula overlooking the confluence of the James and White Rivers, I found myself increasingly interested in anything related to water quality, and increasingly concerned about what I was witnessing on a daily basis. Although I was spending less time on the river itself than in the past, it was obvious, especially in the James River arm of the lake, that the water quality was slipping fast as the growing population and resulting development from Springfield on to the south was gaining momentum, with increasing negative impact on the quality of the water.
Then, in the summer of 1999, a real "watershed" moment occurred. A massive algal bloom more than 14 miles long exploded in the lower James River and upper arm of the lake. This huge thick blob of green ick and dying fish grabbed the attention of everyone in the region. Water sport enthusiasts, including boaters, swimmers and fishermen, the many tourism-related businesses that depend on them, and the public at large demanded solutions to the problem.
Water quality organizations, community leaders, and regulating agencies together responded to the concern by focusing enormous efforts to analyze the causes and propose solutions to the growing problem. With nutrient overloading from the effluent of wastewater treatment facilities and storm water runoff, among other sources, identified as the cause, regulations were passed which required major wastewater facilities, at enormous expense, to install nutrient removal technology in order to reduce the level of nutrient loading into the waters. Deprived of much of the abundant food source, the algae growth began to diminish significantly in the following years, resulting in increased clarity and beauty of the water in both the river and the lake.
Has the effort and expense been worth it? I think it is a resounding yes. In fact, though the battle is far from over and many issues remain, it’s time for some celebration.
And celebrate we did! On a recent autumn day, the James River Basin Partnership held a Membership Float Trip on an absolutely gorgeous section of the James River. Putting in at Shelvin Rock near the Stone and Christian County line, a group of nearly 40 folks floated down to Hootentown. Even after a long, hot, dry summer with limited river flow, the water was clear and beautiful. As we paddled the pools and riffles, the fish were abundant, as were other wildlife, including an osprey which flew from tree to tree just ahead of us much of the way down the river. At one point we were delighted as it successfully swept the water’s surface to snag a fresh fish for dinner.
Several of the paddler’s had never been on the river before. Their membership in JRBP was mostly as concerned citizens wanting to do the right thing for the environment. They had been aware of the many problems that have been publicized in recent years but had no idea how successful the efforts have been to address those problems.
There is no doubt that there will continue to be challenges to the quality of the James River and its tributaries, as well as Table Rock Lake. As the area’s population growth and resulting development continue, there will be many problems to address if we are to continue to have abundant quality waters in our rivers and lakes, and the wells that supply our drinking water.
But we can also celebrate our efforts thus far, even as we rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. I heartily recommend to the water lovers of the Ozarks, and the James River specifically, that they get out on the river, whether to float, fish or swim, and personally celebrate the results of our hard work at regaining and preserving our irreplaceable treasures.