June 15, 2007

Post-flood trash scout

Cote sans Dessein Bend - Mouth of the Osage River
by Steve Schnarr
Scouting out the mouth of the Osage

A couple weeks ago, I headed downstream to Soda Popp’s Gas Barge on the Osage River. In the mid-May “Flood of 07”, Soda’s place was hit hard. Although the water barely made it in his house, it left debris scattered all over his beautiful riverside park. He and friends had been cleaning it up for weeks, gathering it by hand and with an old mule hayrake pulled behind a tractor and burning the piles of wood and cornstalks.

By the time I got there, much of the work was done, the ground was drying out but the mosquitoes were intense. The first thing he did when I hopped out of the van was hand me a bottle of bug spray.

The water was still high on the Osage. Excess water from Truman Reservoir and the Lake of the Ozarks was still being let out to the Missouri, and the lowest part of Soda’s land was still underwater. He was obviously exhausted, but in good spirits none the less.

We hopped in our 50 horse Grizzly (the “Karp”) and checked out the scene. We found a dump we had missed last year and a good deal of “floater trash” collected in coves alongside the Osage. When we reached the mouth, we hopped out to look at the point between the two big rivers.

The flood had scoured the underbrush clean along the point, leaving deposits of sand and mud everywhere. And plastic trash dotted the landscape on the Osage side. But not nearly what I expected in that spot.

We jumped in the boat and headed around the dike structure that keeps the Osage tight against the towering bluffs on the downstream side. Upstream, on the Missouri now, we cruised through a small chute on river-right. The flood had obviously collapsed the high banks of the island, but we could see no trash deposits here. But upstream a bit, where we pulled several boatloads of trash out of the woods last year, was another large deposit of trash.

Driftwood was piled high along the banks. Lining the top and cascading down the bank side was a collection of typical Missouri River trash – balls, plastic bottles, coolers, tires, a couple buoys and, as we drew closer, we noticed a refrigerator stuck in the rack pile.

“That one’s got your spray paint on it,” Soda pointed out. Sure enough…scribbled on the side of the refrigerator was a date (7/06), a rivermile (460) and our initials (MRR). On last year’s MegaScout trash survey, we had “tagged” each appliance we could get to with the rivermile and date, so we could track how far big stuff would go in high water. I admit I was a little amazed when I realized how far this thing had gone. “That’s up in northwest Missouri,” I said, shaking my head. Just above St. Joseph on the Mill Creek Bend, to be exact.

We were at about river mile 134. Soda snapped a photo with his cell phone. Here it is:

Here's Melanie last summer "tagging" the same fridge 326 miles upstream.

Soda and I were at about river mile 134 – 326 miles downstream. That refrigerator had negotiated the bends of western Missouri, where levees were popping like mad, swung east at KC and wound through the Grand Bend past the new chutes at Lisbon and Overton, through the Manitou Bluffs and past the state capital.

Right now is a fascinating time to be out on the river. The floods reshaped the banks and bottom, moved around trees and drift and repainted the landscape with human refuse. As the waters continue to drop (we hope, we hope), a new river landscape is emerging. It’s our new place of work and there’s a lot to do

You can watch the pulse of a river by watching the drift and trash. As the river and its many tributaries rise quickly, everything gets picked up and shoved downstream. At times the whole river seems so chock full of trees, plastic bottles and refrigerators that you could walk across it if it weren’t headed downstream at 7 miles and hour and constantly churning.

As pulses of drift move down, the channel where the river runs swiftest is actually higher than the slower water inside the bends and behind dike structures. The debris slides down the water slope and gathers in huge spirals in the eddies. This is why you can always find light “floater trash” on the inside bends. The river seems to sift it out. This happens every time the river goes up and down.

But in a raging flood stuff boogies downstream fast. Wing dikes don’t matter anymore and neither do river banks. This flood, at least in mid-Missouri, stayed at about the same level for five days, fed by record rains up the Grand River. A lot of stuff got moved on through and what is mainly left behind is stuck in drift and up on the banks where the flood scoured through the riverside forest.

Let us know what you’ve seen about the new trash scene on your stretch of the Missouri River. E-mail at riverrelief@riverrelief.org.

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