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A great blue heron forages along the chute.  Photo by Rick Hansen/USFWS

A great blue heron forages along the chute. Photo by Rick Hansen/USFWS.

Jameson Island Project Restores Habitat Along the Big Muddy

The Service celebrated a conservation milestone this summer with completion of the Jameson Island side channel project along the Missouri River in central Missouri. The site is a unit of the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge and is a model for aquatic and terrestrial native river habitats, as well as an excellent example of collaboration and science-driven restoration to put landscape conservation on the ground. Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Missouri, the final extension of the side channel was completed in June using funds from the Missouri River Recovery Program. The 9,600-foot-long chute not only returns a portion of the aquatic habitat lost along the river, but also improves and diversifies habitat for floodplain dependent fish and wildlife on the Jameson Island Unit.

The project began in 2006 with initial excavation of the side channel, but construction stopped in 2007 in response to concerns by nearby landowners and the state regarding potential increased risk to flood protection and water quality. After extensive hydrologic modeling, the current chute redesign, including the extension at the lower end, was proposed to address any potential for higher river stages in this reach. At the same time, the Service and the Corps sponsored a National Research Council study to address the role of sediments in the Missouri River, and implications regarding nutrient enrichment to the river and the Gulf of Mexico.

The resulting report published in 2011, Missouri River Planning: Recognizing and Incorporating Sediment Management, described the importance of sediment in maintaining the Missouri River’s form and function. It also noted that any nutrients associated with the habitat restoration project would have minimal, if any, measurable impact on the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless, the Service and the Corps developed a focused, robust water-quality monitoring plan for this and similar projects. We now have the data to evaluate the potential water quality effects of these chutes to the adjacent river reach, as well as the larger river. Rather than a threat to water quality, water chemistry in the main stem of the river has showed decreased nutrient concentrations downstream of some chutes as compared to upstream. The Service remains committed to ensuring that appropriate monitoring and coordination with our conservation partners is an integral part of every project we undertake on the river.

The creation of this meandering side channel, a rare commodity on the highly engineered Missouri River, is an important step in our long-term efforts towards a sustainable river system that has seen the loss of over a half-million acres of fish and wildlife habitats in the last 100 years. Side channels along the river are important in providing habitats that cannot be found along the main channel at the same flows. They can act as velocity refugia from the strong currents in the main channel, allowing native fishes a less demanding pathway for migration in an otherwise highly efficient navigation channel. They are also thought to provide seasonal temperature refuge from the main channel.

Fisheries monitoring from Sioux City to St. Louis has shown the importance of these habitats to rare native fishes. Service biologists were the first to document larval pallid sturgeon in the Lower River (in Lisbon Chute immediately upstream) since the dams were constructed. Work in Nebraska has shown side channels to be particularly important to native river chubs and several other species of large river obligates that have become very rare in the last three decades. Side channels have greater catch per unit effort and species diversity than sites in the main channel.

These chutes not only allow the lateral connection between the river and adjacent floodplain so important for fish access to floodplain nursery areas, but they also minimize obstacles to conveyance of floodwaters through the site. The chute will also re-establish long-absent and currently rare dynamic riverine processes to a relatively small area of public land. These processes are key elements in supporting species of big river fish and wildlife in serious decline.

Current consensus among big river scientists is that some level of both river form and function is essential to address the needs of big river species of fish and wildlife. As evidence of the benefits of diverse, healthy riverine habitats, the Big Muddy refuge supports almost 120 species of fish and 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and over 300 species of birds and 200 species of moths and butterflies. These lands along the Missouri River, together with other state and federal conservation lands, provide a critical wildlife corridor in the heartland, linking east with west and north with south.

Lastly, we believe it is important to step back and understand why we are creating chutes, widening the river, acquiring land and working with partners to provide habitats along the river. The Missouri River is a dynamic system that continues to change with each passing day. Construction of the dams and navigation channel greatly altered hundreds of thousands of acres of habitats that used to regularly flood, dry out, erode, deposit, come and go. Not only fish and wildlife depended on those habitats and processes, but the communities that live and work along the river also shared in the benefits the river provided. This project and similar restoration projects along the river will cumulatively contribute a meaningful portion of the natural processes critical to a sustainable river, and sustainable communities along that river.

By Jane Ledwin
Columbia, Missouri Ecological Services Field Office
 

Jameson Island side channel on the Missouri River is a model for restoration of river habitats.  Photo by Jane Ledwin/USFWS.

Jameson Island side channel on the Missouri River is a model for restoration of river habitats. Photo by Jane Ledwin/USFWS.

 

Last updated: November 4, 2014