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Streams trickle in drought's grip

Phil Lilley

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Springfield NewsLeader

Streams trickle in drought's grip

Dry conditions make fish easy prey. Little relief is in sight.

Wes Johnson


Southwest Missouri's ongoing drought has been tough on paddlers this year, but it provided easy pickings for wild otters and mink.

Rainfall totals in Springfield were below normal for eight months of 2005, leaving the area with a 9.17-inch shortfall for the year, according to National Weather Service records.

That's caused groundwater levels to drop and portions of some smaller streams to go completely dry.

Several streams have hit record lows for this time of year, although none has yet hit an all-time historic low.

Michael Owens is well aware of the diminishing streams, creeks and rivers.

"It's significantly lower than normal, even for this time of year, which is typically drier," said Owens, president of Ozark Mountain Paddlers, a club for canoe and kayak enthusiasts. "It's rare we ever see it this low, even in dry years."

Although some spring-fed streams are floatable, Owens said many paddlers will find they'll have to drag their canoes over shallow spots more frequently.

"There are some Springfield-area streams like the Niangua that have a constant flow, and some of our members are troopers and will run it this time of year," he said. "But it will probably require you to drag your boats."

Chris Vitello, fisheries supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the low water levels have a Jekyll-and-Hyde impact on wildlife.

A stretch of Crane Creek in Stone County, for example, has supported a population of about 600 wild trout per mile.

But with the onset of drought conditions, portions of the creek have dried up.

"Some fish will get trapped in shallow pools and die," he said. "You'll see mink and otters take advantage of that — it's easy pickings for them."

Some of the wild trout move downstream to deeper water and return to recolonize the dry stretches when enough water flows again.

"We've seen some indications of upper Crane Creek coming back," Vitello said. "It's a natural cycle."

Area streams and rivers are recharged by rainfall, as well as groundwater that seeps into stream beds.

The James River, for example, is fed primarily by groundwater.

"You need rain to recharge the groundwater, and right now we need a lot of rain," Vitello said.

About three years ago, low groundwater flows forced state trout hatcheries at Bennett Springs and Shepherd of the Hills to cut back the number of fish they raised by 10 percent.

"There just wasn't enough water to support our regular production level," he said.

Record rains in January 2005 helped the fish hatcheries resume normal production. But rainfall dropped well below normal from March through July, and again in September, November and thus far in December.

Vitello said fish hatchery production could be impacted again if drought conditions persist.

So just how bad is it out there?

Gary Wilson, hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Missouri Water Science Center in Rolla, said many streams in southwest Missouri are flowing at a 10 percentile rate or lower.

That means only 10 percent of the time have water flows been lower.

"It appears to be very localized to southwest Missouri," he said. "The northern part of the state is fine."

Farther south is a different story.

The Sac River near Dadeville is flowing at 13 cubic feet per second — a record low flow for this time of year but not quite near the all-time low of 3.8 cfs in 1996.

Turnback Creek above Greenfield is at 15 cfs flow; the all time low is 9.4 cfs in 1980.

James River near Springfield is at 8.4 cfs; the all time low is .10 cfs in 1956.

Unfortunately there's not much relief in sight, according to Doug Le Comte, senior meteorologist and drought specialist with the federal Climate Prediction Center in Maryland.

Le Comte said researchers are monitoring a large area of cool water in the eastern Pacific Ocean that may be the start of a "La Nina" event.

The cool water disrupts storm patterns that normally would bring moisture across Mexico and California into the midwest.

"We're seeing a weakening storm system track already," Le Comte said. "We're particularly pessimistic that drought conditions may persist in Texas and Oklahoma. Southwest Missouri is kind of the borderline for that projection."

The Climate Prediction Center will have updated long-range forecasts in January.

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