Saving the Shut-Ins

Sunday, January 8, 2006

LESTERVILLE, Mo. -- Where the Black River narrows at the geological features that give Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park its name, a multitude of signs remain of the 1 billion gallons of water that spilled Dec. 14 from a nearby reservoir.

Riverbanks denuded of trees, 175 feet of railing missing from a boardwalk and debris left on hillsides 50 feet above the narrowest spot on the river all speak to the power of 5 million tons of water. But the shut-ins themselves -- the chutes and potholes at a narrow spot between mountains where the Black River courses through rock 1.5 billion years old -- remain much as they have for hundreds if not thousands of years.

"My biggest concern was that the shut-ins being the narrowest place on the river, that would be the place that caught all the debris and the shut-ins would be buried," said David Crowe, a Cape Girardeau photography enthusiast who has visited and photographed the shut-ins on numerous occasions. "I thought we would have trouble finding the places I took photos in the past."

State parks officials took Crowe on a tour Friday of the damaged regions of the park, giving him a chance to take pictures showing how the deluge altered the terrain. And while months of work remain and reopening the popular park in time for summer tourists is in doubt, Crowe said the features that attract visitors remain.

"The reason those rocks have been there for 1.5 billion years is that they are water resistant," he said.

Trouble for the park began early in the morning Dec. 14, when the wall of an AmerenUE reservoir atop Proffit Mountain collapsed. The reservoir, which provided storage for the Taum Sauk hydroelectic station, released a wall of water that scraped a 6,000-foot-long gash into the tree-covered moutainside.

When the water reached the Black River, it crashed over the stream, splitting when it washed up against a hill on the south side of the park entry road. Some water went east, back toward the riverbed, while the remainder went west, erasing the home of park superintendent Jerry Toops and carrying him and his family hundreds of yards.

The Black River runs through a geological feature known as the St. Francis Mountains, which includes Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri. The mountains are made of ancient rhyolite and granite and include some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth, said Kimberly Burfield, a geologist who is the assistant superintendent at Johnson's Shut-Ins.

AmerenUE will pay for restoring the park. Some tasks were simple, such as cleaning up the debris left on the 36 graves of Johnston Cemetery, said Greg Combs, district supervisor for state parks in eastern Missouri. Water washed away about two dozen fence rails but didn't damage any gravestones, he said.

But cleaning up the debris piles will be a lenthy process, Combs said. One gauge of the size of the task is that a AmerenUE contractor moved in a giant woodchipper that burns 100 gallons of diesel fuel per hour to chop up the thousands of downed trees.

"Mother Nature built this for our entertainment," Combs said. "We are taking an artist's approach. We are doing this one stroke at a time."

There are also delicate environmental concerns that must be addressed during the cleanup, said Jackson Bostic, on-scene coordinator for the state Environmental Services Program.

When the water reached the bottom of Proffit Mountain, it scoured a deep hole and clogged the channel of the Black River. Water found its way to an old channel of the river, Bostic said, but needs help to re-establish its course.

And a delicate wetland fen near the park entrance was cleared of most trees and clogged with sediment, requiring careful planning to restore, he said.

"If you go in with the right application, you can get some of that back," he said.

The most immediate need is to remove debris that lodged among trees and along embankments.

"They looked like large beaver dams," Bostic said.

Every day, approximately 50 employees of AmerenUE and its contractors report to work at the park. All other visitors are barred unless specifically allowed by the Division of State Parks.

Everyone entering the park work areas must wear orange vests and hardhats for quick visual identification and protection from falling debris. AmerenUE purchased 70 acres nearby to store debris trucked out of the park, Combs said.

"So far they have been pretty reasonable," Bostic said. "They have done everything we have asked them to do."

None of the services available to park visitors prior to the reservoir rupture remains in place. The gatehouse at the park entrance is wrecked, as are picnic areas, campgrounds and privies. Water ran more than 3 feet high at the park office, swamping and overturning ice and soda machines.

Pink plastic ribbons placed every few yards show in the trees show the height of the water at various locations. Along the park road, the ribbons hang from spots 6 to 7 feet above the roadbed.

Closer to the narrows, the ribbons climb higher and higher up the cliffs until it reaches a spot 50 feet or more above the river, showing how the water slowed and backed up, clogged by a "V" where two hills meet.

While the road into the park has been cleared, debris still clogs the pedestrian walkway leading from the park office to the shut-ins area. The debris includes cedar trees stripped of bark and limbs, chunks of the black plastic liner from the reservoir and hunks of asphalt broken from parking areas.

The park covers 8,550 acres, but the 250,000 annual visitors concentrate in the areas hardest hit by the reservoir failure.

Despite the damage, Crowe was greatly relieved by what he saw. He has been a regular visitor, taking his family to Johnson's Shut-Ins at different times of the year.

Crowe, an orthodontist by profession, has been at the park in summer when it was so crowded that people were being turned away and in the fall when trees were at their peak of color.

The water flowing over the dense, igneous rock has worn smooth paths that form natural water slides and pools where visitors sit and cool themselves in the summer heat.

"It is going to be interesting to see it next fall and see how it has recovered," Crowe said.

The parks division is taking comments on what the public wants as the recovery effort continues, Combs said. The Department of Natural Resources will be holding an informational meeting Thursday evening at the Lesterville High School to discuss plans for the park.

Anyone interested in commenting on the damage or their ideas for the park can do so at the Missouri State Parks Web site, Combs said.

"Our primary goal is to get basic services back in place by summertime," Combs said. "I don't know if it will happen."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-661, extension 126

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