Johnson's Shut-Ins open until Labor Day

Monday, August 13, 2007

LESTERVILLE, Mo. -- Visitors to Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park can enjoy Missouri's favorite swimming hole through Labor Day. But certain areas of the eastern Missouri park devastated by a reservoir breach nearly two years ago remain off-limits.

The campgrounds and hiking trails have not been rebuilt since the catastrophic breach of the upper Taum Sauk reservoir in December 2005, which sent 1.3 million gallons of water roaring into the park.

But workers have removed much of the sediment and other debris from the popular shut-ins area. Drought has affected the flow of the East Fork of the Black River, but water still cascades through the narrow channel eroded over time through volcanic rock.

"The rocks are here, they're beat up a little bit, some fresh breaks, but no big pinnacles are gone," park superintendent Kimberly Burfield told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "People say the shut-ins look different, more barren. That's because the big trees that were on the banks are gone. The shut-ins were changed. It'll take time for the vegetation to grow back."

AmerenUE, which operates the reservoir system, says it has spent $40 million stabilizing the damaged area and clearing debris from the state park. An estimated 20,000 truckloads of debris have been removed so far.

Last month, a portion of the shut-ins area was opened for swimming, but signs warn against venturing upstream or downstream, and diving and jumping into the water. Violators will be fined and ejected from the park.

Part of the park was opened for several months last year so the public could view the devastation and the restoration work. The decision was made to open the shut-ins for two months this summer after it was deemed safe for swimming, Burfield said.

"We opened only the river access in a very small area," Burfield said. "We wanted to allow people to be able to get into the water. But Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park is still under construction. It is not fully operational."

In July 2005, before the reservoir breach, some 52,000 people visited the park, Burfield said. "This year, with river access only, we had about 25,000 visitors in July, half of what we would normally see," she said.

The park will close completely at 7 p.m. Sept. 3, Labor Day, and will not reopen until all reconstruction work is completed.

Burfield hopes to have the park fully operational by 2008, but says a lot depends on weather and materials.

"A lot of things have to be done, but Ameren certainly hopes we can get it done next year," AmerenUE vice president Mike Menne said.

The massive reconstruction project includes a redesign of the bed of the East Fork of the Black River. The campground has been moved out of harm's way in the event that AmerenUE is successful in its bid to rebuild the reservoir.

"Right now, they have stabilized the slopes and banks to stop erosion," Burfield said. "They've cleaned up man-made debris -- rebar, liners, concrete -- all the things associated with the breach."

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