Advocate works to clean up river

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Landowner by landowner, farm by farm, Stephen Van Rhein works the Little Sac River Basin.

His job as coordinator of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks' Little Sac River Project: convincing people to help keep the river clean.

Stretching from north Springfield to Stockton Lake -- which supplies water to a pipeline and eventually to water faucets in Springfield -- most of the 400-square-mile Little Sac watershed is in Greene and Polk counties. Small portions are in Dade and Cedar counties.

The watershed covers most of the rolling hills and rich bottom land of southwest Polk County, where some farms along the river have been in families for three or four generations or longer.

Van Rhein's work includes letting landowners know there's cost-sharing money available to help pay for alternative watering systems for cattle, stabilizing stream banks, protecting sinkholes and other steps to protect Springfield drinking water sources.

The tough part is convincing those Polk County farmers that the project is a good idea.

Van Rhein's job is complicated by the fact that he's from Springfield, which uses the Little Sac to carry off treated sewage effluent from its Northwest Sewage Treatment Plant. And the Springfield Landfill at Noble Hill is near the county line; past problems there stick in the memories of a lot of people.

"There is some distrust among the people to the north toward Greene County and to the city of Springfield, for some real reasons," Van Rhein said.

That's why he listens to what members of an advisory committee tell him and takes a low-key approach in trying to interest landowners in a 75 percent-25 percent cost-sharing program, financed by $640,000 grant the Watershed Committee received.

Fewer fish

The approach seems to work for farmers like Ron Hinkle, who raises beef cattle and hay on a 140-acre farm just uphill from the South Bridge on the Little Sac, south of Morrisville.

Hinkle, 42, farms land once owned by his father and grandfather. He used to fish in the river, but it's easier to go to Stockton Lake than to float the river.

There's another reason, too.

"There's not as many fish as there used to be," he said.

Hinkle hears a lot about cleaning up the James River, and said he feelsfeels the Little Sac gets little attention, despite being a waterway that supplies Stockton Lake.

"I guess that's why I was so excited when Steve came around; we were going to get attention," he said.

Like Hinkle, farmer Alan Young said he's been pleased with how the Watershed Committee's project has helped.

"It's just been a real good project, and good guys to work with," he said. "Steve is real sincere about his work. He didn't just come out here with a bunch of bull."

Yet there are disappointments.

During a recent float trip, Van Rhein spotted bright yellow signs on Missouri 13 near Morrisville, advertising the auction of 295 acres that will be sold in eight parcels, some with river frontage. He was too late in talking to the owner about erosion prevention, he said.

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