The natural history of the Osage River is epitomized by one concept: movement. The battle for the soul of the river has been based on whether it should be a thoroughfare of navigation, a vast pool for recreation, or a corridor for migration. Navigation and recreation, those are human uses, and to attain them you need engineers and tons of rock, concrete, and steel placed strategically to tame the river. Migration, on the other hand, is for the fishes. It was the default state of the river before Anglo-Americans displaced the Osage Indians and settled the river valley. Looking back at the early history of the Osage River and its management we can better understand the current state of the ecosystem and how one mode of movement won out.
When it comes to fish passage in rivers, dams can either be walls or hurdles. Walls, keep things out and are completely impassible in the upstream direction. These are the high-wall dams that are built for hydropower or flood control. The ones that impound large reservoirs lined with houses, docks, and businesses. Hurdles, are impediments but are not necessarily impassible to fish. It may take a little more effort or time waiting for the right conditions, but strong swimming fish can get past them. The Osage is, at least from a Sturgeon or Paddlefish’s perspective, is cursed with both.
Building Hurdles for Navigation
Everyone from Merriwether Lewis to the Osage Indians had realized that the Osage was a poor river for commercial navigation. The blithe optimism of engineers and their philosophy of “river improvement,” meant that reshaping the Osage into a conduit for barge travel from Bonnots Mill to the Kansas Border was worth a try. The first, and save for numerous rock dikes and training structures scattered around the river, the last major attempt at accomplishing this was Lock and Dam #1. Lock and Dam#1 was is currently located just upstream of the confluence of the Osage and Maries rivers around 12.1 miles upstream of the Missouri River. NO. 1 was built in 1895 to create slack-water navigation channels in the Osage River by raising the water level upstream to allow barges to ascend an estimated 98 rocky riffles in the river. The Army Corps of Engineers quoted a cost of $187,244 but by the time all was said and done, the cost had ballooned to $417,500. Common trade items mentioned in the report were things like nails, salt, lumber and pork. A great share of this was lumber which is often easier to simply float down an unobstructed, swift-flowing river. Plans for a series of locks and dams to make the river more navigable were discontinued by the 1920’sIn 1951 L&D 1, no longer useful for much of anything was sold along with the surrounding land and buildings for a meager $10,000.
Building Walls for Recreation
In the 1920’s investors began thinking about the construction of large reservoirs that would put an end to the dream of an Osage navigable by people and fish. By 1904 congress had officially classified the river above Warsaw as unnavigable, paving the way for hydroelectric development. In 1931, Union Electric built Bagnell Dam and Lake of the Ozarks. The privately owned dam which is maintained today by Amren UE generates hydroelectric power. Bagnell Dam inundated 84 square miles of river valley including the whole town of Linn Creek, MO. In 1979, a second dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control further upstream to create Truman Lake.
After a slow start, Lake of the Ozarks has become a tourist and vacation hotspot in the Midwest. The Osage left behind a legacy of steamboat travel and towering bluffs over churning waters and embracing a future of luxury yachts, waterskiing, and Netflix dramas starring Jason Bateman. Recreation has firmly supplanted, navigation, and migration as king of the Osage.
Implications for Lake Sturgeon
Lock and Dam #1 is a hurdle for many fish species including Lake Sturgeon and Paddlefish on seasonal migrations. Neither species can bypass Bagnell or Truman Dam. Non-self sustaining populations of Paddlefish are stocked throughout the watershed including in Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. Lake Sturgeon were believed to have been extirpated from the Osage upstream of Bagnell until a resident captured a photo of a Lake Sturgeon swimming near their dock in Lake of the Ozarks in 2017. Whether this fish was introduced by anglers or is a part of a remnant population that survived after impoundment is not known.
A big theme of my research is to determine what effect the hurdles and walls have on Lake Sturgeon and their recovery in Missouri. Through tracking their movements over the next 4 years we will have a better idea of how they behave in response to unnatural flow patterns and barriers. For instance, we have designed our tracking schedules and stationary receiver deployment locations to be able to identify roughly the time at which a Lake Sturgeon passes Lock and Dam #1. We can relate that to water levels which may allow us to make flow recommendations to improve passage success during key times of the year such as during spring migrations.
No one really knows how far Lake Sturgeon historically swam upstream the Osage in their quest to spawn. Their close relative, the Paddlefish which pre-impoundment had one of its largest populations in the world in the Osage River, required gravelly shoals upstream of the Truman Dam. This has left the Paddlefish utterly dependent on artificial stocking to sustain populations. Our fingers are crossed that Lake Sturgeon are less picky and will still be able to spawn on one of the many shallow rocky areas that still exist downstream of Bagnell Dam.
Recently things have been pretty quiet around the Lock and Dam. We have had few passages since late spring. However, during a fairly low flow level an intrepid young sturgeon named Sidney made the leap downstream over the dam. I say leap, because that was exactly what it must have been. The fish would have encountered a fairly large drop whether it passed through the lock chamber or over the dam itself. What cued Sidney in this downstream movement? We don’t know? Opportunities to pass back up will be rare during the typically lower flows of fall and winter. If we presume the sturgeon knows this and is ditching the upper river for the time being, perhaps it is significant.
You have to wonder if like a phantom limb, today’s sturgeon can still sense the tinglings of the severed upstream habitats. Will Lake Sturgeon congregate below these barriers on their spring migrations, or will they improvise and find new places to spawn. Perhaps today’s adult Lake Sturgeon population, most of which were Wisconsin Lake Winnebago strain fish, have no memory of those historic spawning grounds and make do with what they have in the lower river. The hurdles and walls in the Osage aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and hopefully t these barriers to movement won’t prove to be major barriers to conservation success.
Much of the historical information in this article was gathered from Leland & Crystal Payton’s outstanding and beautifully published book on Osage River History titled: Damming the Osage, the conflicted story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir.
Video Credit: William Masters