COLUMBIA — In its nearly two decades of existence, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area has been home to 265 different recorded bird species.
Located six miles southwest of Columbia in the Missouri River bottoms near McBaine, the area is owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Nearly a quarter of its 4,440 acres can be flooded for waterfowl habitat. Community farmers lease portions of the area to grow crops that double as a food source for birds. Pumps allow managers to draw up to 20,000 gallons of water per minute from the Big Muddy.
But what’s truly different about Eagle Bluffs is the fact that its primary water source is the city of Columbia’s wastewater treatment wetlands. Millions of gallons of treated effluent from the city treatment plant flow into Eagle Bluffs after winding through the city’s smaller treatment wetlands. It’s a cooperative arrangement that has gained national attention.
It started in 1987 when city officials investigated methods of expanding Columbia’s wastewater treatment capacity. When they considered expanding the conventional treatment plant and pumping the effluent into the Missouri River, area residents complained. In the end, the residents suggested an alternate plan to develop a system of constructed wetlands to cleanse the effluent before it was released into the river.
A 1990 bond issue that won overwhelming voter approval provided money for the project, which was partially completed in 1994 with the addition of three wetland units to the treatment facility. The city added a fourth unit in 2001.
With preparations and construction nearing completion at Eagle Bluffs, the city and the conservation department entered an agreement in which the treated or “polished” effluent from the city’s wetlands could be pumped through Eagle Bluffs.
Water from the city during the spring, summer and fall promotes the growth of various emergent marsh plant life and developed crops, which serve as a food source the remainder of the year for wildlife and waterfowl in the area.
Area manager Tim James says large quantities of water are required to create a suitable and attractive habitat during key seasons for migratory waterfowl. During the rest of the year, effluent from the city provides adequate water for attracting shorebirds and other types of wildlife.
James says the arrangement saves money by eliminating the need to constantly pump water. But it’s even more important to his management objectives.
“I look at my management objective as a pyramid, and the very tip point is to hold as many ducks as I can for as long as I can,” James said. “Everything kind of filters down from that. ... If I have lots of ducks, the hunting is going to be good. If I have lots of ducks, the wildlife viewing is going to be good.
“We really manage this baby for birds.”
Eagle Bluffs seldom lacks birds, whether they’re for hunting or viewing. It’s a favorite location for bird-watchers and regularly attracts species such as bald eagles, cormorants, plovers and even great white pelicans.