Hominy Branch dam break dries up Moon Valley Lake

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 | 6:33 p.m. CDT; updated 3:13 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Moon Valley Lake in Columbia doesn’t quite live up to its name anymore, as evidenced by this photo taken Saturday morning. The lake has dried up because a dam on Hominy Branch broke in March, leaving a mud flat behind.

COLUMBIA — Moon Valley Lake was once part of the charm of the neighborhood, providing recreation for residents who fished and canoed its waters and a home for an array of wildlife.

But the 17-acre lake has gone dry, leaving just a large mud flat and a trickle of the Hominy Branch, a tributary of Hinkson Creek. Sometime during the week of March 17, the dam on Hominy Branch that made the lake broke, and within a couple of days, the lake was gone.

Heavy rainfall was likely the cause of the dam failure, and what will happen to the property is uncertain. Since the failure, owner Margaret Rogers has been looking into donating the land for preservation, but its location in the Hinkson Creek watershed is making the parcel a hard sell, said Scott Hamilton, an urban conservationist for Show-Me Clean Streams who’s involved with the Hinkson Watershed Restoration Projection.

“Although the land is free, it comes with a price tag to repair it,” Hamilton said.

Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said the city sought Hamilton’s advice on how to restore that stretch of Hominy Branch after the dam failure.

The goal is to stabilize Hominy Branch and the surrounding area because every time the stream changes course, it releases sediment into the creek, Hamilton said. The sediment could be an issue because the state Department of Natural Resources has listed the creek as an impaired waterway since 1998.

Hamilton said he met with city parks officials and the Greenbelt Land Trust about taking the acreage, but the liability if sediment washed into the creek and the potential for fines from the state were too much of a drawback, he said.

“I think once people get over their initial fears of potential erosion, they’ll warm up to the idea of acquiring the land as a green space,” Hamilton said.

Hoppe said the first priority should be restoring the stream and natural vegetation — not restoring the lake itself. Although the area is privately owned, Hominy Branch’s effect on Hinkson Creek makes it a public matter, she said.

Simply restoring the stream would involve restoring the dam as well, an endeavor Hamilton estimates could cost $20,000 to $60,000. It would involve installing a temporary dam made of large rock, then gradually lowering the dam in intervals until the stream system above it has a chance to adjust. The new dam would be installed downstream from the broken one, which would be removed, he said.

The previous dam was unregulated, meaning it did not meet the 35-foot height requirement to have regular inspections under the state Dam Safety Program, said Kerry Cordray, division information officer for the Department of Natural Resources.

Rogers, who owns the dam and area where the lake used to be, will not be held responsible for any sort of negligence because the resources agency considers this a natural disaster-like situation, Cordray said.

Mark Ryan, director of the MU School of Natural Resources and a 17-year resident of the Moon Valley Heights neighborhood, said he remembers coming home one night after a big rain expecting to see the lake higher. Instead, it was lower. By the next evening, the lake, which abuts his back yard, had practically disappeared.

Ryan said his family has recently begun to feel the loss of the lake, especially after spending part of the weekend outside working in the yard.

“We’re all realizing we’re missing the lake a lot more than we expected to,” he said.

Ryan said he didn’t foresee a problem with the dam, though he knew a failure was possible.

“It was wonderful living on the lake,” he said, recalling the times his family went canoeing or watched the animals living there. “We miss seeing the birds. As a wildlife biologist, this was heaven.”

Another neighborhood resident, Al Vogt, said the lake was one of the things that attracted him to buy his house.

“I’d like to see it restored,” he said.

Both Ryan and Vogt said they don’t know how the loss of the lake might affect property values.

“I just don’t know where to see this going,” Ryan said. “The aesthetics could have some impact on the value of the house.”

Bob Smith, Rogers’ attorney, said it’s still too soon to make a decision about the property because several factors are still unknown, including cost. That means a time frame for action is not yet known, but construction officials have been out to look at the property, he said. Rogers couldn’t be reached for comment.

Hamilton said he was also interested in the lake situation because he manages a $10,000 grant that’s earmarked for bank stabilization and thought the area might be a good candidate. The money would come from a cost-share program, meaning the amount would need to be matched by another source such as the city. Hamilton also said that in addition to the short-term financial help under the grant program, there might be some long-term funding available through the statewide Stream Stewardship Trust Fund, which could possibly pay for putting in trees or the rock dam.

“You can do development now and pay into the statewide fund, and I think this would be an appropriate area for that,” Hamilton said. “It would be nice to get the money back into the community.”

Hamilton said a timeline for stream restoration can’t be made until the property owner, whether it be Rogers or eventually another entity, agrees on a plan of action and has appropriate financial resources. And even without human involvement, the area will continue changing itself naturally, he said.

“It’s anybody’s guess as to what it’s going to look like,” Hamilton said. “In a matter of a couple weeks, we’ll be seeing weedy species and in a couple months, cottonwoods.”

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