After April fire, aquatic life bounces back in Flat Branch

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 | 3:00 p.m. CST; updated 12:31 a.m. CST, Friday, December 14, 2012
Water runs over rocks in Flat Branch near the start of the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail on Dec. 6.

*An earlier version of this article included an incorrect quote from Rebecca O'Hearn, a resource scientist at the Conservation Department. **It also included an incorrect measure of the amount of water used to fight the fire.

COLUMBIA — During the five years that Derrick Fogle has commuted to work on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, he's developed an understanding of the habits and life cycles of its inhabitants, cultivating a deep connection with the nature he whizzes past on his bicycle each day.


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After pollution from an April fire at an auto supply store and other businesses contributed to a kill of an estimated 14,749 fish in Flat Branch, he wasn't sure when he would see the creatures he had come to expect on his daily work route begin to recover.

"It didn't occur to me at all when I heard about the fire that there would be any damage to the creek," he said. "But the day after, I got down to the trail, and there were no signs of life in the creek anywhere — that smell, that burnt chemical stink really hung around for several weeks."

Eight months after all aquatic life was wiped out in a stretch of Flat Branch, researchers with the Missouri Department of Conservation say the stream is showing a remarkable recovery. Scientists documented an increase in several species of fish and macroinvertebrates in a mid-October sample.

The fire started in O'Reilly Auto Parts and spread to several other businesses, causing more than $6.5 million in damage. According to a previous Missourian report, more than 1 million gallons* of water used to extinguish the fire washed into Flat Branch through storm drains, killing fish and other aquatic life from Flat Branch Park to Bridge No. 8 on the MKT. Investigators said they will not be able to determine the cause of the fire.

Fogle, an administrator at MU's Academic Support Center, has posted numerous reader comments at about the impact of the fire on the stream and its recovery. Starting in the summer, he began to notice the stream was making a comeback, starting with a snapping turtle he had seen in the same place for the past three years. (See some of Fogle's photos of Flat Branch here.)

"There's a huge mulberry tree and every spring the snapping turtle comes to eat the berries," he said. "It took him a lot longer to come out this year — the tree was already dropping its fruit. I was really worried he wasn't going to come back, but those snapping turtles are tough."

He saw the turtle for the first time after the fire on May 19, and noticed crawfish on June 26 and a variety of fish shortly after. 

"From my perspective, by the end of the summer, you'd be really hard-pressed to tell anything had happened to that creek, and by September, the creek really was as normal as I'd ever seen it," he said.

Researcher Matt Combs has been following the creek's progress since the day of the fire, and said the Conservation Department will continue to monitor and document the recovery of the fish and macroinvertebrates by taking one sample per season for at least the next two years.

"We don't have any samples from before the fire event to see how much recovery there has been, but recent samples show there are more fish species in Flat Branch now than there were in April," he said. "Usually when a community like this recovers, it starts at very close to zero species and at some point the species level off and do not increase anymore, so that's what we'll be looking for."

Rebecca O'Hearn, a resource scientist at the Conservation Department, said the kill could have been caused by a variety of factors, but low oxygen was likely the culprit.

"We did measure low dissolved oxygen during and after the fish kill, and although we can't determine the direct cause of the kill, we can say low oxygen did have an effect," she said.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources took samples from the creek the day of the fire and found elevated levels of gasoline, waste oils and other chemicals, which likely caused the oxygen depletion.

Because Columbia storm drains empty into Flat Branch, efforts to put out fires can have detrimental effects on the balance of the ecosystem. O'Hearn said there are not many ways to prevent this.

*"Sometimes they can use a dechlorination unit when extinguishing a fire, but it's not really possible when it was as large as this one was," she said.

There are several ways to address pollution events like the one caused by the fire. "You can actively try to do some restoration measures, or you can let it naturally recover — we’re letting it naturally recover in this case," O'Hearn said.

A sample taken in October shows recovery in benthic invertebrates such as crawfish and dragonfly larvae, as well as in numerous fish populations, including the central stoneroller, the creek chub, the orangethroat darter and the bluntnose minnow. They are still awaiting recovery of other species, including the golden redhorse, slender madtom, johnny darter and yellow bullhead.

"It's hard to say what's typical, but we are pretty surprised at how rapidly the species are recovering," O'Hearn said. "Benthic invertebrates are pretty mobile, so you see them recovering quickly if there’s no residual toxicity in the environment."

O'Hearn said the fish recovery may be attributed to migratory populations coming upstream from Hinkson Creek and from small tributaries that feed into Flat Branch.

"We aren't monitoring any populations in the side channels that feed into the creek to prove that's where they're originating from, but there's a lot of literature that proves that is common after a kill like this," she said.

Fogle said though he has seen a big recovery since April, he has noticed some populations affected by other pollution since the fire. It's just part of the cycle of a creek that's situated in an urban watershed, he said.

"Life comes and goes, and this isn't the first time there's been kills on that creek­ — not by a long shot," he said. "It would take a monumental effort to clean up the entire downtown area to be able to really bring that creek back to health."

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Derrick Fogle December 11, 2012 | 4:48 p.m.

I'm disappointed this article does not mention the siphon just past Stadium, which completely drains and dries out the creek in dry conditions. It's frustrating that the fire fish-kill has grabbed everyone's attention, while nobody seems to care about this other, persistent, also creek-health-damaging problem.

This siphon completely dries out the creek for weeks at a time. It causes fish kills on the creek pretty much every year, and also completely separates the upper part of the creek from the lower part, making migration repopulation impossible during dry periods (which are becoming more common with climate change).

Photos of the siphon last year are here:

Photos of the siphon this year are here: (water inflow) (siphon terminal pool) (dry creek below siphon)

I estimate the siphon can drain 4-10 GPM, depending on conditions, which is the entire creek flow in dry conditions. It seems like this would be a source of concern for both the city and environmental groups. This siphon also creates the conditions which contribute to very high levels of bacteria in the creek around MLK Park (which the city has posted signs about).

It's probably an old abandoned sewer tunnel, which it seems the city would have some interest in fixing. It could even be infiltrating current sewer lines, which would be even more imperative to fix. But unless this siphon is a natural feature, fixing the siphon would probably be the "right thing" to do, and really improve the health and water quality of the creek around the MLK park area. It would also help make sure there's a continuous creek flow to facilitate species migration and creek repopulation after kills.

Does anyone besides me care to look into this other, very real creek health problem?

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders December 11, 2012 | 5:57 p.m.

"remarkable recovery" = "nature abhors a vacuum"

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 11, 2012 | 8:24 p.m.

A Columbia native who befriended me when I moved here once told me that, as a kid, his family would go down to Peace Park to hunt crawdads. Then, when he was a young teen, one year the crawdad shells were all soft and squishy. The next summer, there were only a few, frequently mutated ones. The next year, they were just gone.

They've never come back. Today, playing in the creek in Peace Park risks bacterial infections.

This isn't our parent's environment. It's not that any one thing, any one compound, or any one toxin is degrading our environment or causing an epidemic of neurological disorders like autism. This is more the infliction of a thousand little stings. It's the aggregate of all the pollution we've put in the environment. It really is degrading our environment.

Nobody can deny it. Flat Branch Creek is a heavily damaged ecosystem because it's drainage basin, especially it's headwaters, is an urban area. Lots of pavement, lots of traffic, lots of pollution in rain runoff. Plus, various water releases from the power plant, sewer system overflows, and other as-yet unidentified sources. I don't think the power plant releases do much harm (in fact sometimes they help by overwhelming the siphon with relatively clean water), but other releases, maybe not so much. I've recently seen a white-chalky, steaming-warm heavy discharge that lasted for several hours.

It's our choice to live the way we do, and have the creek be in the condition it's in.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 11, 2012 | 9:40 p.m.


Dam it.

We need a lake inna whole lotta ways.

A big one.

PS: It's probably natural. The water is there, it's just 10' or so down. Water table is low, dontcha know.....

(Report Comment)
Kari Paul December 11, 2012 | 10:14 p.m.

Hi Derrick,

As the reporter on this story, I'd like to thank you again for taking the time to speak with me, and for the photos you've provided, which give readers a better perspective of the variety of life in Flat Branch.(See here:

As for your comments on this piece, I appreciate the detailed account and photos of the siphon issue. Although this sounds like something that may be separate from this particular story, I can talk to my editor about a follow-up piece. If we choose to do that, I'll definitely contact you.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 11, 2012 | 10:59 p.m.

Thanks for the reply, Kari. I understand limits to the scope of the story. I wasn't so much intending to criticize the story - it's actually really good. I just think it's also important for people to understand it's not the *whole* story of creek health.

It's nice that I can contribute the extra material myself in an effort to draw attention to the siphon issue. But (again not intending to criticize the story), it's also disappointing that, by this time tomorrow, all this information will be largely inaccessible anyway.

(Report Comment)

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