LESTERVILLE — Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is such a popular destination that during peak seasons visitors often must wait for hours to get in, idling in a line of cars and allowed access only as other tourists leave.
They come for horse trails and hiking trails. They come to rappel and to climb in its canyons. They come to camp and to picnic. But most often, they come to enjoy the unique geological features that have formed in the shut-ins of the East Fork of the Black River for more than 1.5 billion years. On a busy summer weekend, thousands descend into the gorge to bask in the sun as the cool water of the Black washes over them in countless slides and potholes it has cut into the park’s volcanic rock.
Much of the park, however, will be closed this summer, a casualty of the Dec. 14 dam breach at AmerenUE’s Taum Sauk power plant atop nearby Proffit Mountain. The breach sent more than a billion gallons of water roaring down the mountainside and through the park, filling its basin then leaving the shut-ins to strain tons of debris as the water drained. An obvious watermark rings the park’s terrain showing how high the water rose. The current carried crushing power, sweeping away the home and family of park ranger Jerry Toops. Fortunately, the Toops’ escaped death.
Evidence of the water’s power remains today, and it will for years to come. As one crests the small hill on Route N leading into the park, the mouth of the scour is apparent. One of the newer features of the park is a scour, the result of the heavy torrent of water that created a path where everything from trees to boulders was stripped away and deposited at the bottom of the mountain. Elsewhere, the bark-stripped cedars lean in unison to show where the water barreled through. Gone is the boardwalk that led visitors to the pristine waters. Scraps of rubber lining litter the shut-ins and hang from trees like unwanted ornaments. In the distance, one can see the gaping breach in the dam of the power plant’s upper reservoir. What isn’t visible from the ground is the 6,000-foot path the torrent cut into the mountainside.
The recovery effort that ensued has gone on uninterrupted for three months but will take another 18 months to complete. It’s an exercise in cooperation and in tedium intended to retain the park’s unique characteristics and to ensure that invasive plant and animal species don’t seize an opportunity.
Despite the success of the work so far and optimism about the future, it’s clear Johnson’s Shut-Ins will never be the same. Area residents worry the same might be true for the Black River.
The reclamation of Johnson’s Shut-Ins will be a remarkable achievement. The flood buried much of the park in a foot of silt and sand, requiring crews to hand-shovel and vacuum 5,000 truckloads from a rare deep-muck fen — a bog on top of a spring. Another 10,000 truckloads of trees and brush have been chipped and hauled away.
Burning brush piles are gone. Chunks of concrete from the dam — armed with twisted knots of rebar, the metal bars set inside reinforced concrete — have been removed. Most of the park has been cleared of debris and stray boulders, and a new channel has been cut to allow the East Fork to flow.
“We’ve made great strides as far as cleaning up the park,” said Alan Reinkemeyer, a section chief for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources Environmental Emergency Response. “But we’re not at the point where we can clean the debris out of the shut-ins.”
“There is still quite a bit of work to be done in the scour area in terms of cleaning up large debris,” Reinkemeyer said. “Also, all the debris that is along the stream banks before you get to the shut-ins has to be removed.”
The restoration has been an exercise in bureaucratic harmony. Turf wars and inefficiency are absent from the effort that involves a myriad of state and federal agencies, including the DNR, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Geological Survey. AmerenUE is contributing as well and pledges to cover the entire cost.
“It’s a really good example of what can get done when you have the right coordination, planning and cooperation between state and federal agencies — and the private sector,” Reinkemeyer said.
The DNR said it hopes to let people drive through the park by Memorial Day weekend so they can witness what’s happening and at least catch a glimpse of the glistening shut-ins from the park’s observation deck.
Black River at risk
The rippled pools and sculpted rock of Johnson’s Shut-Ins are beloved by visitors and area residents alike, but the crystal waters of the Black River are even more important to the local economy. The Taum Sauk torrent acted as a large aquatic broom, sweeping away topsoil, boulders, whole trees and root systems as it crashed into the park, only to be pinched by the narrow shut-ins before making its way to AmerenUE’s lower reservoir and the Black River.
Tiny particles of clay, sand and silt clouded the Black and left the owners of canoe rentals, fishing guides and mini-resorts worried about the potential economic blow. The Black isn’t supposed to be muddy, and the sediment threatens creatures that live in it.
AmerenUE added alum and sodium aluminate to its lower reservoir in January to reduce the suspended sediment. But weeks later, rain caused the murk to return.
It’s the long-term outlook that has residents worried.
“The Black River has a tremendous impact on the local economy,” said Randy Crawford, who supervises DNR efforts to monitor water quality. “So residents are concerned about how turbid the water will be and if it will be detrimental to local businesses.”
At a February public meeting in the Lesterville High School gym, Crawford added droplets of chemicals to a sample of murky water to demonstrate how they settle sediment. But it will take more than a cup of water to restore residents’ faith. And Crawford said it’s no surprise the Black is still struggling.
“(The treatment has) been relatively successful, but as we’ve said all along, it would not be a cure-all because wind and rainfall would continue to deposit clays and sediment back into the reservoir,” Crawford said.
AmerenUE, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Army Corps of Engineers are monitoring the turbidity. Crawford said a team visited the Black this past week to ensure it is safe for aquatic life. He said AmerenUE and a consultant have developed a plan for restoring the river.
“It’s a process that uses a lot of natural materials that the flood provided to control the flow of the river and guide the river where it needs to go and restore a meander that the river had not been following,” Crawford said.