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Documentary recalls 30-year-old fight for wetlands wastewater treatment at Eagle Bluffs

  • 9 min to read
Documentary recalls 30-year-old fight for wetlands wastewater treatment at Eagle Bluffs
Hank Ottinger and Doug Elley look up

Hank Ottinger, left, and Doug Elley look up at an American bald eagle flying overhead Feb. 25 at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. The area is popular among the bird watching community and is home to more than 200 species of birds.

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, Doug Elley visited Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area with his friend Hank Ottinger. As he described the geology of the area and the formation of the Missouri River's limestone bluffs, he noticed something soaring overhead.

"Oh wait, up above you is an eagle, a bald eagle!" Elley said, gesturing toward the cloudless blue sky.

Elley's Feb. 25 visit to Eagle Bluffs was his first in more than 20 years, a surprising fact given the integral role that he, Ottinger and their supporters played in persuading the city of Columbia to supply water to the wetlands area from its wastewater treatment plant. That effluent, along with supplementary water drawn from the river, attracts not only eagles but also many species of waterfowl to the conservation area year round.

The wetlands, along with the citizen activism and government collaboration that helped make them what they are, are the focus of a documentary produced by Columbia biologist and nature enthusiast Carl Gerhardt. The film was a popular feature at the Missouri River Relief's Wild & Scenic Film Festival in early February.

Many of the birds seen at Eagle Bluffs are migratory, and it's no surprise that they pass through the area near McBaine that the Missouri Department of Conservation developed in the 1990s. But treating city wastewater by filtering it through the wetlands wasn't part of the original plan.

"That wetland treatment system was not in the plans for Eagle Bluffs because it wasn’t in the plans for the city of Columbia," Gerhardt said. "They were going to do a pipeline to the river."

Effluent flows from the city's wastewater treatment plant into Eagle Bluffs

Jim Loveless, who retired as a wildlife district supervisor for the Conservation Department in 2008, said Columbia's wastewater, which flows through four smaller city wetland cells before entering Eagle Bluffs, provides a constant flow that amounts to about 18 million gallons a day.

"It gives the managers at Eagle Bluffs a great deal of flexibility in what they can do in terms of managing the wetlands because they have this continual source of water," Loveless said. "That was the beauty of that for Eagle Bluffs."

Origins of Eagle Bluffs

Gerhardt's documentary brings the 30-year-old tale of residents' fight for the wetlands, and against an original plan to pipe the city's effluent into the Missouri River, back into the public conscience. Woven into the film are recollections of passionate citizens, folk songs about wastewater and the explanation of why Columbia residents voluntarily voted to raise their sewage bills to make the wetlands a reality.

Gerhardt said he interviewed all the major players on both sides of the issue.

"They were so enthusiastic. It was infectious. This happened nearly 30 years ago, and the lights came on in their eyes. They were enthusiastic and proud of it."

Gerhardt said the project stemmed from his desire to share video of Eagle Bluffs wildlife that he has collected over the years. One of his early ideas was to focus on the conflict between birders and hunters.

"I had all this wildlife footage from Eagle Bluffs," Gerhardt said. "It’s one of the best places in the world, and I’ve been all over the world doing this. So I thought, I’d like to show off this wildlife, but I can’t just have a story that’s just one wildlife shot after another."

Gerhardt was traveling a lot in the late '80s and early '90s when the wetlands project was being debated, and he's not even sure if he voted on the bond issue that paid for it. But he learned more about the fight for the wetlands wastewater treatment system while talking with the managers of Eagle Bluffs, and he decided to focus his documentary on that.

"The logic is: Here is this treasure. Why is it a treasure?" Gerhardt said. "The ultimate reason that we have all that good water is because citizens 30 years ago fought against the pipeline to the river, and they had an alternative. They didn’t just say: 'Don’t do it.' They said: 'Here’s a better way,' and people on both sides of the issue came around and worked with each other."

Elley was the mayor of Lupus, a small town on the other side of the Missouri River, in the late '80s. He began a movement that would end with the city and the Conservation Department partnering on one of the first wetland wastewater treatment systems of its scale in the country.

Hank Ottinger and Doug Elley visit Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

Hank Ottinger, left, and Doug Elley on Feb. 25 visit the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Elley and Ottinger were instrumental in the decision to allow treated wastewater to be piped into the wetlands at the conservation area.

But the story really began decades earlier.

In the 1930s, the U.S. government began taming the country's big rivers, building levees to keep the waters from unpredictably flooding fields. Natural flooding of meandering waterways such as the Big Muddy used to create wetlands, stretches of shallow water where migratory birds would gather. These natural wetlands were the reason thousands of birds flew near Columbia every year.

Humans stepped in to dry out the fields, then they had to step back in to flood them again. 

"The Central Flyway, one of four flyways in the country, runs right through Missouri, so we see a lot of migratory waterfowl, whether they be sandhill cranes, ducks, geese, swans," Loveless said. "As part of the state’s wildlife management plan and the federal migratory waterfowl plan, the Conservation Department has purchased a number of wetland areas along the big rivers."

Eagle Bluffs is one of many wetlands the Conservation Department has created along the Missouri River.

Although the state in 1987 purchased the 4,432 acres that would become Eagle Bluffs, it had been planning the wetlands reserve for 25 years. Originally, the state was going to fill the wetlands entirely with water pumped from the river.

Coincidently, the same year the state bought the land, a fisherman mentioned to Elley that thousands of fish had died in Perche Creek. Officials suspected a malfunction at the city's wastewater treatment plant caused the kill. Effluent from the plant at that time was piped into Perche Creek. 

Elley called up the Columbia Daily Tribune and was troubled to learn that the Columbia City Council planned to solve the pollution problem by building a 6-mile pipeline that would dump the wastewater into the Missouri River.

Piping wastewater into rivers is a common practice accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency. City officials weren't worried about polluting the Missouri River because the wastewater would be treated before being dumped and because the Big Muddy carries such a large volume of water.

"I started to title my film 'Dilution was not the Solution,'" Gerhardt said.

Doug Elley captains a motorboat

In this Missourian file photo from June 25, 1989, Doug Elley captains a motorboat. "Nobody is taught the impact of our lifestyle on the planet. You can't blame society. If you're going to point a finger, it is the lack of responsibility-oriented education," said Elley, according to the original caption.

A concerned citizen gets involved

Elley began a relationship with the river and the island in the late '70s. He'd been living in Columbia but began considering a move when growth began to change the city. Elley recalled a time when the tone of the bathroom graffiti at Ernie's Cafe, his old hangout, became more negative than it used to be.

"That was the first time I’d remembered feeling that vibe in Columbia," Elley said.

In 1977, Elley and a friend made a plan to paddle down the Missouri River from Rocheport to Cooper's Landing. Bad weather prevented them from starting until late in the afternoon, and a friend offered to pick them up at Lupus, about 5 miles upstream of Cooper's. Elley had never heard of Lupus, but he knew he wanted to live there as soon as he stepped over the river bank, over the railroad tracks and into town.

It was a like a time warp, he said.

"I offered some people in town $1,000 for a vacant house, and they said $800 would be enough," Elley said. "...Done deal."

Elley and friends enjoyed hosting barbecues and full-moon parties on California Island. They'd build sweat lodges and set up a volleyball net in the shallows of the river. One couple even got married on the island. Elley was elated to have discovered "the wonders of the Missouri River and nature."

That's what made the pipeline plan impossible for him to stomach. "Who wants to swim in flushed toilet water?" Elley asked.

Elley met Ottinger at a Sierra Club meeting, and the two began organizing. About the same time, Elley came across an article about wetlands wastewater treatment technology in a copy of Harrowsmith magazine that a friend had given him.

He shared the idea with Ottinger, who said he was skeptical the method could be used for something as large as Columbia's wastewater system.

"But I'm kind of a sucker for a good cause," Ottinger said.

Taking on the pipeline

Elley and Ottinger began gathering supporters to champion their idea, but they hadn't had a chance to prepare a proposal before the Columbia City Council in 1988 voted 6-1 to move ahead with the pipeline. Second Ward Councilwoman Mary Anne McCollum was the lone dissenter. McCollum was elected mayor in April 1989, and Loveless was elected to her previous council seat.

McCollum grew up in the coal-mining area of northeast Pennsylvania. She remembers how polluted the creeks near her home were.

"As a young child, I didn't know any better, I thought water was a very dark color," McCollum said. "It was water that had passed through the coal mines. For some reason that always stuck in my mind."

That was also the reason McCollum voted against the pipeline.

Tracey Barnett, a journalist at the Columbia Daily Tribune at the time, attended that council meeting and said in an email that it was after midnight when Elley "eloquently spoke of taking the high road and doing something better than simply piping the sewage to the river."

One challenge Elley and Ottinger faced was that the city had already won EPA money for the pipeline. Once again, though, a solution landed in Elley's lap.

Doug Elley walks along a shallow pool

Doug Elley walks along a shallow pool Feb. 25 at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Elley played a major role in the decision to use treated wastewater from the city as a primary source of water in the wetlands.

"The one most important item that stopped the pipe and turned the whole thing around was a lawyer handed me a page out of the Clean Water Act, and she didn’t interpret it or say anything," Elley said. "She just said: 'Doug, here. I think you need to read this.'"

The act said that to be eligible for the EPA funding, the city must fully evaluate innovative and alternative technologies and then choose the most cost-effective solution to pollution. Elley saw no evidence that the city had evaluated any option other than the pipeline, so he threatened at a City Council meeting to complain to the Clean Water Commission.

"That got their attention, and that really stopped the freight train in its tracks," Elley said. The city soon began seeking proposals for alternatives. Barnett documented the series of events for the Tribune.

"Local authorities were furious, saying that we were going to cause the city to lose its grant," Barnett said. "But the citizenry was up in arms by now. Letters to the editor responding to my stories were coming in. People were lining up to speak at City Council meetings."

A group of concerned citizens started to meet at Ottinger's house, sitting on the living room floor, Elley said.

"And that’s where I came up with the idea for the acronym CRAP, Citizens Resolved Against the Pipeline," Elley said. "And that had some wings that helped carry the project into the public and put smiles on faces. That’s a good idea when you’re fighting a battle, if you’ve got a good acronym to help you out."

Barnett began writing articles about other cities that had constructed wastewater treatment wetlands. Meanwhile, the popular local folk artist Jerome Wheeler wrote a song about the "Columbia city pipeline blues."

"That was on the radio playing all the time, on KOPN for sure, and people were sitting up and paying attention since Tracey Barnett was having an article in the paper almost weekly," Elley said.

Barnett focused on why city officials opposed the wetlands and said that "one by one" she knocked down their reasons. Soon, they began to be more receptive, Elley said, describing a couple of three-hour meetings with then-City Manager Ray Beck and Public Works Director Lowell Patterson.

Elley said the officials at first seemed interested in trying the wetlands on a small scale. "And I was just not willing to settle for that. It was obvious to me the way to go, and we were going to go all the way."

McCollum said Elley and his group "did a phenomenal job of putting all of that information together and showing that it wasn't just some crazy idea."

City wetlands become a reality

Eventually, McCollum and the City Council put a $9.5 million bond issue for the wetlands on the ballot. It passed with 95 percent support.

"That night, at the watch party for the election, Jerome came, and we played the song," McCollum said.

It wasn't long before the Conservation Department agreed to accept the city's 13 million to 16 million gallons of treated wastewater per day. Loveless called it "one of the most shining examples of cooperation between government at all four levels — state, county, city and federal — in a project that benefits the environment and wildlife and the people who use it."

"I'm not sure that you could find a finer example of cooperation than Eagle Bluffs," he said.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1994 named Columbia the most livable city in America with under 100,000 people, and it recognized the wetlands treatment project.

These days, Gerhardt stops by the conservation area regularly, and Ottinger visits every so often. Until last week, however, Elley hadn't been there since the dedication.

Ottinger said he never saw the issue as a battle. It was "just getting people to see that there's a different way of doing things, a different paradigm. Things don't always have to be done the same way that they've been done for years and years."

Gerhardt is working on a follow up documentary about the management of Eagle Bluffs and plans to submit the first one to future festivals so more people can see it. Ottinger said he likes the film.

"There's some beautiful photography in it, and I think Carl does a great job of presenting a balanced picture of that time and how it all came to be."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

  • I am a sophomore studying investigative journalism. You can reach me by email at or on Twitter @_oliviagarrett.

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