A pure white cow with a fuzzy tuft of fur atop its head slowly chewed on a wad of fescue, a piece of the grass sticking out of the corner of its mouth.
“She’s number 1886, and her dad is number 268, and the downside of the tag says 1503, and that would be her mother,” Stephenson Charolais Farms owner Denny Stephenson said, referring to the cow’s ear tag.
Stephenson and his wife, Gloria Stephenson, have owned and operated their purebred Charolais cattle operation for over 20 years, renting much of the land from their neighbor Jack Blaylock.
The property, near Route J and U.S. 40 west of Columbia, is bisected north to south by Sugar Branch. The stream feeds into Perche Creek, which eventually flows into the Missouri River.
Sugar Branch provides crucial water for the Stephensons’ cattle. But that all changed when Larry Potterfield, the owner of the hunting and outdoor retailer MidwayUSA, began developing the property north of Stephenson’s and Blaylock’s land as the site of a new company headquarters. The Boone County Commission earlier this year agreed to rezone the land to allow the development.
“It was always crystal clear,” Stephenson said of Sugar Branch. Now, the stream’s water looks more like chocolate milk. It’s choked with silt, and mud has accumulated along its banks.
In an email Stephenson sent to the Osage Chapter of the Sierra Club, Stephenson said the creek, which normally has a rocky bed, is now covered with “heavy silt that aggravates the stream condition with additional silt release with every rain.”
Near the headwaters, located by the Foremost Dairy Research Center, the stream still flows crystal clear. Small fish dart back and forth, frogs jump from the bank into the stream. Every rock in the stream bed can be seen in detail.
Downstream of the Potterfield site, where crews have been preparing the land for development by stripping off topsoil and downing trees, the stream becomes murky brown.
“It doesn’t take Nostradamus to see where it’s coming from,” Stephenson said. “I can’t let them (cows) drink the dirty water. It’s a disease problem.”
Stephenson has been forced to use his landlord’s crappie pond, which is normally fenced off, to water his cattle. He said he understands that business is business, but he doesn’t appreciate the impact on his herd.
“It’s an environmental issue that’s got me in a bad business situation,” Stephenson said. “When I’ve got thousands of dollars of cattle shut off of water and I have to beg my landlord to ruin one of his ponds to keep my cattle in water, yeah, that becomes my business.”
Stephenson complained about the stream pollution to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources on July 27, and a similar online complaint was filed anonymously July 28 by a person identifying himself as Stephenson’s landlord.
Morgan Speichinger of the Department of Natural Resources visited the Potterfield site and Blaylock’s land July 29 to investigate the complaints, along with Brian Burks of Emery Sapp & Sons, the contractor for the development, and Jason Kemna of the Potterfield Group. In documents obtained by the Missourian, she reported that an unnamed tributary of Sugar Branch was “fairly clear” upstream of the site, while downstream the “water appeared to have a high sediment content and was very turbid.”
The Department of Natural Resources issued a letter of warning to the project managers Aug. 17 citing two points of noncompliance: “discharged water contaminants into waters of the state” and failure to “implement adequate (best management practices) to minimize sediment discharges.”
The letter of warning required that Emery Sapp & Sons and the Potterfield Group respond no later than Friday with photographs and written statements documenting the improvements made to bring the site up to code and prevent future issues. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Department of Natural Resources had no record of a response from the Potterfield Group or Emery Sapp & Sons, environmental specialist Joe Bowdish said.
Kemna declined comment Tuesday, and Burks could not be reached.
Stephenson said Tuesday that he’s seen no evidence of improvement in the creek. All he wants, he said, is for the stream to be restored to its original state.
“They have made no attempts to clean up their mess.”