Friday, December 14, 2007

Kratzer's Corner by Mel Kratzer

The Changing of Johnson-Shut-Ins
During the late spring and summer months, many of us St. Charles Countians make the two and a half hour pilgrimage drive to the crown jewel nature paradise known as “Johnson Shut-ins.” This refreshing special conservation area consists of a mile stretch of various boulders overrun by a crystal clear river offshoot creating a swimming mecca made up of mini waterfalls, whirlpools, and deep waterholes. But a few years ago, the enormous Tom Sauk Mountain reservoir collapsed transforming Johnson Shut-ins into a place very different than before.
A few years ago, my woman and I were wrapping up a mini-camping trip and decided to satisfy our curiosity by visiting the Tom Sauk Mountain Dam and Reservoir operation. After an up close view of the dam, we traveled up a protracted incline to the reservoir, which was encompassed in a large lake- sized aboveground pool-like concrete container. The showing -wear exterior reservoir walls revealed a hint that a structure failure could be a possibility. Your mind’s imagination kicked into full gear contemplating wondering what the disaster scenario would be if this reservoir gave way. Little did we know that two months later, that dam reservoir breakage would become a reality?
In laymen’s terms, here’s how AmerenUE’s Tom Sauk Mountain Dam works. Water is released from the mountain top reservoir flowing downhill to the energy turning turbines of the dam below. The water is subsequently pumped back up to the reservoir, as this process is repeated over and over constantly generating electricity for you and me. When Tom Sauk Mountain Dam Reservoir collapsed, the water in the top-of the mountain tank was at full capacity, a definite worse case scenario.
Driving to Johnson Shut-Ins entrance, you’ll notice a two hundred yard empty swath of space carved down the mountain through the forest into the state park’s beginning. What really looks like what happened is a F5 tornado buzz sawed its way through the area with vengeance. A high chain link prison-like fence is also at the park’s front part to the middle as I am told some restoration is still taking place.
Johnson-Shut-Ins inside the park characteristics have made a mind-boggling transformation. There are house-sized boulders that were picked up and moved downstream that no human or human made machine could move. Trees throughout the park are permanently bent into an “Arch” shape due to the force of the wall of water that overran them. The deck-like wooden walkway has vanished courtesy of that fifteen-minute gigantic burst of water that barreled its way by. The width of Johnson-Shut-Ins banks is now enormous nearly quadruple in size. That’s what happens when a two-football field wide water sudden release takes place.
The Shut-Ins themselves are recognizable but very different too. What strikes out first to your eyes is the massive amount of gravel all over the Shut-Ins area. It’s everywhere and I’m told its there to stay, as workers and AmerenUE have no equipment to get it out of there. In bulldozers or backhoes would sink into the small river’s bottom. Sound’s to me that AmerenUE doesn’t want to pay to remove the gravel manually by shovel and wheel barrel. This electric company got a sweetheart damage pay-off deal thanks to our sell-out Governor Blunt, so they don’t have to worry much about the park anymore unless Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon successfully sues the paints off them.
Favorite Shut-Ins spots like the brief underwater under boulder cave, the mini waterfall/whirlpool, and the steeper mini waterfalls have disappeared. Only millions of years of natural river transformation can change them back so you and I will never see them again. The deep pool at the Shut-Ins ending is smaller and shallower to a point where it’s outlawed to jump from the cliffs and boulders. If you do jump from these upper rock formations, a six hundred dollar fine will be levied against you if a ranger witnesses it and they are almost always on patrol. In the years past, you would see cliff jumpers plunge into the deep pool below occasionally seeing someone come up to the water’s surface with a strawberry of blood on their body from hitting bottom.
An enlightening item about the Shut-Ins is that the water is still clear as a bell and comfortably cool. Park workers tell me that a biodegradable substance was put into the water to remove all the mud and murk that was present after the reservoir breakage mishap. Varieties of fish and turtle are still plentiful and can be spotted easily from the surface to the bottom. I do not know how clean the waters are as my little girl accidentally swallowed some of it and was sick with a virus for two weeks.
The amount of water that flows through the Shut-Ins is less than before and the reasons for that are quite interesting as I learned from chatting with the park’s workers. A nine-year drought has plagued the area to a point where people in the county may have to figure out alternative ways of getting water and go into a full-blown conservation mode. Also “Leaky Creek” as locals and park workers refer to it as, has dried up. The Tom Sauk Mountain Reservoir leaked from its inception and the leakage formed Leaky Creek which fed the Shut-Ins. AmerenUe always new about this and maybe that’s why Attorney General Nixon maybe be going after the company for neglect damages.
In August through early September, the park opened, but you were restricted to use of the Shut-Ins only. The Johnson Shut-Ins Parks’ trails and campgrounds were off limits due to under repairs. The park’s store is open and in decent shape. Next year the park will open sometime but in what kind of capacity is unsure. I know the adjacent businesses near the park would welcome the opening as they have suffered immensely from the park’s prolonged closure. You’ll see some closed down “ghost-town-like businesses” not too far from the park. It depressing to see how this “disaster’ caused economic strife to these park-related companies.
But all is not gloom and doom with the Shut-Ins as the park still is the great getaway paradise you can’t wait to get to visit when you get a hot summer day off and want to escape the heat. Hopefully a lesson has been learned here; never build anything that will adversely affect an ecological treasure. And the Johnson-Shut-Ins are still a beautiful though they are not quite like you may remember them.
Editor’s note. Since this article was written AmerenUE has agreed to a settlement with the state.