Thursday, July 8, 2010

Following the Jordan Under Springfield

If you were downtown Tuesday night you would have seen an interesting sight as 15 Master Naturalists armed with flashlights and boots descended into Jordan Creek at Main Street.  Our expedition was led by Mike Kromrey of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks.
Those who have participated in Stream Team activities are used to accessing stream health by studying flow, oxygenation, and counting macroinvertebrates living in the gravel.  Today's mission- explore the 3/4 mile of Jordan Creek under downtown Springfield which was covered over in 1928 to control flooding.
Loring Bullard's booklet, Jordan Creek- Story of an Urban Stream is a fascinating description of Springfield's history, focusing on the creek through its heart and the famous "natural well of wonderful depth" which was a factor in John Polk Campbell's decision to settle here.   
This "well" was actually an 18 inch by eight foot karst window, a surface opening into a cave below, accessing an underground stream.  This was located just across from Founders Park.  The well and the nearby springs were seminal in Springfield's development.  In addition to drinking water for humans and horses, they provided water for industry and daily activities.  Civil War soldiers washing their clothes at Fulbright Spring contaminated the downtown well with soap suds three-quarters of a mile away.  Colored water from a woolen mill on the creek in 1876  was the first locally reported chemical contamination.  By 1884 the well itself,  just south of Water Street, was covered by concrete.
Frequently wading through one to four inches of flowing water in the center channel, we could survey the drainage from the impervious surfaces of downtown Springfield.  Most street and sidewalk trash is flushed rapidly downstream by rains.  It hadn't rained in over a week but still scattered cigarette butts line the stream edge as occasional small pieces of plastic drift down stream.  White particles flushed off a newly installed nearby roof can be seen in Jordan Creek and later above on the sidewalk and street gutter.  
Our flashlights reveal scattered graffiti, drains from the street, and the old stone arches of the Campbell Avenue bridge overhead, a silent tribute to Springfield's founder.
You might expect it to be lifeless in this pitch black environment, but as Bill Bryson says, "Life just wants to be."  Flashlights reveal a few crayfish under loose rocks, then occasional  Southern Red Belly Dace swim against the current as stone rollers cling to the bottom while awaiting upstream snacks.  Later we found a green sunfish, a new species to this stream section.  Further upstream we find three six-inch Yellow Bullheads, clustered in an eddy formed by a larger rock.  All of these species survive because they are tolerant of pollution and low oxygen levels of an urban underground stream. 
Mammals occasionally pass through as evidenced by footprints left by a raccoon or opossum in some soft moist sand.   Overhead in the expansion joints of this concrete cave we find occasional big brown bats clinging the the walls and ceilings, most sleeping but this one eying us with suspicion. Click pictures to enlarge.
This grotto is a good example of the impact of dense populations on a small urban stream.  It also shows why studying stream quality is important.  The water here is headed downstream and, after all, we all live downstream.

For more on Stream Teams go to
Original source material on Springfield Water springs and wells is at Fairbanks and Tucks History.
The history of Jordan Creek booklet, a must for those interested in Springfield history is available for purchase at the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, 320 North Main Avenue Springfield, MO 65806-1208

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