Stable lake levels are Lake of Ozarks asset

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Stable lake levels are Lake of Ozarks asset

By Tim Renken Of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

03/29/2002

With variations from season to season and year to year, fishing on the Lake of the Ozarks is generally pretty good.

Bass fishing has been depressed somewhat lately, but it will recover, probably this season. Over the years, tournament catch results on the lake have always compared favorably with other major tournament reservoirs in the Midwest and South.

Crappie fishing on the lake is almost always good, often the best in the state.

One of the major reasons that fishing for bass and crappie is so consistent is because of the relative stability of lake levels. Lake of the Ozarks, like most other Missouri reservoirs, was built to generate electricity. But unlike most other hydropower reservoirs, including Table Rock, Mark Twain, Bull Shoals and Stockton, Lake of the Ozarks fluctuates very little. Most of the time it fluctuates 1 to 2 feet or less and once in a great while up to 6 feet.

Table Rock, by contrast, rises and falls 10 feet or more and can fluctuate by as much as 20 feet. Ditto Bull Shoals, Pomme De Terre and Stockton.

Lake level fluctuation can play hob with fish spawning. Whole year classes can be wiped out by an inopportune drawdown. Young fish struggle to survive when shoreline cover is left dry.

This happens frequently on most hydropower reservoirs. It almost never happens these days on the Lake of the Ozarks.

What if, though, Ameren UE sometime in the future decided that it needed more electricity from Bagnell Dam? That's not impossible. Ameren has never threatened to do so, but environmental pressure might someday force it. Legally, it could pull the lake down 20 feet or more during periods of high power demand.

Imagine the reaction of all those lake property owners, including the resorts, if every summer during periods of high power demand their docks, launch ramps, beaches and other development were left high and dry? Bass and crappie fishing would go to pot if year after year drawdowns wrecked the spawns.

Management of the big reservoir is being re-studied now with Ameren UE's license to operate the dam expiring in February 2006. Ameren UE owns the dam, but the Osage River and the lake are owned by the public. To use the river for power, the company must satisfy each of many interest groups, called stakeholders, in order to get from federal authorities another 30-year license to use the river.

The relicensing process already is under way, with studies being conducted and public hearings being held. If you own property at the lake or even just fish or vacation there, you are a stakeholder.

Another stakeholder is the Missouri Department of Conservation, which is charged constitutionally with "protecting and managing the fish, forest and wildlife resources of the state."

With most of the studies still under way, Bill Turner, the department's point man in the process, addresses the issue of future lake levels. In an early draft of "Vision for the Osage Project" he mentions "appropriate lake levels for fisheries management" At the Lake of the Ozarks, he said, that means keeping the management pretty much as it is now.

He also said the department wants protection of shallow water habitats from dredging, further reduction of fish kills and creel surveys to provide information for fish management.

The department seeks more boat launch areas to help distribute recreational use throughout the lake. Access always has been a problem on the lake. The result has been the concentration of boaters in the Glaize Area around the state parks. Ameren UE is conducting a study to determine if more access areas are needed.

The greatest demand for change involves the Osage River downstream from Bagnell Dam. In the beautiful stretch of river between Bagnell and the mouth at the Missouri River, recreation and wildlife have always been limited by wildly changing water levels and, sometimes, low-oxygen water. Erosion is an acknowledged problem. Life is difficult for fish and other river dwellers.

The Conservation Department in its wish list seeks changes in discharge regimen and improvement in the oxygen content of the water. Also on the list are reduction of erosion, creation of riparian zones and bottomland forest and, possibly, more recreational access.

Major changes in the new license for the dam are unlikely, of course, because of the necessity of balancing the needs of all lake users.

Bagnell Dam was designed in the 1920s when most people traveled little for recreation and when development in the Osage River valley consisted of farms and small towns here and there. Today, obviously, the value of recreation and wildlife in the valley dwarf the relatively small amount of electricity generated.

******

Outdoor Tip

Question: I was at the fishing area below Price Dam across the Mississippi River from Alton the other day, and I saw Illinois conservation agents talking to people and, I think, writing tickets. Why were they on the Missouri side of the river?

Answer: Because the banks on both sides of the river there are in Illinois, thanks to the new dam. Both Missouri and Illinois fishing licenses are legal there, though.
 

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