Lower Meramec River

Why the Lower Meramec River Basin?

Between 2001 and 2004, U.S. Forest Service, The Trust for Public Land (TPL), and the University of Massachusetts conducted 4 highly successful demonstration projects around protecting forestlands in local drinking watersheds. A few years later USFS and TPL evaluated watersheds throughout the Upper Mississippi River Basin to find a Midwest project that would build upon the early successes of the first four demonstration projects.

With a nascent Meramec River Tributary Alliance, (MRTA), a group of organizations interested in the river, and an important, but threatened, drinking water source to St. Louis and suburbs, the Lower Meramec River Basin was an ideal candidate for the next demonstration. The Lower Meramec River is remarkable for its relatively high water quality, large number of people relying on the drinking water supply, and susceptibility to development pressure. (See "Forests, Water and People: Drinking water supply and forest lands in the Northeast and Midwest United States," June 2009.) The presence of MRTA was also an advantage because these organizations had already agreed to work together, bringing their significant expertise and resources to bear on the river.

The Challenge:

Historically, environmental advocates have focused on the clean water benefits of the Meramec River, but drinking water consumers generally do not know that their tap water comes from the river. This connection is important. For example, the number one reason across the country that people are willing to pass ballot measures that raise taxes to create dollars for land conservation is to protect land that will help keep their local drinking water source pure.

Many skilled players in the watershed are working on related topics at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. With leadership provided largely by the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region (OSC) and the East-West Gateway Council of Governments (COG), the Meramec River Tributary Alliance (MRTA) formed in 2007 as a partnership of more than 30 organizations with a mission to align with protecting the river. The Alliance's summit, attended by about 100 people, intended to set a shared direction for the members. However, a clear agenda did not emerge. Meanwhile, OSC had already come a long way in fulfilling its traditional programming around stream clean-ups and was ready for new initiatives.

The existing land conservation organizations—notably Missouri Department of Conservation, Great Rivers Greenway, Ozark Regional Land Trust, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources—have made major headway in preserving important places in this region. Nevertheless, many sensitive and critical lands remain at risk of development.

Complicating matters is the fact conservation dollars are comparatively lagging and not well leveraged (most projects are funded by just one source). Across the state of Missouri, almost 75% of funding comes from state sources, 16% from private and local sources, and 23% from the federal government. Nationwide, on average, about 67% of conservation funding comes from local governments. Contribution of local capital in Missouri is less than one-third the nationwide average. Meanwhile, Missouri ranks in the bottom 10 states for funding per capita in the U.S. for land conservation. So funding is much needed. Also, there are groups like Ozark Regional Land Trust, OSC, and Friends of La Barque Creek that see opportunities for more on-the-ground conservation, but they need funding to acquire land or easements.

When TPL and USFS initiated the demonstration project, they asked the MRTA members to define the regional drinking water quality problems. They responded with a long list of interests, such as identifying strategies to restore degraded land, working with highway and transportation departments to identify creek crossing design improvements, reducing ammonia from wastewater treatment plants (to help save the mussels), protecting forests that are most threatened by development, grappling with the lack of enforcement of particular environmental regulations, and effectively reaching constituents with key messages. In the words of one: "We have the expertise but we are not reaching the people."

Project Scope:

Phase I: Identifying a project area (the Fox-Hamilton-Brush Creek watersheds) and conducting an analysis of current watershed conditions and producing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps.

Phase II: Strategy Exchange — a series of meetings with state and local experts to discuss strategies for drinking watershed education, stormwater best management practices, septic system improvements, and land conservation techniques.

Phase III: The MRTA formed a subcommittee for each of the topics discussed at the Strategy Exchange. The subcommittees developed action plans using the Exchange Team recommendations as a framework, and met on a quarterly basis to implement their individual action plans.

Phase I included identifying a project area—the Fox-Hamilton-Brush Creek watersheds—and conducting a watershed analysis. The watershed analysis report involved understanding the current conditions of the watersheds and producing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps. The analysis set the stage for Phase II of the project: a Strategy Exchange. The Strategy Exchange was a 5-day series of meetings with state and local experts on strategies around (1) drinking watershed education, (2) stormwater best management practices, (3) septic system improvements, and (4) land conservation

The MRTA ultimately decided to focus on these four topics from the many they initially discussed. Nationwide experts—Cynthia Hagley from the University of Minnesota Extension, Sandra Tassel from Look at the Land, David Casaletto from Table Rock Lake Water Quality, Inc, and David Hoffman from the Center for Watershed Protection—produced a final report detailing their recommendations for solving water quality problems on the four topics. Download the watershed issues report (PDF).

The Strategy Exchange took place in Wildwood, Missouri on May 11-15, 2009. Nationwide experts produced a final report detailing their recommendations for solving water quality problems on the four topics. In Phase III, the MRTA formed a subcommittee for each of the topics. Each committee developed an action plan using the Exchange Team recommendations as a framework, and they meet on a quarterly basis to implement their individual action plans. An effort has been made to identify tasks that do not require intensive funding, but additional dollars are needed to implement many of the solutions. Download sample action plan of the septic system improvements subcommittee (PDF).

Local units of government and real estate experts use the maps created as part of this process to identify opportunities related to these goals: land protection, restoration, and implementing stormwater best management practices. The project partners created maps for each of these goals as well as overlays that help with considering related factors. A separate password-protected internet mapping site exists for the real estate experts to run property searches and create maps.

The Trust for Public Land also produced a separate report that details the status of conservation funding for the region, and it recommends steps to help attract and retain additional funding to acquire new lands that are important for protecting and restoring the Meramec River. TPL's Conservation Finance team presented an executive summary of these findings at an MRTA meeting in October 2009. The MRTA land conservation subcommittee is working now on implementing aspects of this report.

Project Benefits:

Although it is still early in the process, there are already measurable benefits.

  • The Strategy Exchange provided a format for shared learning between national and regional experts. Relationships between members deepened as the process unfolded and implementation subcommittees have been launched.
  • The MRTA has reached consensus on specific solutions for protecting and restoring the river and its watershed. Realizing these solutions will necessitate building upon the synergies of the member organizations, which should help to guarantee their success in implementation.
  • OSC's capacity has increased, and they are primed to help follow-through on these initiatives and lead the MRTA, together with the East-West Gateway COG.
  • The East-West Gateway COG procured a $100,000 grant that will allow them to help work on specific recommendations, including landowner outreach for proper maintenance of septic systems.

For more information:
Brittany Barton, Open Space Council (636) 451-6090
Kelley Hart, The Trust for Public Land, (415) 495-4014

Project Feedback:

"The Meramec River is really the lifeblood of the South County area as well as a good portion of Jefferson County. It all starts with a clean source of supply. The cleaner the source water the easier it is to treat. Protecting this source is so very, very important to our business and it's so vitally important to the well being of the residents that live in this community." - Bradley Brown, Missouri-American Water, member of the Meramec River Tributary Alliance

"Very rarely is there an opportunity to not only provide some assistance but to also have the opportunity to work with others that are interested in protecting the environment and to learn from them."  - David Casaletto, Executive Director of Table Rock Lake Water Quality, Inc, member of the National Strategy Exchange Team

"This initiative represents a tremendous opportunity for the St. Louis region to develop a long term strategy to protect the Meramec River and drinking water for several hundred thousand people. Water quality protection will also serve to protect and improve habitat, increase recreational opportunity, increase land values, protect family farmers and improve the economies of communities in the Meramec Valley." - David Wilson, East-West Gateway Council of Governments, member of the Steering Committee

Acknowledgments:

This initiative was made possible with support from: The United States Forest Service, The Trust for Public Land, The Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region, Boeing Company Charitable Trust, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Norman J. Stupp Foundation, East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the City of Wildwood, Great River Greenway, Missouri American Water and other private and public partners.