EWP saves Missouri mussels

What are the odds of a Giant Floater stopping a multi-ton piece of dredging equipment in its tracks?

It happened in southeastern Missouri, where the Giant Floater was one of 14 species of mussels discovered in a section of a drainage ditch near Hayti. The mussels were discovered as Pemiscot County was preparing to remove debris and sediment left there by spring 2008 flooding.

The ditch clean-out work qualified for federal cost-share assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service through its Emergency Watershed Protection program. The program is available to help local units of government repair levee breaks, remove logjams and debris from streams, remove sediment and debris from drainage ditches and to stabilize stream banks. EWP funds may cover up to 75 percent of the construction costs of eligible emergency measures.

“We were doing our visual inspection along the ditch when we saw the mussels in one stretch of the ditch,” says Jack Lewis, NRCS district conservationist serving Pemiscot County.

Lewis told Joe Tousignant, area biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, about the mussels. “I walked out there, and there were mussels everywhere,” Tousignant says. He and Lewis knew that many of the mussels in two locations where the dredging equipment needed to cross the ditch would be killed.

“In those two areas, we knew that we had to move the mussels out,” Tousignant says.

After Lewis explained the situation to Pemiscot County Presiding Commissioner James Atchison, Atchison and associate commissioners Wendell Hoskins and David Wilkerson agreed to delay the dredging.

“They asked for our cooperation, and we just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Atchison says.

Thus began the task of physically moving the mussels. Tousignant and four other MDC employees from the Cape Girardeau regional office spent an entire day putting the mussels into sacks and moving them.

“We literally got in the creek, felt for them, picked them up and put them in mesh bags,” Tousignant says. About 2,000 mussels were identified and released downstream. One species identified, the Wartyback, is on the Missouri state list of endangered species.

The majority were Threeridge mussels, which accounted for nearly 1,400 of the 2,000. The least common were the Wabash Pigtoe and Pistolgrip; only one of each was identified.

Normally, biologists don’t go to such lengths to spare mussels. But Tousignant says the Pemiscot County site is different.

“This was an exceptional site, and that’s why it deserved some extra attention,” he says.

Perhaps more important than the mussels themselves is what their high population represents. Tousignant says mussels are an indicator of good, long-term water quality.

“Mussels are like canaries in a coal mine in that regard,” Tousignant says. “Because they are so long-lived, a large and diverse population in this ditch indicates that there haven’t been any chronic water quality problems, or major pollution events, in their lifetimes. Many of those mussels were probably over 20 years old.”

Lewis says the water quality in the area is protected by a number of conservation practices utilized by Bootheel farmers, including no-till, field borders and weir boxes for rice fields.

He says the mussel discovery reflects the success of the conservation activities in the county, and the effort to save the mussels reflects the cooperative spirit in the area.

“It’s been a good, communal effort with MDC, NRCS and the county,” Lewis says.

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