Renovating Schell-Osage Conservation Area: Opened to public use in 1962, Schell-Osage Conservation Area (CA) is one of the oldest publicly managed wetland areas in the state. Located in west-central Missouri along the banks of the Osage River, near Schell City, the area lies within the footprint of Truman Lake's flood easement. Since its original development, this conservation area's bottomland has been managed for migratory birds and enjoyed by waterfowl hunters, fishermen, and other outdoor enthusiasts alike. However, like anything man-made, time and the elements have taken their toll on the area's infrastructure. Recognizing this wear and tear the Department kicked off its "Golden Anniversary Wetlands Initiative" in 2004 to focus on the five oldest managed wetland areas in the state. Schell-Osage CA is the last of these areas to receive attention, so we wanted to highlight what this will entail.
Over the last couple of years the Department has looked at chronic problems, identified management challenges, and considered how to accommodate the various public uses of the area. We've identified several goals to ensure the renovation work will benefit the area's natural resources and public recreation for the next 50 years, or longer. We are now finishing up the planning phase and are close to putting work on the ground. In the coming months, we will pursue permits, draw up engineering plans, and solicit construction bids. Those processes will solidify timelines.
The renovation has five main goals. First, it will focus on improving floodplain function. Considering the topography and where water naturally flows is critical to this first goal and also helps reduce the chance of recurring flood damages. This wasn't always considered when wetlands were built 60 years ago. To add to this complexity, the addition of H.S. Truman Dam and Reservoir has changed the flood frequency, depth, and duration across the Schell-Osage bottoms. Effective wetland management has a lot to do with being able to get water on and off at the right time. For these reasons, a new approach to wetland design is necessary through a renovation project. This will require using the natural grade of the land, integrating broad, flood tolerant levees and strategically placing spillways as a means to restore waterways that will help us manage how the current floodplain functions.
One specific example of an area that will be impacted from this work will be the west end of Schell Lake. The elevations here are more similar to the wetland areas north of the existing lake dam. By reconfiguring the levees this shallow, and often dry portion of Schell Lake, will be tied into a larger block of manageable wetland habitat.
The second goal focuses on the traditional use of blinds for waterfowl hunting. The Department strives to offer a diversity of waterfowl hunting opportunities and recognizes the importance of traditional blinds on Schell-Osage. Many of the blinds will stay in their current location, while a few will be moved based upon levee placement. In the end, the number of blinds on Schell-Osage CA should remain about the same.
The third goal reflects adjusting to changes that have occurred over time. Schell-Osage was built prior to the damming of the Osage River to form Truman Reservoir. Establishing a permanent pump station would take advantage of this readily available water supply and benefit fish and wildlife management on the area. This will not only benefit the wetlands, but also reduce the amount of water level fluctuation experienced in Schell and Atkinson lakes, which were the original water storage reservoirs for the wetland units. More stable water levels in these reservoirs will aid in management of the fishery and help to maintain public access points. Risks to staff safety and potential environmental hazards would also be reduced by having a permanent solution to pump water out of the river.
The fourth goal is centered on improving the capacity to provide quality waterfowl refuge. Currently, Schell and Atkinson Lake make up most of the waterfowl refuge on Schell-Osage. These water bodies are used primarily as loafing areas for migratory waterfowl and do not provide a great deal of foraging opportunity. By reconfiguring levees and providing a dependable water source, the area will benefit from a consolidated waterfowl refuge with the capability to produce high quality natural foods.
The fifth goal accounts for other public uses within Schell-Osage's bottomland. The renovation will change the layout of the area and no doubt influence fishing, birding, and other wildlife viewing opportunities. Schell Lake will receive much needed attention to address the reservoir's aging infrastructure, shallow overall depth, and poor boating access. Improvements to the lake's fish habitat will include deep water excavations for overwintering, adding underwater structure, and establishment of fish spawning beds for recruitment. New fishing jetties will offset opportunity lost on the west side of Schell Lake that will be managed as wetland habitat. The renovation work will change how Schell-Osage looks from the road, but it will allow for better management of its natural resources, and reduce the amount of long-term flood damage and maintenance that occurs on the area.
Heavy rains caused Truman Lake to exceed flood records for both duration and crest height last year. The wetlands along the Osage River, including those at Schell-Osage, have been mostly under water the past 18 months. An attempt was made to initiate the brush clearing contract last December, but it was just too wet to work.
Recently, the floodplain has been finally drying out. That has allowed heavy equipment to begin removing brush such as buttonbush and willows within the footprint of future dirt work. As the last year and half has shown, getting in and out of the bottoms quickly is a challenge for wetland projects. Knocking out this clearing work ahead of time will help the next stage of renovation.
The Sac-Osage Electric Cooperative is nearly finished running new overhead electric poles and lines to the area headquarters. That will power a new pump station slated for construction on the bank of the Osage River. This will increase the flexibility of water management across the area and greatly reduce the dependence on water from Schell and Atkinson Lakes.
Waterfowl hunting on the area during the upcoming seasons will be allowed through self-registration at the headquarters. Habitat will be opportunistic and dependent on precipitation and flooding from the river. The Wildlife Refuge, Waterfowl Refuge and Waterfowl Hunting zone closures remain in effect on the same acreage as in the past.
Anglers are still able to fish in Atkinson Lake, but it is closed from Oct. 15-Jan. 31 as a Waterfowl Refuge. The upper end of Truman Reservoir is fed by the Osage River and borders the 8,633-acre conservation area in Vernon and St. Clair counties. The lake and river are open for fishing. Upland fields and forests on Schell-Osage will remain open to hunting, hiking, and birding.
As details are finalized, engineering plans move forward, and timelines firm up, we will continue to share information so that you can plan accordingly and stay up to date with the progress. If you are interested in receiving email notifications on the Schell-Osage renovation, please sign up here Sign up for Email Updates or in the morning draw room at Schell-Osage this fall. Over the next few years, a new chapter for the old area is about to begin. We appreciate your support and understanding as we move the renovation forward.