Urban Stream Guide
Like Carthage, many Missouri communities have springs and streams that were part of local history. Some towns feature a spring that watered early settlers and kindled the first sparks of community through the establishment of a trading post or stagecoach station. Other towns trace their communal beginnings to a stream-powered gristmill that created the area’s first gathering place.
Urban waterways are still important today. They provide drinking water, play supporting roles in industrial and commercial activities and, in many cases, are aesthetic anchors of recreational amenities such as parks and greenway trails.
Maintaining the health, beauty and functionality of the city’s springs and streams is a task in which all Carthage citizens have a part. Citizen stewardship will play an important role in keeping the city’s waterways what they are now – the crown jewels of a vibrant community.
Water, Water Everywhere
The city of Carthage is located in the Spring River Watershed, or Basin. Where rain falls in town determines the route it will take on its journey to the Spring River.
The identification number given to the Spring River Basin is 11070207. This number designates the basin as one of 66 HUC-8 level watersheds in Missouri. HUC stands for Hydrologic Unit Code, which is a set of identification numbers given to watersheds. The level number indicates how long the code is and conveys information about the size of the watershed. Subwatersheds that are nested within a larger basin have longer codes. For instance, Carthage spans two HUC-10 level watersheds, the White Oak Creek-Spring River Watershed on the north side of town and the Center Creek Watershed on the south side of town. These two watersheds are separated by a ridge that runs across town near Fir Road (Route HH). Rain that falls on the north side of town drains into the Spring River without traveling very far. Rain that falls on the south side of town will flow for miles in Center Creek before finally merging with the Spring River near the state line.
The Spring River Watershed Partnership has written a management plan for the HUC-14 Carthage Subwatershed, which is nested within the White Oak Creek-Spring River Watershed.
Managing an urban stream, whether it’s in Carthage or another community, begins with understanding a few basic principles of what a stream is and how it works. A stream is a naturally occurring body of running water that flows along a linear course on or under the earth’s surface. Some people call smaller waterways creeks and larger ones rivers, but “stream” is the hydrological term used for naturally occurring linear waterways of all sizes. However, a stream is more than a line of water that flows randomly across the landscape: It’s a complex mechanism of interlocking parts. Knowing how these parts work together and understanding the impacts urbanization can have is the key to developing successful management strategies for an urban stream.
Anatomy of a Stream
Channel: A stream’s channel conveys all
non-flood water flow and a portion of
the flow during flood events. It
consists of the space between the stream
banks. Determined by precipitation
patterns and groundwater condition,
stream channels have either perennial
flow (continuous throughout the year),
intermittent flow (sporadic, but pools
occur throughout all or most of the
year) or ephemeral flow (occurs briefly
after precipitation or melting events).
Healthy streams have balanced
unconstrained meander patterns and
properly sized channels to convey runoff
from the watershed without excessive
damage to stream banks and beds. Stream
channels also provide habitat and travel
corridors for wildlife and aid in the
dispersal of plant species.
Riffles and pools: Riffles are the shallow gravelly areas of streams where water flows more swiftly. Riffles are separated from each other by deeper, slower-flowing pools. In an undisturbed stream, riffles and pools occur in a relatively evenly spaced sequence. This pattern helps control the flow of streams and plays an important role in the life cycles of the creatures living in them.
Bends: Though the bends of a stream appear to be little more than randomly occurring curves, they are vital parts of a naturally occurring waterway. The bends of a stream serve as brakes that help slow the speed of the water flowing in the channel. When bends in streams are artificially straightened, bio-diversity tends to decrease and flooding events are likely to increase. Riparian Corridor: The riparian corridor (sometimes called the stream corridor) is vital to a stream’s operation and overall health. It is the strip of land adjacent to both sides of a stream. An ideal corridor consists of a heavy growth of plants, shrubs and trees that prefer streamside soils. This vegetative belt filters water entering the stream and is also wildlife habitat. The desired width of a riparian corridor varies according to the size of the waterway.
Floodplain: The floodplain is the relatively level area on both sides of a stream’s main channel that carries excess water the channel cannot handle. All streams, regardless of size, have a floodplain, part of which is the riparian corridor.
Watershed: A watershed is the total land area that contributes runoff to a stream. It’s composed of the landscape and smaller tributaries surrounding the stream. Watersheds vary from a few acres to thousands of square miles. Watershed conditions influence stream hydrology and groundwater recharge as well as the quantity and quality of a stream’s water. Watersheds that contain abundant and diverse vegetation trap pollutants, slow sediment erosion, and help streams maintain an even-paced flow by delivering water at a slow pace. In an undisturbed watershed, the majority of water flowing into a stream enters it as groundwater rather than surface runoff. Large watersheds are also referred to as basins.
Urban Stream Biology
The biology of an urban stream can be quite varied depending on water depth, landscape features, and the quality of its watershed. Species diversity in a stream is a good indicator of water quality. You are apt to find more types of critters in streams with cleaner water than in in streams with polluted or turbid waters. Depending on the season, a variety of stream-related life (or evidence of their existence such as tracks or scat) can be seen in Carthage. Here are a few:
Butterfly: Several species can often be seen on the edges of water or mud puddles where they get important minerals, salts, and water. This activity is called puddling.
Dragonfly: At least 65 dragonfly species live in Missouri. They do not sting or bite humans, they actually benefit us by preying upon mosquitoes and other flying insects. Various dragonflies are common along the Spring River and elsewhere in the Ozarks.
Blackstripe topminnow: Topminnows have adapted to use a part of the aquatic environment other fish do not use. They are specially equipped with a flat head and a mouth that is tilted upward for hunting at the surface of the water, particularly along the shoreline. They have been found throughout the watershed from up high in the smaller headwater streams to the Spring River. As the name suggests, this species has a broad, black horizontal stripe along its midside but identification from above is aided by what looks like a reflective triangle shape on the back of its head or upper dorsal area.
Stoneroller: This brownish colored minnow eats algae off the rocks of a stream.
Bass: Smallmouth bass is a game fish that is usually dark brown with vertical camouflaging stripes. Largemouth bass is a game fish with a green back that blends into a white belly. Identification of these two types of bass is aided by the location of the hinge of their jaw. A smallmouth’s does not protrude past the eye whereas a largemouth’s protrudes significantly past the eye.
Ringed crayfish: This small creature can grow up to six inches in length and is an olive green color with two dark “saddle” marks on its back. The ringed crayfish is found in many local streams, ponds, and waterways. It is easily identified by the black ring and red tip on the end of its pinchers.
Neosho midget crayfish: Another common species in the Spring River is the state’s smallest crayfish. It only reaches about two inches in length. This crayfish is a nearly uniform olive green or brownish color with no bright markings.
Red-eared slider, softshell, and snapping turtle: Several turtle species are very common in the Spring River Basin. You can often see them basking in the sun on exposed logs and rocks.
Blanchard’s cricket frog and southern leopard frog: These two frogs are commonly seen in and around urban waters. Blanchard’s cricket frogs are about a ½ inch long and move in a series of quick hops. Their call sounds like two stones being hit together several times in a row. Southern leopard frogs are two to three inches in length and can be identified by both their distinctive dark spots and their call, which sounds like laughter.
Green heron, great blue heron, and yellow crowned night heron: These are wading birds with long legs that can often be observed in the water searching for and feeding on fish.
Louisiana waterthrush: This charming bird has a dark brown back and a pale breast with brown stripes. The Louisiana water thrush is a ground dweller. It walks, rather than hops, bobbing its tail constantly, as it forages on the ground within the stream channel.
Great-crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, and warbling vireo: These are common songbirds that reside in the area from spring through late summer.
Bat: The only mammal that can fly, bats appear at dusk and feed on mosquitos and other insects that emerge in the night time hours.
Raccoon: Wary predators that eat fish and crayfish and make their homes in hollowed out trees and fallen logs. They are easily identified by their black face masks and ringed tails. Even more common than seeing them is seeing their distinctive tracks in mud along stream banks.
Beaver: Water dwelling rodents with a large paddle-like tail and webbed feet that can grow to 80 pounds or more. Beavers make their homes of sticks and trees that they cut down with their large, sharp front teeth.
Effects of urbanization on a stream
Construction and development can have a significant impact on an urban stream. Building placement, street design and other man-made changes to the landscape alter the runoff of water into streams. These significant modifications to what had been a balanced system can produce noticeable alterations of healthy stream functions.
More flooding: As land around an urban stream is developed, more terrain in the stream’s watershed is topped with impervious cover in the form of parking lots, streets, building and sidewalks. Even unpaved areas often lose water retention capabilities as the soil becomes compacted and the land-cover changes from diverse vegetation to mowed and manicured lawns. These factors increase the amount of water that flows into urban streams from rain or snowmelt. This increases the frequency of times the stream’s channel cannot contain all the water it receives from the surrounding landscape. As a result, flooding events occur more often.
More erosion: The increased velocity of stream flow and the increased volume of runoff during rain events can lead to stream bank erosion and the creation of channels that are much wider than those found in a similarly sized rural stream.
More pollution: This high amount of runoff from the surrounding watershed often results in higher pollution levels in urban streams. Runoff from developed areas can contain oil, grease, phosphorus, nitrogen, herbicides, pesticides, carbon, fecal matter and high levels of bacteria. The worst pollution often occurs in the “first flush,” the period immediately after a rain event when large amounts of litter and pollutants are suddenly washed off of ground surfaces.
Water temperature fluctuations: In summer, an urban stream’s surrounding paved areas and nearby building roofs act as heat storage areas. Some of this heat gets transferred to streams via water runoff during a summer rain. Warm water runoff has been known to increase an urban stream’s temperature by as much as 20 degrees F. This surge of warmer water can have negative impacts on organisms that are sensitive to temperature change. Additionally, warm water cannot hold as much dissolved oxygen as cold water does and when the level drops too low it may result in a localized fish kill.
Water level fluctuation: Ironically, the same watershed conditions that create higher-than-normal water levels in an urban stream during rainfalls and snowmelts can also cause lower-than-normal stream levels at other times. Because most rain in urban watersheds runs off surfaces rather than soaking into the ground, there is less groundwater to feed streams during dry periods. As a result, urban streams – particularly small ones – dry up much faster than rural streams of the same size.
How we can help
Everyone who lives in Carthage’s watershed is a steward of the springs and streams that flow through the community. The integrity of these natural resources can be protected through the implementation of practices that slow, filter, and infiltrate rain water runoff. These three practices reduce the volume and velocity of water entering streams after a rainfall and also lessen the amount of pollution carried by that water. This, in turn, leads to fewer floods, less erosion and a number of other stream-related benefits. Healthy urban streams are a key component of a community’s green infrastructure, which is a name given to working landscapes and ecological services that benefit human populations. Utilizing appropriate native plants and land management strategies along a stream and in its surrounding watershed can help keep urban waterways in a healthy working condition.
Wherever possible, buffer streams with a dense, wide stand of uneven-aged trees and shrubs. Incorporate a warm-season grass component along the outside of the stream corridor’s edge. Besides filtering pollutants, native vegetation along streams and in floodplains helps stabilize stream banks, moderate water temperature, prevent erosion, control flooding, recharge groundwater through infiltration, enhance aesthetics and provides wildlife habitat. Terrestrial and aquatic wildlife benefit from the abundance of insects and other organisms that are drawn to areas planted with a diversity of native vegetation. The plants also supply seed and forage for resident and migrating birds as well as organic matter to the aquatic system. Structures should not be built within riparian corridors or flood plains, but in some instances, community open space and recreational trails in the general vicinity of a stream can enhance the value of an urban stream. Also keep in mind that trees soak up considerable amounts of water so invest in the health of existing trees and protect them from being unnecessarily damaged or removed during construction projects.
Strategies to slow rain water runoff:
Plant native plants with thick foliage such as grasses, sedges, and rushes along drainage paths. Forcing water to pass through dense stands of vegetation will slow its flow significantly.
Place large gravel or decorative rock along drainage ways where plants are not a viable option. Gravel’s rough surface dissipates some of the energy in fast-moving runoff and reduces its velocity compared to smooth pavement or mowed lawns.
Disconnect down spouts from underground pipes and allow the water to drain across the surface of your yard or into a rain garden.
Harvest rainwater from your roof in a rain barrel to reduce the volume of water that leaves your yard.
Missouri Stream Team Program
A joint effort of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the Stream Team program is a chance for citizens of all ages to get involved in caring for the state’s streams. A Stream Team can be a family of three or a church group of 30. It can be a senior citizen group or a troop of young scouts. In other words, Stream Teams are for everybody. Trash pick-ups are Stream Team efforts that get the most publicity, but Stream Teams do much more than fill bags with litter. They do water quality testing and collect samples of aquatic animals. This data, which is passed on to government and environmental agencies, helps these larger groups develop management plans for watershed areas. You can volunteer with an existing Stream Team or start one of your own by contacting one of the organizations listed below. There are over 4,000 Stream Teams in Missouri and several are active in the Carthage area. The table to the right lists the streams in Carthage and the surrounding area that have been adopted by Stream Teams. It is possible for several teams to work on the same stream, as is evidenced by the number of teams that have adopted sections of Spring River www.mostreamteam.org/mapwelcome.asp