ROADS VS. RAIN: Recent flood puts spotlight on the creek and road issues Ozark County is constantly battling
The 7-inch torrent of rain Ozark County received on Dec. 17, 2021, has put a spotlight on a problem that has long existed here and in other counties in the region.
It’s where the rain meets the road, if you will.
Low-water crossings, slabs, culverts and old bridges are scattered across the backroads of Ozark County, and when the rain falls, locals know to steer clear of the low-water washouts.
But what’s becoming more of a problem every year is the amount of damage that’s being done to county roads, bridges and adjoining property.
Ozark County Commissioners John Turner, Layne Nance and Gary Collins say they know what would help prevent much of the damage, but their hands are tied.
“I have a road right now that’s still closed and has two 10-foot holes washed out on it,” said Nance, referring to County Road 861 in an area locally known as Steel Tracks on the Little North Fork River in western Ozark County. “I could go haul 10 truckloads in there and fix it and the next big rain we get it will wash it away … it’s like we’re literally throwing money into a big hole.”
Collins said years ago landowners along the creeks and rivers in the Ozarks would keep the creeks cleaned out which helped prevent washout during heavy rains.
“Now you can’t get in the creeks to clean them out or you’ll be in trouble with the feds,” Collins said.
Missouri’s waterways are actually protected under federal and state laws, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act and Missouri’s Clean Water Law, among others.
Collins said the law allows counties and municipalities to dredge a stream within 200 feet of a county road or bridge to help alleviate build up of gravel and other debris that can wreak havoc on bridges, culverts and roads themselves.
“That’s just not going far enough to fix the problem,” said Turner.
In addition to the extreme damage on County Road 861, there was major erosion in the public access land near Hodgson Mill following the Dec. 17 flooding.
“It cut a huge gulley just north of the crossing there by Hodgson Mill,” Collins told the Times.
So now the county is asking for help from 155th District Missouri State Representative Travis Smith.
Smith, who lives in Twin Bridges near Dora, has seen firsthand the damage floodwaters cause to roads and bridges.
“It’s a mess down there,” Smith said. “What we need is some common sense answers. Smith said he has reached out to the Missouri Department of Conservation to help find a solution to the issue.
Commissioners met with Smith on County Road 861 recently and showed him the damage.
“I’m not sure what he can do to help, but we are making an effort,” Nance said.
State and federal laws prohibit any heavy equipment in streams unless they have rubber tires, and even then, certain protocols must be followed and permission must be granted.
“We’re going to find a solution,” Smith told the Times. “If we can’t get anywhere with the [Missouri Department of Conservation], we’re going to reach out to [U.S. Sen.] Jason Smith and go from there.”
“It’s bad enough that it’s a main road that affects school buses and people who commute to and from work, but my thing is what if you live down there and need an ambulance?” Smith said. “You could die if they can’t get to you.”
Nance said the problem really has intensified since the 2012 passage of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s “minimum flow” rules which regulate a regular minimum flow from Bull Shoals Dam into the White River near Bull Shoals, Arkansas. One of the byproducts of minimum flow is higher lake levels.
Nance said that, since 2012, the lakes have gotten higher and, when heavy rains occur, the lake water backs up into the creek valleys and destroys the trees that were holding the creek banks in place all these years.
“Now, without those trees to hold the ground in place, the water erodes the creek bottoms at an enormous rate,” Nance said.
In the area along County Road 861, near Haskins Ford and the “Steel Tracks,” Nance says the land is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but it is being leased by the Missouri Department of Conservation for animal habitat.
“That land is becoming worthless for habitat because the flooding is washing away all the trees and plants,” he said.
Nance said that, unless they can get some help from the MDC and the USACE, road washouts are going to get worse and the cost to repair or rebuild the roads could become such that it wouldn’t be feasible.
“County Road 861 is a main cut-through road from the Wasola area to Theodosia,” Nance said. “There are school buses, firetrucks and ambulances that use that road, and teachers who live around Wasola who work at Lutie School that use that road when the lake is down enough to get across at Haskins Ford.”
He said that the road was inaccessible for several months last year at Haskins Ford due to the lake being up and over the road.
In the meantime, the county has been busy hauling in dump truck loads of road base material and rebuilding the washed out roads.
“We’re going to find a solution one way or the other,” Smith said. “We have to.”