• The Mississippi: A Visual Biography by Quinta Scott

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Asian Carp and the American Bottom Borrow Pit

American Bottom: Jefferson Barracks Borrow Pit

I don’t think the farmer who tills this field just east of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge that connects St. Louis County, Missouri to Monroe County, Illinois calls the borrow pit that lies between the levee and his wheat field the Jefferson Barracks Borrow Pit, but I do, because I have been watching and making photographs of it for the last two years. The field and the borrow pit have been flooded for the better part of three years and it really flooded this year. But we had a dry summer–after a real winter with snow, particularly up north and west, and a very wet spring–and the field dried out. So did the borrow pit.

When a levee district builds a levee, it takes the soil for the structure from a borrow pit on the riverside of the levee. When the river floods, it pours water into the borrow pit, filling it. It also delivers two or three inches of sediment to the borrow pit with each flood. Flood after flood has filled this pit with mud. In a really big flood, like the one we had this year, fish swim into the field and the borrow pit. In earlier years, before the pit filled with mud, it was a good fishing pond because it retained water and fish.

Egrets feeding on fish in a borrow pit puddle

As the flood drains away the fish are corralled into the lowest points in the field/borrow pit and the egrets and other wading birds move in and feed on the fish.  Gulls follow the egrets. When the borrow pit completely dries out, the raccoons arrive.

Dead fish, mostly Asian carp, in the Jefferson Barracks Borrow Pit

When I was researching The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, I learned effort to create the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge started with fish rescue. When the river flooded, fish would swim into the shallow side channels of the river. When the flood receded, the fish would be trapped. When the side channels dried out, the fish would die. Conservationists in the 1920s would rescue fish from the side channels before they dried out. When confronted with the field of dead Asian carp, no one is particularly interested in fish rescue.

Paddlefish and Asian Carp

However, Asian carp are no the only fish which ventured into this field. So did paddlefish and blue gills.

Two carp and a blue gill

It has been just under twenty years since the Flood of 1993 when the first Asian carp escaped catfish farms and invaded the Mississippi, clouding out other species. Now when the Mississippi floods and the flood recedes, stranded Asian carp pepper the landscape. Here and there are interspersed a few desirable fish–like paddlefish and blue gills.

Wheat Field and dead carp

The farmer who tills the field between the borrow pit and the river was optimistic this fall and planted wheat in the field. In doing so, he tilled Asian carp carcasses into his field. If the farmer is lucky, the field won’t flood before the wheat is ready for harvesting next June.

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4 Responses

  1. Interesting post, thank you. I like to spend time at that area myself and now I know some more about it. It’s a good spot for a sunset shot:

    http://my.opera.com/musickna/blog/2010/07/11/jefferson-barracks-bridge

  2. Once you get there, drive along the levee. You will be able to see borrow pits in various states of fill.

    • I shall have to do that. I was fascinated by the large number of dead carp that you photographed, emphasizing yet again how successfully that invasive species has colonized the waterways. Good shots – and I bet it stank down there!

  3. The stink has abated.

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