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The Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri: A Model Restoration Project

Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, from the Lewis and Clark Memorial on the Illinois Side of the Mississippi

I spent thirty years trying to get to the Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. I drove there, I rode my bike there, but I never quite reached it. I always found myself lost in a farmer’s corn field. Thanks to the Flood of 1993, the folks who farmed this frequently flooded land gave up and sold the land to the State of Missouri for a park on the north side of the Missouri River and a conservation area on its south side.

Until a few years ago the Confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers was a deep, dark secret. Impossible to get to. There was no way to get there on the Missouri side of the Mississippi. The only way to see it was to find your way to the old Lewis and Clark Memorial on the Illinois side of the river, and even then it was difficult to locate where the Missouri actually streamed into the Mississippi on the opposite side of the river. I was lucky in the very cold winter of 2001 to see ice stream out of the mouth of the Missouri and into the ice-free Mississippi, where ice was trapped behind Lock and Dam 25.  From there I could see how the two rivers flow side by side in the Mississippi channel, the Missouri on the west, the Mississippi on the east.

Mud Flows out of the Missouri at its Confluence with the Mississippi

If you were lucky and could fly low over the Confluence, you could see how Missouri River mud flows on the west and the relatively clear Mississippi flows on the east.

From The Mississippi: A Visual Biography:

“Two refuges overlook the confluence. On the south bank of the Missouri the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased the 4,318-acre Columbia Bottoms in 1997, after the 1993 flood overtopped a levee and washed sand and debris over prime agricultural fields. The department opened the new conservation area–recreated shallow wetlands and bottomland forests with a viewing stand on the bank–in 2002. The State of Missouri acquired 1,121 acres for a state park in 2001 on Mobile Island, built a short wheelchair-accessible walk to Confluence Point, and planned to restore the wetlands and prairies of the natural floodplain behind it, using native trees and plants.”

Confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi as seen from Edward and Pat Jones State Park on the north side of the Missouri River.

From the Edward and Pat Jones State Park you can dip your toe into the Missouri on the right side of Confluence Point or into the Mississippi on the left. And you can see how the Missouri rushes out of its mouth a roils the relatively placid waters of the Mississippi.  Come flood time this park is closed, but when it is open it is a short trek along a wheelchair accessible walk to the tip of Mobile Island.

Confluence, Columbia Bottoms, South Side of the Missouri

Only in the most severe floods is the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area with its observation platform closed.

School field trip at the Columbia Bottoms Observation Platform

There is more to the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area than the observation platform. When the river is down, it is possible to descend the bank into the Duck Island Side Channel. Anglers have known of this place since the Missouri Department of Conservation opened the refuge to visitors in 2002. Maybe, some of them had better luck than I and knew how to get there before the refuge opened in 2002.

Anglers fish from a mud flat at the Confluence at Columbia Bottoms

Once down on the mud flats,  it is possible to hike the training structures that prevent the Missouri from flowing into Duck Island Chute.

Dike or Training Structure in Duck Island Chute

And it is possible to hike Duck Island Chute itself.

Duck Island Chute

The conservation department has restored the floodplain at Columbia Bottoms to fields and wetlands and built a terrific visitors center at the entrance to the refuge.

Columbia Bottoms Slough

Finally, on the Illinois side of the river, the State of Illinois has built a museum and a reproduction of Lewis and Clark’s Camp DuBois from which they launched their expedition up the Missouri River in 1804 at the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site.

Reproduction of the Lewis and Clark boat at the Museum in Hartford, Illinois

Perhaps, it is for all these reasons that the U.S. Department of the Interior has named the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers Confluence Restoration Project on of the eleven model projects in the America’s Great Outdoors Rivers program. The restoration project is the work of 40 agencies, both public and private, to the benefit of migratory birds and other wildlife, and we humans.

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