Historical land-use changes and potential effects on stream disturbance in the Ozark Plateaus, Missouri

Water Supply Paper 2484




Land-use changes have been blamed for creating disturbance in the morphology of streams in the Ozark Plateaus, Missouri (hereafter referred to as the "Ozarks"). Historical evidence and stratigraphic observations document that streams have been aggraded by substantial quantities of gravel beginning sometime at or near the time of European settlement of the Ozarks. Before European settlement, streams were depositing a mixed sediment load of gravel bedload and silty overbank sediment. Observations of early explorers conspicuously lack descriptions of extensive gravel bars; observations of geologists working during the middle to late 1800's before significant landuse disturbance, however, include descriptions of large quantities of gravel in stream banks and beds.

The first change in land cover as settlement progressed from the early 1800's to approximately 1880 was replacement of valley-bottom forest with cultivated fields and pastures. At the same time, suppression of wildfires in the uplands caused an increase of woodland with woody understory at the expense of grassland and oak savannah. Valley-bottom clearing probably initiated some direct disturbance of stream channels, but fire suppression would have decreased runoff and sediment yield from uplands.

Beginning sometime from 1870 to 1880 and continuing until 1920, commercial timber companies began large operations in the Ozarks to harvest shortleaf pine for sawlogs and oak for railroad ties. Selective cutting of large timber, use of livestock for skidding logs from the forest, and avoidance of the steeper slopes minimized the effect of this phase of logging on runoff and sediment supply of uplands and valley-side slopes. Continued decreases in the erosional resistance of valley bottoms through clearing and road building and the incidence of extreme regional floods from 1895 to 1915 probably caused initiation of moderate stream disturbance. This hypothesis is supported by historical and oral-historical observations that stream instability began before the peak of upland destabilization from 1920 to 1960.

The post-Timber-boom period (1920-60) included the institution of annual burning of uplands and cut-over valley-side slopes, increased grazing on open range, and increased use of marginal land for cultivated crops. Models for landuse controls on annual runoff, storm runoff, and soil erosion indicate that this period should have been the most effective in creating stream disturbance. Written historical sources and oral-historical accounts indicate that erosion was notable mainly on lands in row-crop cultivation. Oral-history respondents consistently recall that smaller streams had more discharge for longer periods from 1920 to 1960 than from 1960 to 1993; many additionally observed that floods are "flashier" under present-day (1993) conditions. Changes in the timing of hydrographs probably relate to changes in upland and riparian zone vegetation that decreased storage and flow resistance. Probably the most destabilizing effect on Ozarks stream channels during this period was caused by livestock on the open range that concentrated in valley bottoms and destroyed riparian vegetation in the channels and on banks. Destruction of riparian vegetation in small valleys may have encouraged headward migration of channels, resulting in extension of the drainage network and accelerated release of gravel from storage in the small valleys. This hypothesis is supported by lack of other sources for the large quantity of gravel in Ozarks streams and oral-historical observations that gravel came out of the runs, rather than from slopes.

From 1960 to 1993, cultivated fields and total improved land in farms decreased, but cattle populations continued to increase. This increase in grazing density has the potential to maintain runoff and sediment delivery to streams at rates higher than natural background rates. Whereas some riparian zones have been allowed to grow up into bottom-land forest, this stabilizing effect occurs on only a small part of valley-bottom land. Recovery processes aided by riparian vegetation are limited by channel instability and frequent, large floods.

Additional publication details

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USGS Numbered Series
Historical land-use changes and potential effects on stream disturbance in the Ozark Plateaus, Missouri
Series title:
Water Supply Paper
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Columbia Environmental Research Center
v, 85 p.