The Current River is one of the Ozarks' scenic destinations for water recreation. (Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell)

This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.

A conference about local waterways — touching on both concerns and opportunities — is coming to Springfield on Oct. 14, when the Schoolcraft Chapter of the Ozark Society presents “Year of the River: Ozark Rivers Conference 2022.”

“I’ve been kind of throwing out the idea that what we’re trying to create is a river rally, like they’ve done in other places, whenever there are threats,” says Loring Bullard, former executive director of Watershed Committee of the Ozarks and past chair of the Ozark Society’s Schoolcraft Chapter who is helping plan the conference. “One thing that I hope that we’ll see from this is a lot of support for the idea that we’ve got to take care of our rivers.” 

The conference focuses on the greater Ozarks region — reflected in its title, “Year of the River,” which aligns with the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo National River in Arkansas. It includes a lineup of state and local conservation leaders, and everyone with an interest is welcome and encouraged to attend, regardless of conservation background. General admission is $75 for the day-long event, and students may purchase tickets for $50.

Topics include:

  • Dam removal and restoration, which leave safety and quality issues long after structures are no longer used
  • The state of Ozark National Scenic Riverways, land and waterways in the Eastern Ozarks that became federally protected in the 1960s
  • The future of Lake Springfield, for which need has changed with the closure of the nearby power plant
  • The effect of agriculture on local waterways, such as recent threats of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)
  • Public access to waterways, such as litigation around the popular Lindenlure access point in Christian County

There are other topics, too, but all tie to an underlying current: The importance of local, both control and also working together to protect and preserve nearby waterways. That effort is important for the natural world, conference leaders say, but also has the potential to make real economic difference downstream for the region.

“Missouri is uniquely blessed with rivers. We have some of the best, precious cleanest rivers in the Midwest,” says Todd Parnell, chair of the Ozark Society’s Schoolcraft Chapter who is also helping organize the conference. He says a concern is that the waterways are at risk from exploitation by corporate entities, such as corporate agriculture. 

“In Southwest Missouri, we can’t let that happen because water is our economic development treasure. It goes beyond liking rivers and being involved with them,” Parnell continues. “It’s what makes this place special. You don’t have the lakes and tourism … if you’ve got dirty water. And if you look at the things that can happen if you put corporate agriculture in the middle of something like that — it’s damning.” 

The ongoing battle

The latter issue is not hypothetical. Senate Bill 391, which became law in 2019, restricts local control. Under the law, a county can’t limit a CAFO’s presence within its borders as long as it meets state requirements to operate.

“The bill prevents a locality from passing a law more stringent than state law,” says Bullard. “So, localities can’t pass laws tailored to their own local conditions.”

Under this act, “any orders, ordinances, rules, or regulations promulgated by county commissions and county health center boards shall not impose standards or requirements on an agricultural operation and its appurtenances that are inconsistent with or more stringent than any provisions of law, rules, or regulations relating to the Department of Health and Senior Services, environmental control, the Department of Natural Resources, air conservation, and water pollution.”

Soon after it became law, the statute began making its way through the court system.

According to information from Missouri Collation for the Environment, the Cedar County Commission, the Cooper County Public Health Center, the nonprofit Friends of Responsible Agriculture and three property owners filed a suit against the new law on the grounds that it violated the Right-to-Farm amendment.

In September 2022, arguments were heard before the Missouri Supreme Court. 

“The state has legislated away local control to protect, to take these health ordinances and help the committees. They’ve said you can’t have anything more stringent than the state level,” says Parnell, who served as chair of the Missouri Clean Water Commission for several years. That experience, he says, showed him efforts to whittle down the state’s regulations to protect water. 

What is the Schoolcraft Chapter of the Ozark Society? 

The water conference is the first to be organized by the Schoolcraft Chapter of the Ozark Society, which was revived in 2020 after years of inactivity. It is one of seven sub-organizations tied to the larger society, which was founded in 1962 and initially existed to help protect the Buffalo River.

Bullard proposed the idea for the local conference, which ties to its commitment to conservation, recreation and education tied to outdoor spaces. He helped execute it along with Parnell, Jessica Luraas, chair of the rivers committee, and members Barbara Lucks and Marisa Frazier as a way to address broad-strokes issues facing the region. 

“It’s a constantly evolving threat, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next,’ says Parnell. “The Buffalo is a perfect example. We almost lost it to being dammed, and we almost lost it in 2012 to a pig CAFO they put on Big Creek that put it on the top 10 list of most endangered rivers. It survived both of those, but who knows what the next threat is — it’s out there.

“That’s why you want to have an organization like the Ozark Society, like the Schoolcraft Chapter here in the Ozarks, that can respond and take action and generate grassroots interest.”

For more information about the “Year of the River” conference, click here. To learn more about the Ozark Society’s Schoolcraft Chapter, click here

Kaitlyn McConnell

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project through which she has documented the region’s people, places and defining features since 2015. McConnell regularly shares her stories with readers of the Springfield Daily Citizen. Contact her at: More by Kaitlyn McConnell More by Kaitlyn McConnell