By Teresa Avila
The Worthwine Chute splits from the Missouri River like a country road from the highway. Here, the beavers build their lodge, the shovelnose sturgeon sucks nutrients from the mud and a cormorant disappears under the water for nearly a minute before reappearing. The river flows fast and straight in the main channel, but the slower path is where the local color is found.
The Worthwine Chute is a man-made channel north of St. Joseph that splits from the river’s main flow, runs for half a mile, then merges once again. Between the chute’s entrance and exit points, the Missouri Department of Conservation is working to build a better habitat for the river’s native wildlife.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the Missouri River would not have looked like the deep, driving channel it is today. The river once had sandbars, bluffs and channels everywhere, MDC research staff scientist Kasey Whiteman said.
Those structures have disappeared with human development, leaving little to no calm, shallow water along much of the Missouri River.
These areas, called riparian corridors, act as havens for fish, insects and birds to reproduce and mature. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Worthwine Chute in 2006 to mimic the winding channels that used to comprise the Missouri River. Organizations such as the MDC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave input for the design, and MDC now handles the chute’s operation.
After building the chute, the challenge is to determine whether it’s serving its purpose. For this, MDC workers have to take their cues from the fish.
“We need a way to match the chute to what’s in our heads,” Whiteman said. “We’re waiting for the fish to tell us.”
Research science supervisor Vince Trabnichek said as much while using two hands to hold up a blue sucker, a bottom-feeding fish with a mouth like a pink, extendable hose.
“Do things like the blue sucker like the habitat we’re creating?” Trabnichek said. “If so, then we’re doing something good. If we find babies, we’re really doing something good.”
The chutes improve with age, developing sandbars, slow-moving water and sloping banks. The Worthwine Chute doesn’t have these features yet, and may not develop them for years.
— Edited by Brendan Gibbons
Note: This post was edited on Sept. 24, 2012. It incorrectly said that the MDC built the chute. It was in fact built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the MDC handling current operations.