Today we visit Valley Water Mill Park, operated on land leased by the Springfield-Greene County Park Board from the owner, City Utilities of Springfield. Most Springfield-area residents have heard of “Valley Water Mill,” or the county road of the same name, also known as Farm Road 102.
But not everyone seems to know that, since 2010, this nearly 100-acre site just northeast of Springfield, once home to a 19th-century grain mill, has been a public park with hiking and strolling paths and a 13-acre lake.
It’s also the home of the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks headquarters.
Mike Kromrey, Watershed Committee Executive Director, would like more people to know about what he calls “The Nature Center North.”
“Valley Water Mill Park is a special place,” he told me. “It started out as a mill—grain was ground in the grist mill in the late 1800s. Along about that time, the city of Springfield needed a public water supply, and Fullbright Springs, which is sort of up near the [Dickerson Park] Zoo, was chosen.”
Soon it was discovered that Valley Water Mill was somehow connected to Fullbright Springs, said Kromrey.
“So the Public Water Company actually purchased Valley Water Mill. That water company was purchased by City Utilities. City Utilities inherited, so to speak, this land, and they have graciously allowed us to use it for the purpose of educating the community about our water resources.”
A part of the Springfield-Greene County Park system, it became a public park around 2010, according to Kromrey.
Not long after that, the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks relocated to Valley Water Mill Park, in the C.W. Titus Education Facility, a building made of recycled materials and utilizing state-of-the-art energy conservation techniques. Barely 20 steps outside the Titus building, you’re on a walking trail in a forest with a stream running nearby.
“You do feel like you’re stepping into nature,” said Mike Kromrey as we started walking the path. “The sounds of the city sort of fall away, and now you can maybe hear the late-summer crickets and grasshoppers, and the birds around us. It’s a wonderful place to escape.”
The park’s nearly two miles of walking and hiking trails are part of the Great Missouri Birding Trail, with an excellent diversity of waterfowl in the winter, migrating warblers in the fall and spring, and many resident birds, both common and uncommon.
“It’s a great spot to do birdwatching because we have a big mash-up of habitats, all in this relatively small area. We have the lake and the spring and the creek, we have upland forest, bottomland forest, restored savannah and even some restored prairie. So we have all these different types of habitat that can attract and harbor different types of birds—especially as they’re migrating,” Kromrey said.
As if on cue, as Kromrey talked we could hear the call of a Carolina wren not far away.
I asked Kromrey to define the term “watershed,” and he was eager to oblige.
“Watershed is what it’s all about, because our rivers and streams can only be as healthy as the land around them. And that land is what we call ‘watershed.’ To make our part of the watershed healthier, cleaner, better, a lot of what we’re doing is restoring native habitat and removing invasive species. We restored a glade area, and there was this endangered little yellow flower. And we hadn’t seen it for five years, and we thought we’d lost it. But after we went through that area with our restoration efforts, it came back like a phoenix from the ashes! Randy, it was like getting a high-five from Mother Nature! It was just so wonderful,” he told me.
It really validated what they’re trying to accomplish out there, he added.
Central to the mission of Valley Water Mill Park and the Watershed Committee is to educate the public about preserving water quality in the Ozarks. As Kromrey and I talked, there was a tour group of about 20 Hickory Hills Middle School students walking into the forest behind us.
Some 100 students from Hickory Hills were bussed in to the park that warm September morning to study the habitat and learn how to do water-quality testing.
Kromrey and I briefly eavesdropped on Debbie, an auxiliary teacher funded by Springfield Public Schools for the “Greener Green Spaces” program. She was instructing the kids on how to collect the water samples and how to manipulate them with the water-testing kits they’d been provided.
Among many other things, she told them they would be checking the water’s “clarity versus turbidity,” or cloudiness.
Jeff Birchler is the Watershed Committee’s resident Educator.
“We’ll have all nine middle schools here, a little over 1900 middle school students from Springfield Public Schools, out here on two separate field trips. It’s an experiential activity here. So we’re asking students to be scientists,” Birchler said.
For the general public, Valley Water Mill Park, like other Park Board facilities, is open sunrise to sundown daily. The Watershed Committee offices are open 8am-5pm Monday through Friday.
Not all of the park’s mile and a half of trails are ADA accessible, says Watershed Committee Director Mike Kromley.
“But we do have quite a good distance of ADA-accessible trail, including two fishing piers. We have a nice boardwalk along the lake, and a little section of greenway trail. Those trails are very, very accessible. There is, I’d guess you’d say, a variety of difficulty from ‘easy’ to ‘medium’ here.”
And, being a public park, there’s no admission charge! For more information call 833-8647 or visit https://www.parkboard.org/287/Valley-Water-Mill-Park or https://watershedcommittee.org/.