Sorting out stream standards

Thursday, October 9, 2008 | 1:14 p.m. CDT; updated 3:31 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 10, 2008

COLUMBIA — Swimmers, anglers, waders, boaters and policy wonks, take note. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is gearing up to make changes to which streams and creeks are subject to state bacteria-level standards.

Statewide, 47 streams have been recommended as not deep enough for swimming, or “whole body contact recreation,” in the language of the state agency. This means that sewer and wastewater utilities that discharge into these streams don’t have to disinfect their effluent for fecal bacteria.

In Boone County, the streams that would be affected by the proposed designations include: 

•    Callahan Creek, Kelley Branch and North Fork Grindstone Creek, which are suggested as deep enough for wading or “secondary contact recreation.”

•    Hominy Creek and Sugar Branch, which have been suggested as deep enough for swimming.

•    An unnamed tributary to Perche Creek near the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, which is suggested as not deep enough for swimming.

The secondary contact recreation designation carries with it a more lenient bacteria-level standard that’s about nine times higher than the standard for streams deemed suitable for swimming, according to drafts of the proposed laws.

The process is part of the department’s three-year review of its water quality standards.  It closed its public comment period on Aug. 31, after extending it an extra month. The goal was to get public input on how Missourians were using their streams to see if the department’s recommendations were accurate, said John Hoke, an environmental specialist with the state.

The public comments, the designation recommendations and the field reports on each stream are what the Clean Water Commission will be examining when it votes on the issue in November.  There will be another public comment period before the recommendations become law.

Tom Ratermann of the Boone County Regional Sewer District said that if Sugar Branch is designated as suitable for swimming, it would affect the Trails West lagoon that discharges into the stream.

The lagoon would have to be closed and replaced with a pump station that would pump to the Midway Crossings facility, where the capacity would have to be increased at a cost of about $1.4 million, Ratermann said.

The district does not discharge into Hominy Creek. 

Ratermann said it wasn’t clear to him if the designation of Callahan Creek, Kelley Branch and North Fork Grindstone as suitable for secondary contact recreation would mean the sewer district would have to disinfect effluent there. There’s a total of four facilities positioned on those streams.

The potential designations weren’t factored into the bond issue approved by Boone County voters in April because the district wasn’t aware that the state was considering the changes. 

“We worked up a plan and a program to stay in compliance,” Ratermann said. “The sewer district went to Boone County voters and said, ‘This is what’s needed to stay in compliance.’ The voters approved the program in April, and now DNR is still changing things.”

“It puts us in a bit of a tenuous position, ” Ratermann said. “My hope would be that the DNR would give us more time to come into compliance with these late-in-the-game changes.”  

Hoke said that the secondary contact designation may require sewer districts and wastewater districts to disinfect – but it depends on a number of factors. 

“It depends on how well the facility's operating,” Hoke said, “as well as the distance and time and travel to the receiving stream. It’s really a site-specific designation.”

Columbia Environmental Services Manager Steve Hunt said that these proposed designations would not affect the city because it discharges effluent from its wastewater utility into constructed wetlands and is already meeting bacteria standards.

How streams are classified

The department collected field reports to see if streams were suitable for swimming or wading. Depth was the most important factor in determining whether a creek or stream is suitable for swimming.

In the department’s eyes, a stream must be at least 3.28 feet in its deepest pool or 1.64 feet deep on average, to be considered suitable for swimming. The rules specify these depths should be measured when a stream is at its lowest levels.

Those conducting reports also had to keep their eyes peeled for telltale signs around the stream that indicated human contact with the streams. Callahan Creek, for example, was recommended for secondary contact recreation because inspectors found fishing lures and fireworks on its banks. 

Interviews with people around the streams were included on some, but not all, reports.

A company called SES Inc., based out of Merriam, Kan., completed the field reports for all the streams listed in the beginning of this article. For Callahan Creek, the state agency also pitched in its own field reports. All reports were conducted in 2007. Ratermann said he has had no contact with the company during the process.

And for him, using criteria like the presence of a bench or fishing lures isn’t solid enough evidence of secondary contact recreation.

“Some of the evidence seems a little scanty,” Ratermann said.

Ken Midkiff, chair of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign, said he has issues with the level of bacteria allowed in streams with a secondary contact recreation status.

One of his main points of contention is that if a creek is shallow and only designated for wading, there’s still a chance that someone’s whole body could come into contact with the stream.

“The federal Clean Water Act doesn’t make a distinction between whether you intend to go in the water or whether you fall in," Midkiff said. "The result is the same. Your body has come into contact with the water.”

Children, he said, also seek out shallow areas to lie down. Their whole body can come into contact with a stream that doesn’t meet the state’s depth requirement.

Midkiff says he’s submitted a complaint to this effect to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rocky standards

The road to Missouri’s current water quality standards has at times been as rocky as some of the creeks and streams that lace the state.

In 2005, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment sued the EPA, charging that the federal agency failed to make sure that all waters in the state were “fishable and swimmable” under  standards set  in 1972 by the federal Clean Water Act. 

The lawsuit was settled, and the state Department of Natural Resources was prompted to amend its water quality standards.

At that point, the department already kept a list of streams classified with uses such as “whole body contact recreation.” After the lawsuit, it deemed the majority of these classified streams suitable for swimming.

However, not all streams in the state are on this list of classified streams. Officially, they are unclassified. One such stream is Flat Branch Creek in Columbia.

A stream not on the list still has general water quality protections, Hoke explained, but there are no bacterial standards for it. It isn’t designated as suitable for swimming, wading or any other human recreation activity.

However — perhaps unsurprisingly for a stream that runs through downtown — signs that people come into contact with Flat Branch abound.

At the city’s Hinkson Clean Sweep on Sept. 27, children stood in the water and on rocks in the creek, picking up trash.

The creek winds its way through a park bearing its name and is skirted by a paved path and dotted with benches. On the MKT trail, a dirt path near the 0.5 trail marker cuts through the underbrush from the MKT to Flat Branch’s banks.

Similarly, paths and benches are cited in field reports as reasons some of the classified streams — such as Callahan Creek and North Fork Grindstone Creek — should be deemed suitable for wading.

What’s more, a partially paved trail connects Clarkson Road to the MKT trail and  runs through Flat Branch. When water levels are high enough, the stream gurgles steadily over the concrete, forcing hikers to hitch up their pants and step gingerly across. On a recent autumn day, a jogger stepped through it on her way to the MKT, and two men on bikes slowed down as they rolled over the pavement and through the shallow rush of water.

Hoke said one of the reasons a stream wouldn’t be classified is because the process of sweeping the state and figuring out how streams are used takes time.

He said that if the department got word of people swimming in a stream that wasn’t classified, the next steps would be to confirm this and put it on the list.

With regards to Flat Branch, Hoke said the department has a special interest in urban streams and has created a small streams work group that will discuss unclassified streams and the possibilities of getting them on the list.

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