COLUMBIA —Jason Hubbart climbs down a rocky hill next to the East Broadway bridge over Hinkson Creek, toward a large metal box with the words "Hinkson Water Quality Project" stamped on it.
He pulls open a door on the front of the box to reveal an inside filled with wires, circuit boards and pumps.
Outside, the wires and tubes run along the side of the bridge, down into Hinkson Creek a few meters away.
The machines are collecting data on Hinkson's depth, sediment content and temperature, along with local climate data.
The box is one of five monitoring stations Hubbart has set up along the Hinkson to collect measurements on the stream every few minutes, 365 days a year, for the next four years.
Since 2004 the segment of Hinkson Creek that passes through Columbia has been placed on the Missouri Department of Natural Resources 303(d) impaired stream list, meaning pollution is too high for swimming, drinking and maintaining aquatic life, among other things.
Hubbart, an MU natural resources professor and researcher, is studying how the ever-expanding urban environment in Columbia affects physical processes and the biological life in the creek.
His study is being funded by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources through a $347,000 federal Clean Water Act grant to help determine what exactly is wrong with the creek — and how to fix it.
Ideally, Hubbart said, the data he collects will also be used to design better urban planning practices that protect the Hinkson and other urban watersheds.
"I firmly believe that to understand future issues related to climate change and urban development, we need to understand the physical processes we're affecting," he said.
The simple way of looking at it is this: the large majority of Columbia lies within the Hinkson Creek watershed, meaning all the drainage from parking lots, lawns and storm water eventually makes its way into the larger Hinkson Creek.
Water in the creek, in turn, eventually finds its way to the Missouri River, which ends in the Gulf of Mexico.
"We're really only a few steps from the ocean," said Thomas Stokely, one of Hubbart's research assistants.
Hubbart's monitoring stations collect data on the depth and sediment content of the stream, and Stokely is setting up additional monitoring stations to collect data on the temperature of draining storm water going into the stream.
All of the data as a whole will, according to Hubbart, provide a "big picture" of what exactly is happening in the watershed at any given time, be it a flood-scale storm or a drought.
"The project as it stands now is pretty well supported for the next four years, and that's going to supply many of the answers to the issues that are being brought up," Hubbart said. Those issues include how much water is coming down the creek every year, what peak flows are like, and how much rain it takes for the creek to flood.
Columbia’s actions as a community continuously impact the stream; changing the physical processes through land use.
To lessen the environmental impact development causes, developers can use development and construction methods that minimize environmental impact, or best management practices.
Hubbart has a long history of working with and studying the best management practices and specific ways developers and the government protect natural resources from development.
An example of a best management practice in Columbia is retention ponds, where storm water from an urban area drains, and then is slowly released back into the watershed, as opposed to going straight into the creek.
Retention ponds, when designed correctly for a given area, can slow the release of water into a stream and significantly cut down on flooding and erosion.
There are many management practices for many different situations, and no single one will work in every place, said Don Stamper of the Central Missouri Development Council, which represents local developers.
Hubbart said his data will eventually provide the "big picture" for the Hinkson watershed. In particular, it will identify which management practices are working and which ones could be improved.
In terms of protecting watersheds, Hubbart said the Midwest is about 30 years behind the West. "It takes people that are thinking progressively," he said. "You've got to keep pushing for improved understanding and improved best management practices if we are to reduce costs while sustaining water and natural resources."
For Hubbart, that means supplying hard data and results to governments and developers so they can get an idea of the long-term effects of their actions.
Hinkson Watershed Restoration Committee, which Hubbart acts as a scientific adviser for, is working on a storm-water management plan to be presented to the Columbia City Council.
The plan will potentially supplement the stream buffer ordinance, as well as storm-water management practices.
The group is made up of stakeholders from the Boone County Commission, Columbia city government, MU and the community. Their goal, along with helping remove the Hinkson Creek from the list of impaired streams, is to help educate residents about their impacts on the creek and what kinds of watershed preservation practices are available.
"A lot of people don’t realize they live in the Hinkson Creek watershed," committee stakeholder and Sierra Club representative Ken Midkiff said. "That’s part of the problem. If the Hinkson weren't here, Columbia wouldn't be here."
Trish Rielly, the Department of Natural Resources liaison for Hubbart's research, looks at the research as contributing recommendations for local governments.
"The research will eventually be useful in formulating the total maximum daily load for Hinkson," Rielly said. The total maximum daily load is how much pollution it takes to label the creek as impaired.
Once the total maximum daily load is put together using research data from Hubbart and other researchers, the state will make recommendations to Columbia on what must be done to remove Hinkson Creek from the impaired stream list.
But to properly construct a total maximum daily load, the Department of Natural Resources needs as much information as possible about the creek, information that has never been collected on the scale or duration Hubbart is doing now.
For now and the foreseeable future, Hubbart said, he will continue working full time to keep his monitoring stations working properly and collecting data.
"The end result of all this," he said, "is to build better tools so that the managers and developers can plan better."