DNR's initial-laden language clouds understanding of Hinkson Creek

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | 1:31 p.m. CDT; updated 5:42 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 28, 2009

The headlines were eye-catching. The state Department of Natural Resources (better known as simply the DNR) was headed toward demanding a reduction of up to two-thirds in storm water runoff in the Hinkson Creek watershed.

I live in the Hinkson Creek watershed, as do most Columbians, and my sump pump contributes to storm water runoff – it runs down my driveway, along the streetside gutter, into the storm sewer at the corner and, eventually, into the creek. By the time it gets there, I’m pretty sure it’s no longer pristine.

So I went along Tuesday night to the public meeting called by DNR, as the news release put it, “seeking comments on a draft Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, document describing pollutant reductions needed to improve water quality in the Hinkson Creek study area.” The news release explained helpfully, “Hinkson Creek is located near Columbia in Boone County.”

Actually, the Hinkson runs from northeast of the city through our eastern and southern sections, then out to the southwest, where it empties into Perche Creek. The “impaired segment,” in DNR-speak, is 24 miles long. The pollutant is “unknown,” and the source of the unknown pollutant is “urban runoff.”

The comments on Tuesday came from three sets of stakeholders. The city and county planners who’ll have to figure out how to meet the new requirements sounded confused but cooperative. A couple of citizens who live by the creek sounded confused but eager for solutions. And Donnie Stamper, speaking as usual for the developers, sounded confused but skeptical.

If you sense a theme here, you’re not alone. Your correspondent spent much of the evening confused.

Part of my confusion, though not that of the experts, arose from the initial-laden language they speak. A TMDL, it turns out, is the “maximum amount of pollutant a water body can absorb and still meet quality standards.” The preferred way to meet those standards, I learned, is by employing BMPs. Those are Best Management Practices, including rain gardens, retention basins and paving that lets the water through.

The more serious source of confusion was the vagueness of the TMDL document itself. As Anne Peery of the DNR explained it, the document seems to be more aspirational than directive. Once it’s approved by DNR and the federal EPA, it will set goals but not prescribe how they must be met, other than by use of those BMPs.

Asked for a time line to measure success, for example, she replied that DNR will expect “good-faith efforts” and then will monitor the effect of those efforts in “year two, three — I don’t know.”

Her DNR colleague, pressed to explain how he came up with his figures, finally said, “Part of the approach was a little bit intuitive.” That left Stamper, for one, demanding more data.

“The development community wants a healthy Hinkson Creek,” he said. “But we want to make sure we’re spending money on what’s going to work.” Stamper volunteered that the developers would fund a detailed study of water quality. Ms. Peery took a note and said she’ll pass that offer along to the DNR decision-makers.

All parties did appear to agree that, as one of the creek-side residents said, “The floods keep getting higher and lasting longer.” Those floods are cutting the creek bed deeper, depositing sand and trash where it wasn’t before, and disturbing water quality and the balance of aquatic life. The runoff from streets, parking lots and roofs carries pollution into the creek.

This “flashiness” of the creek – greater extremes of high and low water – is due mainly to increased development in the watershed, the DNR has concluded. That’s why it wants to reduce the runoff.

The city and county are working on plans to do that. No doubt those will involve expensive BMPs to achieve the TMDL goal.

One thing that’s clear enough is that we’re all going to wind up paying, one way or another, for our sins of over development.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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