JOPLIN — Half the creek and river sites recently tested for fecal bacteria in a two-county area were unsafe for swimming.
Officials with the health departments in Jasper and Newton counties initiated their tests just as residents such as Miriah Judd make for the water.
Soaked through after a dip in Center Creek, Judd, of Purcell, dried in the sun on the boat ramp at the river access just north of Joplin earlier this week.
"When I get the opportunity, I'd be out here five days a week," said Judd. "We'll be out here a lot."
"We swim any time we can," added Angela Smith, of Oronogo, who also had dropped by to stay cool. Temperatures that afternoon were in the upper 80s.
Smith said she grew up camping and swimming along Spring River, but she gave that up, "because the water is nasty."
"Carthage has it really bad," she added.
Judd said she used to swim near the low-water bridge in Shoal Creek.
"I don't go as often now since I've heard about all of the stuff. I try to come out here more," she said of Center Creek.
The latest round of tests showed that the Stone's Corner access on Center Creek where Judd had been swimming was safe, but elsewhere in the Ozarks, E. coli remains a problem.
E. coli is a bacterial species that in large doses can cause illnesses ranging from meningitis to urinary tract infections.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources last week shut down the swimming beach at Mark Twain State Park, the day-use beach at Truman State Park and Public Beach No. 1 at the Lake of the Ozarks. Those beaches will remain closed until future water samples show that bacteria levels have fallen to safe levels.
None of the Corps of Engineers' beaches at Stockton Lake or Table Rock Lake are closed because of E. coli. War Eagle Park at Beaver Lake in Northwest Arkansas was closed after tests on May 11 found elevated levels of E. coli. The beach is being retested but remained closed as of Thursday.
Tests in Newton County on May 4 found that two of 14 sites tested for E. coli had levels above the standard deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. But two weeks later, on May 18, after several days of heavy rain, the county found 16 of 22 sites at unsafe levels. Sites tested along Shoal Creek — including Tipton Ford, Wildcat Park and just above Grand Falls — were unsafe. Several sites had E. coli levels that were many times above the federal limit of 235 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.
The Newton County Health Department received funding from the Environmental Resources Coalition and Missouri American Water Co., in cooperation with the Environmental Task Force of Jasper and Newton Counties, to monitor for fecal bacteria.
The goal is to develop a watershed plan to reduce pollution levels in Shoal Creek.
"Given the fiasco at the Lake of the Ozarks, we just want to make sure the public knows we were sampling and we would have the data on our website," said Bob Kulp, administrator of the Newton County Health Department.
Kulp was referring to the DNR's failure last year to close beaches and warn residents after elevated bacteria levels were found at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Newton County officials already have conducted two rounds of testing and will be conducting tests every other week through the summer.
Jasper County began its first round of sampling Tuesday, with results posted Thursday on the Health Department's website, said Tony Moehr, department director. Of 21 sites that were sampled, six had elevated E. coli levels. The highest was on Turkey Creek at Kenser Road, where levels were almost twice that deemed safe by the EPA.
"In a lot of cases, the results weren't too bad, but it's an ever-changing situation," Moehr said. "The fact that we have one level at one point on one day doesn't mean it will be that way the next day. People should be conscientious about swimming in natural waters, and they should remember that it's generally worse after a rain."
Testing in previous years has found elevated levels of E. coli regularly in Spring River, with or without rain, and in parts of upper Shoal Creek.
Given the levels of pollution, however, Kulp said there have been few health problems.
"We're not seeing any waterborne outbreaks," he said. "That's fortunate. I've been surprised given some of the high numbers we have seen."
Moehr said Jasper County may seek funding from the Environmental Resources Coalition that would be used to expand testing to more sites.
"We'd continue the sites we have now," he said. "We're testing at several sites on all the major streams to get a snapshot of what's going on countywide. If we get the funding, we plan to add some smaller tributaries, as a way to focus in on what's going on in some smaller areas."