ALTON, Ill.— The sun sparkled on the water as the Safety Valve put out from the marina. The water that seems so blue from a distance is murky as the boat pulls from shore.
The Safety Valve is Mike Bush's boat, so his friend Ron Markland occasionally calls him "captain." Bush's family dubbed the boat Safety Valve as it was a stress reliever for him to go out on the water.
But now the boat bears another name: St. Louis Confluence Riverkeeper.
It all started with a pleasure cruise, three old buddies on a boat trip around the eastern seaboard. Markland, Bush and Brock Lutz decided to circumnavigate the eastern third of the United States by water. It was just a vacation taken in segments over a few years, but along the way they saw a lot of water: "some of it wonderful and some of it horrible," Bush said.
Over 7,000 miles of waterways, they saw beautiful Canadian rivers where they could see 30 feet into the water, and in New Jersey they saw trash floating on a greasy surface.
"It looked like you could walk on it," Bush said.
By the time they got back, they had been inspired by the restoration of the Hudson River by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Riverkeepers, who were members of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. The three friends decided to form the St. Louis Confluence Riverkeeper to patrol the place where the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers converge.
At least once a month, the Riverkeepers — now a nonprofit organization with a 12-member board of directors — go out and look for signs of illegal dumping and human abuse on the river. They test the water for E. coli contamination — testing that is sorely needed, according to Richard Sparks, director of research at the National Great Rivers Museum and a member of the Riverkeepers' board.
Sparks called the Mississippi River an "orphan," a natural resource often ignored when it comes to monitoring and testing because of "limited interstate coordination."
"The limited attention devoted to monitoring the river's water quality is not commensurate with the Mississippi River's exceptional socioeconomic, cultural, ecological and historical value," stated the 2008 National Research Council Report on the water quality of the Mississippi.
"The Riverkeepers are doing what they can to fill this monitoring gap with the rivers close to St. Louis," Sparks said.
In 2008, the Waterkeeper Alliance approved the Confluence Riverkeepers and designated them as volunteer guardians of the confluence. There are more than 200 such organizations worldwide, watching and testing rivers, harbors, canals and other waterways for pollution and illegal dumping.
But what the Riverkeepers found was that illegal dumping and outright violations of the Clean Water Act were not really the problem. There was no 13-inch pipe dumping green bubbly chemicals into the water, Markland said — nor a river surface that spontaneously bursts into flames. There is one river in China so polluted, he said, that people are forbidden to approach it. Methane levels are so high that a boater would suffocate, he said.
The contamination of the Mississippi comes in much more subtle forms. It comes from barge engines that don't run well, spewing particulates behind them. It comes from fertilizer and household animal waste overflowing city drains. It runs off subdivisions and farms, city streets and factories. It all drains into the Mississippi and from there to the Gulf of Mexico — and our kitchen sinks, Markland pointed out.
In good weather, the Riverkeepers test once a month at 10 locations ranging from Pere Marquette State Park down past the Arch to the mouth of the Meramec River. But the unusual conditions of the river this year have made it impossible. The river has been closed to pleasure craft much of the year due to Coast Guard safety concerns.
"Not since the flood of '93 has the river been this high for this long," Bush said.
They have had to test as best they can from shore for much of the summer, using long poles to get samples as far out from the river's edge as possible.
But on a summer day in August, Bush and Markland set out for testing on the water, ranging from the Alton Marina northward — while the repairs at Lock 27 made it difficult for a small craft to make it downstream.
They are primarily checking for E. coli. St. Louis combines its sanitary and storm sewers in systems sometimes more than 100 years old, Bush said. When there is a great deal of rain or snow — as happens about 50 times a year — so much water floods the system that it can't be treated in the sewage plants. Therefore it gets dumped into the Mississippi.
"It's not (the city and county's) fault; they'd like to fix it," Bush said. But changing a system as old and complex as that of St. Louis could cost $2 billion to $3 billion, he said.
Meanwhile, an estimated 13 billion gallons of untreated water end up in the river each year, he said.
In fact, not long after the Riverkeepers tested after the floods in August, the Metropolitan Sewer District reported to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that storm overflows caused a line burst, flooding Martigney Creek with untreated wastewater at 1,500 gallons per minute, killing an unknown number of fish.
It's not just the sewers that affect the river, Bush said. Fertilizer runoff and sewage lagoons are part of the problem, plus there are more boats on the river, more people living along the river and despite the new emphasis on "green living," it's only slowed the deterioration.
"Most of the businesses make an effort now not to pollute," Bush said. "For one thing, they can't afford it if they get caught. But many of them do it because they should, because we're now in a more green era."
Drinking water is pulled from the Mississippi on both sides, and while it is treated, the systems must work that much harder when the water gets dirtier.
"The further north you go, the better it is," Bush said. "It affects the quality of life all up and down the river ... by the time it gets to the Gulf it can be pretty lethal."
Commercial fishing also is impacted by fish kills caused by pollution. "Our goal is not to put people out of business or to sue people," Markland said. "For 99 percent of people, if you point it out, they'd stop."
At each testing location, Bush or Markland would put on a rubber glove to gather a sample from below the surface of the water. The samples must be at the lab within six hours to be of any use, so they can't test the four locations north of Alton and the six to the south in a single day.
The standard for E. coli is 126 colonies per 100 ml of water, Sparks said. Levels of 235 colonies per 100 ml would cause eight out of 1,000 swimmers to get sick.
The Riverkeepers regularly find numbers well over that amount in the 10 locations they test, Sparks said. In fact, Bush said they have had readings as high as 1,500 colonies per 100 ml.
But the results from August's testing came back very low: 10 to 104 colonies per 100 ml at the four northern sites. Bush said he thinks it's due to the extended high water that washed away a lot of contamination.
Still, there are things ordinary residents can do to reduce their impact on the river. Properly maintaining a septic tank and trying not to use more water than necessary can help -- even brushing dry fertilizer pellets off your sidewalk so they don't end up in the storm sewers makes a big difference.
"People could really help just by picking up dog poop," Bush said. No one thinks about it that way, but when animal waste ends up in storm sewers it ends up right back into the Mississippi.
Despite environmental regulations, the Mississippi River has one of the largest "dead zones" in the world, with algae blooms and fish kills, Bush said. And yet it is one of the largest rivers in the world.
"We think of (those rivers) as full of exotic creatures, and we're unaware that right here we have the same," Bush said. "Treat the people downriver as you would want the people upriver to treat you ... The rivers are owned by the people, not by states or the government."