Summer’s crush of visitors is trashing the Current River, raising water-quality concerns for one of the main streams of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
The Current River is a popular place for canoeing, fishing, camping and swimming. More than 1.5 million people visit the Ozark National Scenic Riverways every year, and 64 percent of them come in the summer, according to the National Park Service. Almost half of these summer visitors come on Saturdays.
Robin Fritschle, who lives in St. Louis, camped along the Current River with her two sisters. She said it gets crowded on weekends and that many people don’t care about keeping it clean.
“It was bothering me to see young kids throwing cans,” she said. “They just don’t care about it.”
Ozark National Scenic Riverways is the only river system in Missouri designated as “Outstanding National Resource Waters” by the U.S. Congress. It was created in 1964 to protect the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the Ozark Highlands of southeastern Missouri. It means the river should receive special protection against any degradation in quality.
But it doesn’t look protected to some visitors.
“When I floated down here from the upper stream, I saw a lot of cans in the riverbeds,” said Astrid Sahl, 38, of Tulsa who camped at Pulltite, one of the campgrounds along the Current River.
“It is unfortunate to see people throwing away cans. I don’t want to see trash with so much beautiful scenery and diverse kinds of fish, birds and trees.”
However, there is good news.
“Cans are definitely a visual eyesore but don’t cause much pollution,” said Jerri Davis, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Aluminum does not dissolve in water. And a little remnant of beer can be diluted by clean water.”
But littering is not the only source of trash problems. Canoes tip over, then contents inside of them sink.
“Even a very skilled person can lose control of a canoe,” said Ron Smith, who works for Akers Ferry-a canoe rental shop. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to pick up cans from the bottom.”
Not just cans. Plastic cups, socks, shoes and even eye-glasses are picked up. The National Park Service puts the River Cleanup Crew in the river every week, usually weekdays just after the weekend. But there are just four crew members.
“They cover 134 miles of the two rivers as much as they can in a canoe,” said William Beteta, a management assistant for Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
He added that they would like to hire more people to help.
An eight-mile stretch of the Jacks Fork River was included on Missouri’s list of impaired waters in 1998 as required by the Federal Clean Water Act. The U.S. Geological Survey has been working on sorting out sources of pollution in the river for more than four years and will need at least one more year to finalize the study, Davis said.
The reason the Ozark rivers are unique is that they seem to start out of nowhere. A look at a Missouri map shows two blue lines suddenly appearing in its southeast. More than 60 percent of the rivers’ flow comes from seven major springs and 51 other springs of various sizes. Big Spring, one of the largest springs in the United States, has an average flow of 276 million gallons of water per day. Clean water coming from springs purifies the rivers all the time.