Liquid paradox

The sources of pollution crippling Hinkson Creek remain a mystery, which makes solutions even more elusive
Friday, June 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:14 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Quinn Long believes a spill in Hinkson Creek nearly cost him his life.

In August 2000, Long, a whitewater paddler and then-student at MU, tipped into Hinkson Creek during a kayak run and got some creek water in his nose. A few weeks later, Long lay nearly dead in a bed in a St. Louis hospital.

“I had a temperature of 107, vomiting, chills, and aches and pains,” he said.

In an interview earlier this month, Long, who now lives in Lawrence, Kan., said that when he first went to Boone Hospital Center, doctors told him he had a bad flu.

After a barrage of tests and stays at three different hospitals, however, Long was diagnosed with leptospirosis, a rare bacterial infection caused by internal exposure to water or food contaminated with the urine of infected animals.

The disease ravaged Long’s body and kept him bedridden and on antibiotics for almost two months. At the height of the illness, most of his internal organs, including his lungs, liver and heart, were close to failing.

“I was very, very close to death. I thought I was dying,” he said. “I’d come to terms that that was a reality.”

Long said the likelihood of infection was aggravated by the August sun cooking Hinkson’s water and the fact that his trip coincided with the first heavy rain in weeks.

“The water stank. It was clearly dirty. Even before I got sick I’d already decided I wasn’t going to do it again.”

Long’s ordeal is evidence that Hinkson Creek is in trouble, but to the casual observer, it might be hard to tell.

As it winds through Grindstone Nature Area in southeast Columbia, and elsewhere along its course, Hinkson Creek’s banks and surrounding habitat are a haven for wildlife. Deer, red fox and beaver call the forest home. Woodpeckers flit among cottonwood and sycamore. Blue herons soar above the watershed, and flocks of turkey vultures laze in creekside roosts.

Despite its beauty, Hinkson Creek is decidedly an urban stream, cutting through some of Columbia’s most developed areas, its water laced with a suspected mix of fertilizer, fuel, pesticides and pet droppings. Homes and businesses encroach on its banks and exacerbate the erosion and pollution that comes with heavy rain.

Environmental agencies agree the creek, with a watershed that encompasses nearly 50,000 acres in Boone County, has significant problems. A study by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources -- with help from local volunteers and the Missouri Department of Conservation -- is under way to pinpoint what sorts of pollutants contaminate the creek and exactly where they’re coming from. Although the first sets of data from that study might become public as early as next week, it will be years before a comprehensive strategy is in place to protect the stream. While the DNR is working to figure out the inscrutable waterway, local officials hope to design more immediate solutions to a problem that, in many ways, remains a mystery.

Impaired by “unknown pollutants”

In the fall of 2003, a team from the Environmental Services Program at the DNR began a yearlong effort to test various sites along the 14 miles of Hinkson Creek that the agency considers impaired by “unknown pollutants.” The team’s task is solving those unknowns.

Randy Crawford, a supervisor in the DNR’s water-quality monitoring section, said his team has analyzed samples collected at “potential problem areas” along the creek. Those include the area behind Broadway Marketplace on Conley Road, where runoff from a sea of pavement pollutes the stream and erodes its banks during heavy rains; and, just a little farther north, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s maintenance facility, where construction fleets refuel and mounds of road-building materials sit a stone’s throw from the creek.

The stream also runs beneath Interstate 70. Always a potential pollutant, the highway is a double threat now as construction crews work on its interchange with U.S. 63.

A 2002 report from the DNR lists those sites as possible sources of pollution, as well as the city landfill in northeast Columbia and the Columbia Country Club golf course east of Old 63 and south of Business Loop 70. Crawford said the data from preliminary tests have yet to be fully interpreted.

“We have some information,” he said. “But, we can get ourselves into trouble if we release it before it’s conclusive.”

Crawford said new data were originally set to be released this fall, but Columbians’ fervent interest in the creek has prompted the agency to divulge the data in a series of status reports, the first of which could come within the week.

To gather the data, DNR sampled Hinkson’s water during winter, spring, summer and fall. Crawford said his team has gathered most of the samples after heavy rains, when it’s most likely pollutants are being washed into the water.

The team collects some samples in jars and, in select spots along the creek, it places sampling devices to collect water when the creek reaches a certain level. Crawford joked that although the study is complex, it seldom involves more than collecting water in the rain and taking it to a lab.

“Pretty glamorous, isn’t it?” he said.

After Crawford’s team completes its study this summer, the DNR will develop a “total maximum daily load,” telling developers and others what they can and can’t discharge into the creek and how they can protect it. Those results, however, are at least three years away.

Volunteers get active

Many Columbians, however, refuse to wait years before acting, so they’re taking matters into their own hands - with a little help from the city, the state and the federal government, that is.

The DNR has enlisted help from volunteer “stream teams,” which it trains to collect water samples alongside DNR staff. Crawford said data collected by volunteers usually are rated Level 1, 2 or 3, depending on the skill level of the volunteer, and placed in a database for the DNR to verify later.

But on Hinkson Creek, the agency is doing something different. The DNR has trained three Columbians to provide more advanced Level 4 stream data on Hinkson. Volunteers collect samples according to DNR protocols, and then send them directly to the DNR lab for analysis.

Meanwhile, a Columbia-based group called Show-Me Clean Streams has won a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to work on Hinkson Creek’s problems over the next four years, group president Jim Czarnezki said.

In partnership with city and county officials, the Sierra Club, the Greenbelt Coalition and high school biology classes, Show-Me Clean Streams will create materials for developers and the media, stabilize creek banks, plant acres of trees and rain gardens, and teach residents how to protect the creek.

“We will be publicly educating builders on how to minimize storm-water runoff,” Czarnezki said.

City officials also are stepping up efforts to ensure developers build properly in Hinkson’s watershed.

Public Works Director Lowell Patterson said that since the DNR put a hold on more than 25 development permits in the watershed for about a month last winter, the city has hired additional inspectors to visit construction sites and enforce erosion-control policies. Patterson said inspectors, who used to give only verbal warnings, now note any violations in writing.

Patterson emphasized that the city has gone beyond what the EPA requires for addressing storm-water issues, and that until studies of Hinkson Creek are complete, the city probably won’t develop specific rules about that watershed. Instead, officials will address problems site by site.

“If some places are identified as sources that need to be addressed,” he added, “this community is going to step up to that responsibility.”

The city is also in early discussions with the owners of the Wal-Mart Supercenter at Broadway Marketplace to help put some water-quality protections in place behind the store, Patterson said. That could include stabilizing the creek banks and creating storm-water basins, Patterson said.

He added that the city is once again signing off on development permits for the Hinkson Creek watershed.

“I don’t think anyone can expect the state, with its limited resources, to do that,” he said. “We could get the permits from DNR directly, but Columbia wants us to do more, so we’re doing that.”

Meanwhile, city officials are developing a new storm-water management ordinance to protect waterways like Hinkson Creek.

Jeff Barrow, vice president of the Greenbelt Coalition of Mid-Missouri and a member of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission who has made storm-water issues his primary cause, is also a member of a task force that’s drafting the new rules. The group is composed of environmentalists, developers and officials of the city, county, DNR and the conservation department.

Barrow said the EPA’s Phase II storm-water-control program requires smaller cities such as Columbia to have controls within five years ensuring that developers protect streams even after they build. The task force has decided a primary strategy should be stream buffers, an idea Barrow believes is the perfect solution. Stream buffers are linear strips of land along both sides of a creek that are set aside for trees and shrubs and strictly off limits to development.

“It would be a ‘no-touch zone,’” Barrow said. “It would allow storm water to be filtered and absorbed before it gets into the creek.”

Barrow said the buffers would also help with two of Hinkson Creek’s major problems: bank erosion and impaired aquatic life.

“The trees and shrubs growing on the edge of the creek help hold the soil,” he said. “It also provides a wildlife habitat and shades the water in the summer so it doesn’t get so hot and kill all the life.”

“It’s beautiful. It’s an elegant solution.”

While the task force is still negotiating where the buffer would start, what land activities would be allowed and exactly how to define a stream, Barrow said members have agreed a buffer is a simple, low-cost solution.

Once the ordinance is drafted, the task force also plans to develop a storm-water management manual for developers so everyone that wants to build in Columbia will have instructions on how to do so while protecting local streams.

Patterson said that while the new storm-water policies could help protect Hinkson Creek, the two efforts aren’t necessarily related.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but we are certain of one thing,” he said. “We are going to be implementing more protective measures than we have now.”

While members of the Columbia development community agree Hinkson should be protected, most believe they need the DNR to give them more information about the contamination.

Don Stamper, executive director of the Central Missouri Development Council and former Boone County presiding commissioner, said that until the state has finished its testing, it’s too soon to tell whether urban runoff is the most significant factor polluting the creek, especially when compared to agricultural pollution.

“Streams are brown before they even reach the city,” he said. “The idea that (the DNR findings) will have some blanket impact on development is premature. It depends on what are identified as the pollutants.”

Stamper said the best thing to come out of the Hinkson Creek debate is that many more developers now understand the importance of careful storm-water management.

“We don’t want to pollute, we want to handle our projects right,” he said. “We think the discussion should continue.”

Liquid paradox continued...

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