The changing flow of Hinkson
Hinkson Creek has always been a treasured part of the Columbia community. Children used to swim in it. College students and teenagers made its shore a popular party spot. Even today, when the level allows, local paddlers enjoy a quick trip down the creek through the heart of the city.
But the Hinkson Creek of 2004 is a lot different from the Hinkson Creek of years ago.
Ask Jim Disinger, a former U.S. Geological Survey employee, or Jim Whitley, a retired fisheries biologist for the conservation department. Both say that while the creek was tainted decades ago, it was nice enough that they swam in it as children.
Whitley said that in the 1960s and 1970s, Hinkson Creek was tainted by chemicals from farming, acid from coal mines and sewage from the city’s former sewage treatment plant. Still, he said, “it was pretty good then compared to what it is now.”
Disinger said the same. He began collecting and testing water from Hinkson Creek back in the 1960s, when he was only a boy. He continued doing so in his free time over the course of 20 years and became head of the now-defunct Hinkson Creek Watershed Workgroup.
Disinger, who now lives in Colorado, said the creek has been polluted ever since he can remember.
“No one had the responsibility to ensure for the creek’s safety at that time,” he said. “DNR didn’t have a program like that.”
Still, Whitley and Disinger both noted Hinkson Creek remains in “pretty good shape” before it reaches Columbia’s city limits. And Disinger blamed the creek’s deterioration on the burst of development over the past 30 years.
“There’s a lot more people there, and they put pesticides and herbicides on their lawns, and they drive cars, and they use gas,” Disinger said. “If development is close to a stream, it impairs it.”
Whitley, however, said there is no “smoking gun” pointing at a single cause of Hinkson Creek’s pollution. “(It’s) the accumulation of all kinds of factors,” he said.
Even though Disinger spent years gathering information on Hinkson Creek, he said his facts don’t exist in any government database because it’s not considered official. In fact, although state agencies such as the conversation department, the U.S. Geological Survey and the DNR each have documented problems in Hinkson Creek for years, it’s nearly impossible to amass complete records. That’s because there’s no catchall database for information on the creek.
Here’s what the official data do show. A conservation department database lists at least 28 reported contamination incidents since 1948, the bulk of which have happened since the 1980s. Most of the incidents, 11 of which killed fish in the stream, were caused by sewage leaks, acid from upstream coal mines or pollution spills washing off roads.
Leanna Zweig, a resource scientist with the conservation department’s Resource Science Division and the lead investigator on fish kills statewide, noted that the agency has documented several kills in Hinkson this year. And many, she said, are never documented because no one reports them.
Meanwhile, DNR representatives visited Hinkson Creek in 2002. Their report mentions a gasoline-like sheen on the creek’s surface and notes that runoff from the landfill, Broadway Marketplace and the country club golf course could be polluting the creek.The EPA perhaps has the most interesting evidence illustrating how city growth has harmed the creek. The agency has data from 1994 that shows Hinkson meeting Missouri’s standards for water quality. Ten years later, however, it falls short of the standards. It’s been considered officially “impaired” since 1998.
Over the same 10 years, DNR records indicate, the state has approved 41 storm-water land-disturbance permits in the Hinkson watershed. That means a significant amount of development and increased pollution levels have besieged Hinkson Creek at the same time.
Although studies have yet to prove a direct relationship between fish kills in the creek and rising contamination from development, most experts agree urban growth has exacerbated runoff from parking lots, roads and lawns.
Sure, the runoff pollutes the creek, but, even worse, it dumps far more water into the creek than it’s able to handle. Most officials suspect Hinkson Creek’s biggest problem is the sediment it rips from its own banks after heavy rains.
Whitley said sediment makes it difficult for sensitive fish to thrive.
Phil Schroeder, head of the DNR’s water-quality monitoring and assessment program, said fish kills caused by sediment are not an unsolvable problem.
“It’s not a serious degradation; it’s just that it’s not where it should be,” he said.
More work, fewer dollars
It wasn’t until six years after the EPA labeled Hinkson Creek impaired that the DNR finally began studying exactly what the problem is and how to stop it. While that might seem a long time to wait, DNR representatives say Columbia is lucky.
They say the agency has made Hinkson Creek a priority at a time when its resources are limited and it’s struggling through its fourth significant budget cut in as many years.
Scott Totten, head of DNR’s Water Protection and Soil Conservation Division, said that without more money and staff, it’s difficult for the state to do its job any faster.
Consider the following.
The DNR’s water-quality protection program has only 14 workers to cover the entire state, which includes about 50,000 miles of streams and 300,000 acres of lakes that must be reviewed every other year to assemble the impaired waters list for the EPA.
In 1998, the DNR listed 178 water bodies, including Hinkson Creek, as impaired. Hinkson is considered a “medium” priority, which means other creeks and lakes are in worse condition, and most have problems that are easier to solve. Some of those streams and lakes are used for swimming and drinking water.
And “there are still areas of the state that do not get studied at all,” Totten said.
To make matters worse, the department has only eight employees in its storm-water permitting department who review, issue and enforce storm-water permits. Totten said it’s a job that could easily keep 30 people busy.
Meanwhile, the agency has until 2008 to complete studies on all of Missouri’s original 178 impaired waters. And new impaired waters are added every other year. Totten said the DNR is on schedule with its tests and has completed studies of 74 waterways in six years.
Totten said there’s always room for improvement. But “that takes money,” he said. “Money and more people.”
Schroeder agreed that problems like those in Hinkson Creek could be handled more quickly if the DNR had more money.
“If we had more resources, sure we could tackle the problem more aggressively,” he said. “I’m not the one who makes the call on how aggressive we are.”
The ones making the call are legislators in the Missouri General Assembly, which in May approved a fourth consecutive budget cut for the DNR. The agency’s 2005 budget is $329 million, down from $332 million in 2004.
That includes a 4.7 percent cut to the DNR’s already-depleted general revenue budget, which has been cut 65 percent since 2001.
Carla Klein of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a news release that the DNR’s general revenue cuts, from about $26 million to $8.5 million over the past four years, are larger than those sustained by any other state department.
“As these cuts continue, the staff’s workload increases,” she said.
According to Klein’s calculations, a Missouri resident contributes as much each year to the DNR’s general revenue budget as he or she would spend on a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
Klein added that for the past two years, Missouri has ranked last in the country in the amount of money it gives to its state environmental protection agency.
“This, despite the fact that environmental protection is continually ranked as a priority for Missouri citizens,” she said. “So one might ask: Why would a state so blessed with an abundance of natural resources be ranked the lowest in the nation at protecting them?”
Totten said the cuts have been felt everywhere, even in the water-quality program, which gets 99 percent of its money from EPA grants and state permitting fees. The program has lost about $1.4 million of its general revenue budget over the past four years and spent about $2.4 million on monitoring in 2004, none of which came from general revenue.
Everyone at the DNR agrees state money isn’t enough to ensure Missouri waters are safe. That’s why the agency relies on EPA money and state fees.
Totten noted, however, that some of those fees expire in 2007 and will have to be reapproved by the legislature.
“This is not the year to ask for more money,” he said.
Those are some the reasons it takes so long to solve water-quality problems in a medium-priority stream such as Hinkson Creek. Sixteen staff members just can’t devote too much time to any one stream, Totten said.
Crawford, who supervises those 16 people, said their average salary is generally lower than those working for surrounding states. And he noted that they have a host of other duties in addition to water-quality testing, including monitoring sewer systems, landfills and aquatic life while educating developers, cities and volunteers on how to protect area streams and lakes. Crawford said the workers have had no significant raise in three years.
Despite the workload, Crawford said nearly all 16 members of his crew have spent time on Hinkson Creek.
That’s because concerned Columbia residents, such as the Sierra Club’s Ken Midkiff, are making noise. Midkiff wrote letters to the DNR and the EPA to make them aware of the problems. Those letters were one factor in the DNR’s decision earlier this year to sit on development permits in the Hinkson watershed.
Meanwhile, when the DNR considered dropping Hinkson from the impaired waters list last year because of a lack of data, 14 Columbia residents wrote letters to the EPA detailing their love of and concern for the creek. Twenty-seven others wrote to protest the creek’s inclusion on the list until the DNR finishes its studies. Those letters, from both sides of the debate, prompted the DNR to step up efforts to finish its tests of the creek.
Donna Menown, an environmental specialist and stream team coordinator for DNR, said the attention Hinkson Creek gets is evidence that Columbia residents are accomplishing their goals.
“A lot of people would die to have (their stream get all the attention given to) Hinkson Creek,” she said.
Creek’s future still cloudy
Even so, many people doubt Columbia will ever know exactly how to save Hinkson Creek.
Crawford said problems such as those that plague Hinkson will happen “any time you have a stream in the middle of a city.”
“Hinkson Creek is sitting here with this city right in the middle of it,” he said. “It’s pretty hard for it to recover. It will never be like it was.”
Disinger said the best thing Columbians can do is join a stream team.
“It’s up to Columbia to fix the problem. This isn’t an unsolvable problem,” Disinger said.
Schroeder, of the DNR, said safe development can happen and will help the creek. But Whitley isn’t so optimistic. He said Columbia might have to choose one day between developing the city and protecting the water quality.
“That’s sort of the way it is,” Whitley said. “All these things have just added up.”
Zweig, of the conservation department, echoed those concerns.
“This is the way all urban streams go. They’re being changed as people live next to them,” she said. “It’s growing pains.”