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The Clean Water Crew

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 4, 2010

"This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? . . . Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. . . ." -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Missouri is proud of its waterways. On our license plate, a wavy blue line appears under the state name. The line symbolizes the state's many bodies of water--rivers, streams and lakes. But what are we doing to those waterways? In many cases, their only value seems to be as a conduit for wastes.

The United States has taken great strides to rectify some types of water pollution. In 1997 the Clean Water Act was 25 years old. Untold tons of toxic chemicals and raw sewage have been removed from public waters in those years. Many pairs of eyes now watch over Missouri waters as throngs of citizens have joined in over 1,200 Stream Teams to monitor and protect waterways in the state.

When it comes to water pollution, however, problems seem persistent:

  • In a national analysis, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Missouri ranked "poor" in meeting the requirements of the Clean Water Act because of its lack of controls on "diffuse" sources of pollution; no states were listed within the top category.
  • Missourians are still warned to limit the fish they eat from certain waters.
  • In St. Louis, millions of gallons of raw sewage flow into the Mississippi River when 150-year-old sewer lines are flooded by heavy rains.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines says that runoff from mining has contaminated more than 12,000 miles of streams in the U.S. Some are in Missouri.

The Conservation Department's Environmental Services Unit works with the Department of Natural Resources and the Attorney General's office in water pollution cases where aquatic life is killed or has the potential to be killed.

The Conservation Department conducts about 400 water quality investigations each year. Two-thirds of these are caused by low oxygen or disease, but the rest are caused by pollution. Citizens report many of these stream pollution cases. Missouri Stream Teams report pollution problems they discover in some of the creeks and rivers they monitor below pollution sources. A hotline operated by the Department of Natural Resources also results in many pollution investigations.

When a tire dump along the Marmaton River in southwest Missouri caught fire in 1991, alarm bells rang. The dump contained thousands of tires. Citizens could see smoke from the burning tires and reported the incident. The ash from burning tires contains chemical compounds that are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. A two-inch rain could have killed fish in 20 miles of the river, but the fire was extinguished, the toxic ash removed and the disaster averted.

In another potential pollution incident, a dam holding back coal mining wastes was declared unsafe. Should a flood have occurred, the dam might have failed and highly acidic wastes would have flowed into a tributary of Truman Lake. All the fish in the creek and an arm of Truman Lake would have been killed. Reclamation of the lake and the abandoned coal-mined areas around it prevented a fish kill.

Some Missouri streams are so chronically polluted that the fish population never has a chance to recover. This sometimes occurs downstream from a site where an industry is violating it's water quality permit. "You might find a few minnows," says unit leader Steve Weithman, "but you know there should be sunfish and bass there, too. It's a bad situation because you don't have the evidence you would have for a normal fish kill." Weithman says Missouri has made a lot of headway in controlling chronic pollution of this type.

A similar situation can develop below a municipal sewage plant where excess nutrients continue to be added to the stream. The stream gets so much nutrient enrichment that it becomes choked with algae, killing fish and other organisms. Table Rock Lake is not as clear as it once was because of excess nutrients from treated sewage. This not only affects fishing, but reduces the value of Table Rock Lake for swimming, SCUBA diving and boating.

Other water pollution problems can develop where a truck or railroad car is involved in an accident and the contents spill, eventually finding their way into a creek or draining into the recharge area of a spring. Missouri is also laced with underground pipelines, and these sometimes break on or near stream crossings.

Manure spilled from animal confinement facilities that concentrate many animals in a small area has become a significant problem nationwide. There are at least 300 of these facilities in Missouri. One company reportedly houses almost one million hogs, mostly in northern Missouri. The wastes exceed the sewage output of St. Louis.

Animal wastes often are stored in lagoons for land application as fertilizer when conditions are suitable. Waste from these lagoons sometimes escapes and flows into a stream or lake, where the impact on life, from fish to aquatic insects, can be devastating. When manure breaks down in water it can deplete the oxygen in the water; the ammonia in manure is also toxic to fish and other aquatic life. The Missouri state legislature has passed laws to regulate animal confinement operations.

In 1995, nine livestock manure incidents polluted 56.6 miles of streams and killed over 302,000 organisms, including fish. Responsible parties paid $49,750.41 in restitution to the state as a result. The Department of Natural Resources notes that more than 60 percent of operations at farms using a lagoon method for removing and storing manure had evidence of an illegal discharge of manure over a five-year period.

All but one of the kills, which involved poultry, was caused by hog wastes from large confinement facilities. Richard Duchrow, a retired environmental services biologist with the Conservation Department who tracked water quality for over 25 years in Missouri, calls the sight and smell of these large manure spills "overpowering." He says manure spills have caused the largest fish kills in recent record, though a more typical water quality investigation involves municipal sewage or an industrial release that kills stream life on a smaller scale.

In 1997 the Conservation Department made a commitment to work with private landowners and others to deal with water quality problems caused by waste spills from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The Conservation Department Position Statement on Animal Waste Management calls for using Conservation Department and University of Missouri lands to demonstrate livestock management practices, research and testing of innovative waste-handling methods. The Conservation Department offered staff support, information/education and matching grants to organizations and government agencies to promote demonstration watershed projects.

One of the federal government's most problematic Superfund pollution sites is in Missouri, where lead mine tailings tower over the banks of Big River. A looming question asks how you mine lead without harming the environment. Lead mine wastes containing one or two percent lead in the past were put in large piles, some of them adjacent to Big River in southeast Missouri. The material, which has the consistency of sand, is unstable and resists the growth of vegetation that might help hold it in place. In the past, heavy rains washed a large quantity of it directly into the Big River. Lead mine tailings also affect a number of other streams in east central and southwest Missouri.

Weithman says the spill of over 100,000 cubic yards of lead tailings into Big River in the early 1980s caused two problems. "The material fills in all the crevices between the gravel and the cobble on the bottom of the river, killing aquatic insects and ruining spawning sites for fish. It also becomes available to all of the organisms in the stream and is bioaccumulated. The lead goes up the food chain to the higher predators." The higher predators in this case are fish, and Missourians are advised not to eat them. Lead in the human body causes birth defects, mental retardation and a legion of other problems.

The southeast quadrant of Missouri is earthquake country. A major temblor could liquefy the Big River mine tailing piles, creating a problem that would dwarf the current situation.

Missouri is also still contaminated with chemicals used many years ago. These include DDT, dioxin and chlordane. These chemicals are estrogenlike hormone mimics. Wildlife exposed to them can have offspring that are incapable of procreating. (There is a human link, too. Many women in western countries have dioxins in their breast milk, and their risk of breast cancer is much higher than normal. PCBs are linked to lowered fertility in men.)

The Conservation Department is concerned with chemical contaminants because they can affect the growth and reproduction of fish and other aquatic species, and also because some of the chemicals accumulate in fish.

In the 1960s we experienced high levels of DDT and the chemicals it broke down into--dieldren and endrin. These chlorinated hydrocarbons are called hard chemicals because they take many years to break down. Chlordane is similar in that, once in the environment, it remains toxic for a long time. "These chemicals have a long life," Weithman says. "We still see significant levels in fish. Overall, levels are declining, but it is a slow process."

Concern for fish exposed to these chemicals and for anglers who catch and consume them prompted the Conservation Department to form a cooperative agreement with the Department of Health. Conservation Department biologists collect fish tissue samples from a variety of locations around the state so that the Health Department can set realistic advisories for fish consumption.

Water contamination by mercury is less a problem in Missouri than in states to the north. Mercury occurs naturally in some places, and it appears to enter streams and lakes through the natural cycle of evaporation and rain. Mercury, dioxin and other complex and deadly chemicals that can cause severe health problems appear to be dropping out of the atmosphere.

Some atmospheric pollution is traceable to its source. Pollutants put in the air by power plants, waste incinerators, factories, pulp and paper mills and autos can be blown by wind and air currents and fall from the sky as rain, snow and dust, contaminating waters far from the source of pollution. The pollutants that enter Missouri waters from the sky include those most harmful to people and wildlife, such as lead, PCBs and dioxins.

Water pollution can sicken and, as shown in Milwaukee where 100 people died in 1993 from water pollution linked to a virus, even kill people; it can also impact their wallets. If Mark Twain Reservoir in northeast Missouri experienced a severe pollution flow into the lake, what would Missourians lose? According to values compiled by Duchrow, the 18,600-acre lake provides an annual net benefit from angling of almost $6 million, has an economic indirect benefit of over $10 million and supports 154 jobs.

For a bigger body of water like Table Rock Reservoir, the combined annual benefit of angling soars to over $40 million and involves twice as many jobs.

The Environmental Services Unit's responsibility is to protect the fish and wildlife of the state. The Conservation Department believes that educating the public is necessary to slow the degradation of Missouri's aquatic resources.

The Conservation Department's water quality responsibility also extends to providing information on federal permits related to navigable stream channels, federal dam relicensing, DNR projects relative to pasture run-off, effluent regulations for cities and industries and permits that limit the amount of ammonia and other contaminants in some waste discharges. They also comment on Missouri water quality standards and animal waste regulations.

Just over three-fourths of the fish kills reported to the Conservation Department are caused by low oxygen in private ponds and lakes. These are often aggravated by too many nutrients, decaying vegetation and hot weather. One-fourth of kills are traceable to illegal releases of waste to public waters.

Given the chronic nature of water quality problems, the Conservation Department's Environmental Service Unit is likely to be busy into the future ensuring Missouri's waters stay as clean as possible. "Our goal," says Weithman, "is to keep the many streams Missouri is famous for clean and productive, so future generations of Missourians can enjoy them while fishing, boating, swimming and using drinking water."

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