By Andy Ostmeyer
Heading into the last big weekend of summer, between one-fourth and one-half of 40 swimming holes, streams and creeks in Southwest Missouri continue to register bacteria levels that make them unsafe for swimming.
That's according to the latest data available from stream team volunteers and county health department officials, as well as a sampling of area sites tested at the request of The Joplin Globe.
Spring River continues to have elevated levels of either E. coli or enterococci, and often both types of fecal bacteria, at five sites around Carthage, according to Stream Team 2416, which conducted its latest tests on Aug. 19.
Five of 10 sites tested by the Newton County Health Department showed levels of E. coli on Aug. 16 in excess of federal standards. Two more Newton County sites tested above the state standard but below the federal threshold.
The Lawrence County Health Department found that none of eight sites tested on Wednesday showed elevated levels of E. coli. Lawrence County officials also use the higher federal standard. Four sites tested above the state limit. Three weeks earlier, three of the eight sites exceeded the federal limit. Wednesday's reading is the best that county has seen since it began testing several years ago.
Of 17 sites tested at the request of the Globe on Aug. 17, only one was above the EPA level - Shoal Creek near the Barry-Newton county line. Two other sites tested above the state threshold.
None of eight sites tested in McDonald County, which draws thousands of tourists annually to swim and fish in the Elk River and its tributaries, had elevated levels of E. coli on Aug. 17.
The samples for the Globe were collected by volunteers who also collect samples for Newton County, and the tests were conducted by the Newton County Health Department and paid for by The Globe.
In all, 11 of 40 sites tested recently topped the federal standard, while 19 sites topped the state standard for the bacteria Escherichia coli, which can causes numerous illnesses ranging from meningitis to urinary tract infections. One strain of E. coli can even be deadly. Enterococci, which only the Carthage stream team is currently testing for, also is associated with human illness.
Yet, other than in Lawrence County, no one in Southwest Missouri is posting sites as unsafe for swimming when bacteria levels are elevated.
That's what bothers Wayne Christian, a Carthage science teacher who directs the volunteer stream team.
"Our position is that there is a public health threat, and it needs to be addressed," he said.
They sample at Morrow Mill, Francis Street, Tucker's Ford, Kellogg Lake and at an unnamed tributary near the Butterball plant, and have for more than two years. They have often found levels of E. coli at 2,419.6 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, or more than 10 times the federal standard of 235 colonies, and nearly 20 times the state standard of 126.
The level could be higher, but according to Christian and Frank Martinez, an adult volunteer with the team, that is the highest level that can be measured by their equipment.
The Stream Team has even held public forums to alert the community to its findings, but so far nothing has been posted as unsafe.
Cindy Davies, director of the Southwest Regional Office for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, noted in a letter to the Globe this spring the team's "inaccurate data" and also said stream team members were not correctly interpreting results.
But in a letter to the stream team written earlier, Davies also said their "sample data indicates that there is an area of concern in the bottomlands."
In an interview, Davies said her agency has followed up on problems this summer. Steps taken by some industries, such as changing out floor drains, resulted in visual improvement in the water quality to an unnamed tributary, but not to the E. coli levels. She said that came about only after city of Carthage employees, using cameras and dye testing, in conjunction with DNR environmental services staff, began looking for a source of the bacteria.
"The dye showed up in the spring almost immediately," she said, referring to a test conducted on a wastewater line.
She said the line was installed incorrectly years ago and has since been replaced by the city. After that was done in May, bacteria levels at that site dropped. The latest sample, which Davies said came from June, was 166 colonies, and most of the samples taken after the repair have tested between 100 and 400 colonies of E coli per 100 milliliters of water.
That's still elevated, but Davies added: "I think we've solved the majority of the problem. It has taken quite a bit to solve some of this. Right now, we are not seeing anything that points us toward a particular point source."
She said any bacteria in the water today is probably coming from a non-point source, such as runoff from cattle operations or nearby septic systems operating improperly.
"There you get into a much harder area to deal with," Davies said.
The stream team, however, has continued to find high readings for both E. coli and enterococci at that site almost weekly. The mean for the six tests conducted at that location in July was nearly 521; the mean of three tests in August exceeded 1,200 colonies.
Both stream team and DNR officials said they will continue to monitor water quality, with Christian adding the stream team hopes to do DNA analysis of the bacteria later this year in an attempt to identify a source of the problem.
And while two of the five sites tested by the stream team had low E. coli levels recently, all five tested high for another bacteria, enterococci, for which the federal limit is 33 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The Carthage Stream Team recently found the enterococci level at that same unnamed tributary was nearly 921 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, or nearly 28 times the federal standard.
"It just kills me to see what we are doing to this one," Christian said of Spring River.
Paying for it
It is that same health concern that prompted officials in Lawrence and Newton counties to begin their own bacteria monitoring programs. Lawrence County began about four years ago; Newton County began limited data collection last year.
"As a public health agency, that is one of our responsibilities," said Bob Kulp, administrator for the Newton County Health Department.
Tests on Aug. 2 in Lawrence County showed bacteria in excess of federal standards at city parks in Pierce City, Mount Vernon and Marionville. Five other sites tested below the federal limit. Tests last week showed the level of bacteria at those three sites had fallen below EPA parameters.
"This is the best reading we ever had," said Gary Boone, environmental public health specialist with the Lawrence County Department of Health. "I attribute that to no rainfall and no runoff."
Neither the Missouri Department of Health nor the DNR have given bacteria testing a high priority, Boone noted, and many counties don't test because of a lack of manpower or equipment. No Jasper, Barry or McDonald county health officials regularly test their streams and creeks.
Sixty-two percent of the samples collected last year at numerous sites throughout Newton County were unsafe for swimming because of E. coli; so far this year, 57 percent of the samples have tested above the federal standards.
Some streams see bacteria levels rise and fall with the rain amounts, such as Shoal Creek at Wildcat Park south of Joplin; others areas remain high throughout the year, such as Indian Creek near Boulder City, Shoal Creek near the Barry County Line, and Lost Creek near Racine.
It was the regular high numbers that prompted the Newton County Health Department's board of trustees recently to propose raising the tax levy from 5 cents per $100 assessed valuation to 12 cents in order to generate additional revenue for additional water quality monitoring.
"The bulk of that money is going to go for hiring a staff so we have routine monitoring going on throughout the county," Kulp said. "We need to be advising the public about the safety of the water they are getting in."
The money also would help pay for DNA analysis of the bacteria, he said.
At the River Ranch resort, along the Elk River in Noel, one of the owners, John Poynor, said water testing is a double-edged sword.
He said Elk River is a "tourist" river, and publicity about water quality problems can affect business; on the other hand, "you want it to be cleaned."
"I believe our stream is in good shape," he added, when told that eight tests paid for by the Globe did not find bacteria counts in excess of either the state or federal threshold on Aug. 17.
At his campground and swim beach, the count was only 12 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.
John Tinsley, owner of Big Elk Campground, in Pineville, said there is growing momentum to protect the river and educate homeowners about septic systems, and farmers and ranchers about better agriculture practices.
The count near his business was 69.5 colonies of E. coli one day last week.
"That is not only for my sake - canoeing - but it is for the (water) wells," he said. "In the long run, it is better for everybody.
"It is going to be a fairly long process, but I think we're making progress."
State, federal standards
Lawrence and Newton counties uses the Environmental Protection Agency standard of 235 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water as their thresholds for a one-time test.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources has a standard of 126 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water for what it defines as whole body contact recreation, such as swimming. That standard is the mean for five tests conducted within 30 days.
By Andy Ostmeyer
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