Swimming in your toilet
July 09, 2005
How the Missouri DNR plans to allow further pollution of waterways

DADDY, what's that slimy stuff in the water?

In Jasper County, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has selected four waterways to be studied in order that sewage with unhealthy levels of bacteria can continue to be dumped into them. They are Buck Branch, the North Fork Spring River, Spring River and Turkey Creek. The selected streams for the entire state may be viewed here on a county-by-county basis.

Missouri is under a court order to make all waters in the state swimmable – federal law (the Clean Water Act of 1978) states “supportive of recreation in and on the water” or, as Missouri tags it: “whole body contact” (WBC). This means, quite simply, that germs from human or animal excrement should not be placed in the water to such an extent that humans who contact the water get infected, become ill or die. The Clean Water Act set a goal of 1983 to eliminate these germs. Missouri was just a bit slow in implementing it.

There is one loophole in the WBC goal. Every stream must be supportive of WBC recreation WHERE ATTAINABLE. But, if a stream has been used for swimming or other WBC, then that use cannot legally be removed. The only way that a stream may be removed from the WBC standard is through a study called “Use Attainability Analysis." There is a procedure that must be followed, including documentation of historic uses and interviews with local residents. Residents are encouraged to submit proof that the waterway had been or is being used for WBC; especially helpful are baptismal pictures or accounts of the practice being performed.

Using WBC as a sole criterion for preserving the waterway for human use has come under fire. Canoeists maintain that they should be protected as well as swimmers since they often find themselves capsized. In addition, there have been reports of people with broken skin who have picked up infections wading in contaminated water, such as when they launch or bring back the canoes.

Another question that many people have is whether the unprotected streams will be marked with signs warning of the dangers of submersion. And will nearby commercial enterprises leave the signs up if such warnings interfere with their profits.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MODNR) is attempting to avoid placing the WBC designation on over 500 streams by calling for studies to be conducted. If these streams were to be removed, it would mean that germ-laden sewage could be dumped into them, helping out those growing communities that don't have the monetary resources to construct sewerage treatment plants.

“Clearly, it is in the vested interest of sewer districts to continue doing what they have been doing: dumping sewage that is untreated for bacteria into our state’s waters,” said Ken Midkiff, Conservation Chair of the Ozark Chapter Sierra Club. “But, those who use the streams for fishing, wading, swimming and boating don’t want the streams used as open sewers. When citizens flush their toilets, they don’t expect the stuff to end up in the creek. Citizens expect sewage treatment plants to act responsibly, not to pollute the creek. Folks don’t go swimming in their toilets, but they do go swimming in streams.”

“Fishing, wading, swimming and boating should not be life-threatening activities. But if the Missouri Department of Natural Resources – led by Matt Blunt’s appointee, Doyle Childers – has its way, citizens will be placed at risk. Rather than preventing pollution, they’re protecting polluters. The Department of Agriculture placed many streams on the list to be studied because of cow poop.

“Make no mistake, all those ‘Use Attainability Analyses’ are being done so that pollution may continue. No one is doing a study in order to keep streams on the list,” concluded Midkiff.

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