Pollution plagues Hinkson Creek, but tests show the water is improving

Clyde Bentley fishes in the Hinkson Creek behind his house on July 18, 2013. (Quint Smith/MUJW)

COLUMBIA — Clyde Bentley walked out his back door and headed down a homemade trail to the creek behind his house. It was time to go fishing.

He picked up his poles, crossed the creek and stopped at a sandbar where he dropped a line.

Within 10 minutes, Bentley had a bite. Altogether, in the space of 45 minutes, he caught three fish in a stream scientists have determined cannot fully support aquatic life.

Bentley’s home is along the Hinkson Creek, a narrow stream in an urban college town where he often fishes.

The creek has spent more than a decade on the impaired water list. The Missouri Department of Natural Resourcesplaced the creek on the list in 1998 when it was determined that it could not fully support aquatic life.

Since then, scientists, city and county officials have been trying to clean up the 26-mile creek that meanders through Columbia. Recent samples show that the efforts may be working. In the past 10 years, tests show improvement to the stream’s water quality.

In 2001, water samples taken by the Department of Natural Resources showed only 62 percent of the creek could fully support aquatic life.

Samples taken in the spring of 2012 showed aquatic life could be supported in 75 percent of the creek — and 78 percent is the bar that indicates the health of the creek has been restored.

Hinkson Creek runs through a large portion of Columbia and thus has the potential to serve at least 100,000 residents.

A bridge crosses Hinkson Creek near Cliff Drive in Columbia. (Quint Smith/MUJW)

In 1999, the Missouri Sierra Club noticed that the creek was still struggling. After the EPA conducted more tests, the problem was identified as stormwater runoff, which brought insecticides and herbicides, chloride, heavy metals and waste oil into the creek.

The Sierra Club and the American Canoe Association sued the Environmental Protection Agency for not requiring the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to comply with the Clean Water Act. The EPA then mandated a 39.5 percent reduction in urban stormwater runoff.

It took more than 10 years to resolve the matter. City, county and MU officials objected to the demand, saying it was all but impossible to achieve.

Ultimately, local officials brokered a compromise with the EPA and the Natural Resources Department. The plan called for “adaptive management” of the creek and appointment of three task forces to develop and oversee strategies for improving the water.

Those strategies, so far, have included a $285,000 grant to explore the potential of various pollution prevention techniques. Among them are reforestation around the creek to lessen erosion and diverting rainwater into vacant fields with a concrete curb.

After a positive report in the spring, water samples taken last fall showed that only 12.5 percent of the creek fully supported aquatic life. Because of low water levels throughout the creek, the recent tests were considered inconclusive, according to a Jan. 31 Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Biological Assessment Report.

The samples taken along the creek are scored based on the number and variety of macroinvertebrates in the water and baseline qualities such as dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

The problem with the Hinkson is how easily it is affected by storm surges.

“When you have a creek that can go from 5-10 cubic feet per second to 20,000 cubic feet per second, you have a runoff problem,” Bentley said.

He also tests the water periodically, largely to safeguard a grandson who visits during the summer and fishes with him in the creek.

On some days, Bentley said he has found spots along the creek bed that are completely dry where the water trickles below the rocks and pops up farther down stream.

On this day in mid-July, the water was visibly low, sitting about 5 feet below the bank. By contrast, the water has risen up to within 3 feet of Bentley’s fishing shed about 20 yards from the normal shoreline last year, he said.

The Hinkson is a piece of Columbia’s history and important to many, like Bentley, in the community.

“This is an important place,” Bentley said, “At the bend just downstream of the Old 63/Broadway bridge is a cliff-lined deep hole that was once the main swimming spot for Columbia.”

Diana Stahr says she walks the trail along the creek below Boone Hospital “every single day” after work. She said her 12 year-old son likes to play in the creek and skip rocks. She also mentioned that she occasionally encounters deer.

Despite running through a major college town, the Hinkson remains a quiet piece of nature.

“It’s within walking distance, all within a mile of downtown,” Bentley said.

“Listen,” he added as he fished the creek. “Do you hear civilization?”

Silence was the only reply.

To see this article as it was originally published in the Urban Pioneer, click here.

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