Local community leads the way to clearer waters for Hinkson

After being listed as impaired over a decade ago, the condition of Hinkson Creek has stabilized over time. In Columbia, Missouri, a task force of community members has worked together to preserve Hinkson Creek since 2012.

Urban water runoff is likely the general cause of the Hinkson’s pollution. Unfortunately, the water runoff cannot be traced to a specific source.

Runoff generally occurs when rainfall washes pollutants from the pavement into the stream, and according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, over 60 percent of city land in Columbia drains into the Hinkson. Currently, the creek is still in an impaired state, which means the water has higher levels of damaging pollutants than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act allows.

Tom Wellman, an engineering specialist in the storm water division of the Columbia Utility Department, has been working to counter the effects of urban runoff for several years.

“I think it is our responsibility that water is clean before it leaves our hands,” Wellman said. “We’ve got all this water running off pavements that picks up pollution, if nothing was there it would go right into the creek and then into the Missouri River.”

When Wellman started his career in 1998, Hinkson Creek had just been put on the impaired list, and since then the community has been working to preserve it.

Improving the health of the Hinkson has not been easy, as the EPA originally required the community to cut runoff by 39 percent. Citing the inability to achieve this goal due to Hinkson’s unknown pollutants, local government sued the EPA. The resulting settlement created a Collaborative Adaptive Management program called CAM, where different areas of the community worked together to propose solutions.

CAM’s work relies partly on the scientific work of Jason Hubbart, an associate professor of forest hydrology and water quality with the MU School of Natural Resources, who did research on the Hinkson for almost eight years at the University of Missouri. Using a method called experimental watershed study design, Hubbart set up five gauging sites along Hinkson Creek to monitor water quality, which he says has stayed relatively stable.

“I don’t know whether [water quality] has greatly improved since 2007 to now, I would say perhaps not, but that doesn’t imply it’s a heavily polluted waterway,” Hubbart said. “In fact, I have little doubt that Hinkson Creek is one of the cleanest and better managed urban waterways in the United States due to all the attention it’s gotten since 1998.”

Hubbart’s research has been adapted at places like Forum Nature area in Columbia, where the city installed projects to control erosion and reforested floodplain to help the Hinkson’s water quality. Engineers like Wellman also work with CAM to build runoff control projects, which can vary in design.

In addition to Hubbart’s efforts, bio retention areas are one of many runoff control options and are used to catch and filter runoff water before it reaches the Hinkson.

From the road, bioretention areas look like a wide pit full of vegetation or landscaping. At the bottom of a bioretention area is a soil filtration system that removes some of the pollutants and a pipe that allows clean water to flow into the creek. Aside from controlling runoff, bioretention areas can also provide habitat for wildlife or be used as a landscaping area.

Wellman estimates there are as many as 300 runoff control areas in Columbia, which include both city and private projects. However, the Hinkson’s pollution can’t be completely prevented just through management strategies. 

“It’s far better to not put to put these things on the pavement in the first place,” Wellman said. “For example, if you have a poorly maintained car you’re dripping oil right into the creek.”

Oil from leaky cars is just one of many possible pollutants that urban life can produce. The combination of pollutants makes it hard to blame a single source, so the community is left to general management strategies rather than a clear solution.

After years of urban exposurehe pollution in creeks is sometimes irreversible, a conclusion that Hubbart’s data supports. He believes that parts of the Hinkson should be relabeled from their impaired status to better reflect the creeks current progress, and avoid wasting tax payer dollars.

The CAM project is continuing to work towards stabilizing the Hinkson, even if some damage can’t be fixed. Community members are trying to combine scientific research with community and legal perspectives to decide what the best path is towards preventing further pollution of the creek.

CAM community stakeholder and Stream Team representative Diane Oerly believes that the CAM process is still vital for the creek.

“I think what’s changed is that there is a much better awareness of the science behind cleaning up streams, with the Hinkson being a difficult challenge because the pollutants are unknown.”

> photos by Emily Adams

Emily Adams

About the Author Emily Adams

The idea of pursuing science and agricultural journalism was soon planted in my mind, and I went on to become the editor of my high school newspaper and now a writer for CAFNR Corner Post. I am excited to start off my college career writing about a subject that combines my favorite subjects of writing and the natural world.