Jumping into a local swimming hole or venturing out to your favorite paddling spot during the summer should be the easiest decision you make all year.

In a region that boasts thousands of epic miles for kayakers, canoers, and paddleboarders to enjoy, it’s no surprise that so many committed river enthusiasts call this place home. Missouri is the Great Rivers State, after all, with the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the St. Louis region making up the fourth-largest watershed in the world. And with more than 258,000 miles of rivers and streams flowing throughout our state, and 900,000 acres of lakes for people to explore, Missourians have amazing opportunities to get outdoors.

But pollution and lack of water testing threaten these waterways and our ability to enjoy them. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), water recreators have higher rates of acute gastrointestinal illness and respiratory, ear, eye, and skin symptoms. Many of these illnesses are caused by water polluted with bacteria from sewage leaks, runoff, and fertilizers, or by chemical pollution from industrial operations. The fact is, when not cared for properly, the same water we love can make us sick.

The Clean Water Act specifies that all waters should be swimmable and fishable; meaning rivers, lakes, and streams should meet minimum water quality standards to prevent direct health impacts to users. Yet according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 40 percent of US rivers and streams are unsafe for fishing, swimming, or drinking, as are almost half of all lakes. Clean water protections are being rolled back at the state and federal levels, and budgets for water testing programs are frequently slashed.

But most concerning is that millions of people recreate in bodies where a water quality sample has never been taken. In Missouri, only around 3 percent of streams are regularly tested for contamination. And even when data is collected, the critical results — whether it’s safe to swim — are often not readily available to the public.

A Voice for Clean Water
This is where organizations like Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper and Missouri Stream Team come in, helping connect clean water policy to the people using the waterways. Both are citizen-led conservation groups focused on creating clean and healthy waterways.

“As your local Waterkeeper, we are out on the rivers testing water quality, investigating pollution, and identifying problems,” said Rachel Bartels of Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. “If we or one of our network discovers an issue impacting a waterway, we work collaboratively to address its source and advocate for compliance with clean water laws.”

Missouri River Cleanup

Participating in a river cleanup is one way you can help fight water pollution.

This grassroots network is made up of kayakers, fishermen, boaters, and “backyard scientists” who play as the eyes and ears of the river. Anyone who regularly engages with local waterways can help protect them with the click of a button; pollution issues can be reported through the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper website, by calling its hotline, or by using the Water Reporter app to note changes and observations at usual recreation spots.

And, this summer, Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper is expanding its water quality testing program to include weekly samples at popular sites in the Missouri and Meramec River watersheds. The results will be posted on the Swim Guide, a free app that allows users to know whether their favorite swimming or paddling spot is clean and safe.

These programs need volunteers, and outdoor enthusiasts are in a unique position to help while doing things they already love, says Missouri Stream Team member Melanie Cheney. Protecting clean water can mean signing up for a microplastics or water monitoring program, or it can be as simple as attending a river cleanup or spreading the word about a legislative issue.

“As a Stream Teamer and a member of several recreational paddling groups that thrive on clean water, we have a responsibility to protect our rivers,” said Cheney, who also works for Missouri River Relief. “I’ve always appreciated getting an immediate response from Missouri DNR when reporting environmental concerns I come across, and it’s great to be allies with our local Waterkeeper as well.”

“As outdoor enthusiasts, we rely on the water, and the water relies on us,” said Bartels. “Educating people about issues that impact our shared water is becoming more and more important. This work is crucial to making sure our communities’ health is protected, as well as the freedom to enjoy the places we love.

“Missouri’s waterways connect us, support life, provide recreation, and what’s more, they nourish our spirits. Protecting these incredible resources should be the next easiest decision.”

Protect Our Waters
In watersheds around the world, recreational river users are often the first line of defense. Reportable concerns may appear as mysterious discharges, suspicious changes in water color and clarity, buffer violations, and fish kills. To report water pollution or to get involved/volunteer, contact one of the following groups.

Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper

Missouri Stream Team

Author: Elena Richards is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.