© 2024 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Episode Three: Protecting Our Water

This project is a collaboration between KBIA, The Columbia Missourian, The Mississippi Basin Ag and Water Desk, The New Territory Magazine, and PRX. Music for River Town comes from Gloria Attoun. And from the Album Audionautix: Acoustic by Jason Shaw, via the Free Music Archive. Creative Commons 3.0 United States License.

River Town Episode Three: Protecting Our Water

[river sounds]

Tina Casagrand Foss: From KBIA and The New Territory with PRX: This is River Town. A celebration of the Missouri River and how it shapes the people and places it flows through. I’m Tina Casagrand Foss and this is episode three: Protecting Our Water.

We keep learning new things as we make this podcast. Just a few weeks ago, our project manager Jessica Vaughn Martin noticed her water was tasting a little funny. A couple days went by and she called her water company and they said, “Oh, yeah! With all the winter road salt running off into our streams, it does sort of affect the flavor. But don’t worry, it’s safe to drink.” That was when Jessica learned that surface water from the Missouri River supplies half of the drinking water for Missourians — including her. She’s still a little skeptical about the flavor.

In this episode of River Town, we’re going to meet River Town’s youngest upstanding citizens, learn what people are doing to protect our waterways from pollution, and what’s happening in Missouri water policy right now.


Ava: What’s your favorite thing about the Missouri River? 

Student: My favorite thing about the Missouri river is…. cruising on the water! Cuz it’s very cool and I just like the water

Tina Casagrand Foss: Last Spring, River Town reporters Ava Neels and Ashley Cochrane met some elementary school students out at Cooper’s Landing, just outside Columbia. They were there on a field trip with Missouri River Relief.

We heard a little bit about this organization in our last episode…They host the Race to the Dome paddle race. And as a non-profit dedicated to the exploration, enjoyment, restoration and care of the Missouri River, they also run educational events, like this one.

Volunteer: We're going to be quiet for an entire minute. So use your eagle eyes your owl ears, experience everything we're sensing on the river for an entire minute.

[soft river sounds]

Tina Casagrand Foss: That was a River Relief volunteer teaching Columbia Public School fourth graders how to be scientists. The first step is observing… and then comes asking questions.

[river sounds, kids talking]

Really, what a privilege to show the next generation the river up-close. This is so much cooler than reading students a book or showing them a video. Here’s River Relief’s Barney Combs:

Barney Combs: The first thing they get to do is go on a boat ride, so they get to kind of act like scientists, and uh, do investigative thinking while they are out on the river. They can ask any kind of question they want. For many of them, they've never been on a boat right in their lives. And to be able to go out on the river, they can touch the river, they can see it. Occasionally a fish may jump up. And they may see that. So, they get a real chance to be out in nature and actually do critical thinking they don't know they're doing that at this age. I don't think for most of them, but they're developing those skills. We're asking like, I wonder, you know, how deep is the river or how many fish are in the river? 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Barney says helping students ask questions about the river gets them interested in it. Which is the first step towards caring about it. That’s really what River Relief is hoping to do, says Michael Deleone, the operations manager at Cooper’s Landing. He told Reporter Ashley Cochrane that this event is all about inspiring these students to care enough about the Missouri River that they’ll want to protect it.

Michael Deleone: You'd be surprised with the Missouri River being so close to Columbia. How many kids have never been out here before. And these fourth graders come out here they get an introduction to the river… These are the future of River Relief. These are the kids are going to be working for River Relief in the next 15, 20 years, they're going to be the ones who are basically keeping the river clean. So I do think it's important to introduce them to what the Missouri River is and all the things that you can get the Missouri River and all the things that it provides. 

Ashley Cochrane: Have you had like a favorite moment that you've witnessed so far recently of like maybe a kid having an aha moment,

Michael Deleone: my favorite moment is when the kids get on the boat, and they call it river air conditioning. So basically, they start the boat they'll stop it and then they'll just go really fast when you see you you'll hear all the kids they just scream it's so loud it's awesome. So it just is almost like a river roller coaster for him but yeah, they really like that.

[river boat sounds, kids laughing, squealing]

Michael Deleone: Wish It happened more often, you know, but I think fourth grade is a good age for them to come out here and just you know that they're a little bit more aware of what's going on around them. So they don't get lost in the explanation of all these things. You know, they see all the different fish all the different animals you can find the Missouri River so I think it's a great program and like I said it's introducing them to the river something is so close but sometimes seems kind of far away.

[river sounds fade]

Tina Casagrand Foss: Missouri River Relief’s education efforts aren’t just for kids.

Roger MacBride: It’s a beautiful day on the river! 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Remember Roger MacBride? He’s the artist who captains the Kansas City Lady, taking musicians on sunset cruises downtown? Well, throughout his years on the river, he’s noticed a lot of trash and grime.

Roger MacBride: And I had been coming out here, but I'd always go by the nasty spots. You know, there were the backwash of flotsam. I’m like, you know, I want to show you the other stuff,  I don't want to show you that.

Tina Casagrand Foss: One day, Roger’s son took him to a clean up event hosted by Missouri River Relief. Along with the other volunteers, Roger got right UP in those nasty spots he had always avoided.

Roger MacBride: They had me come down and start doing a clean up with them, and I got put in the middle of it. And I'm scooping this out, and I reached down into it. And I just squeezed my hand and I pulled back up. And I mean, I reached doing a good three and a half feet down through the flotty plastic and funk. And when I pulled my hand up, I pulled up a hand full of styrene pellets, Styrofoam pellets is broke down. And that really was like this gut punch. Just how bad man it was bad. But that it was that I had to be, I had to take my part. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Styrofoam like what Roger found that day takes a long time to break down. It can become a harmful snack for fish and other animals. And as it degrades, it can leach chemicals into the water.

And that’s just one example of what the thousands of River Relief volunteers remove from the water and its banks. Just this one organization has cleaned up 1000 tons of trash since 2001! We’re talking tires, electronics, plastic barrels and tubs, grills, coolers, chairs, buoys and barrels, doll heads and duck decoys, action figures, flip flops, and of course, lots and lots of cigarette butts, bottles, and other food packaging.

Then, the fish, birds, and other species who call the river home eat this stuff, get tangled up in it, and live in and drink water that’s been contaminated by it. And, remember, so do we. Because microplastics are not regulated by the EPA, we don’t know how they may be trickling through our filtration systems and into our taps.

Seeing that pile of broken-down Styrofoam floating on the river he loves was enough to really gross Roger out. But you’ve met Roger. You know he’s a man of action. So dude got mobilized. He started doing river clean-ups whenever he could, with both Missouri River Relief and a local Missouri Stream Team. And he started learning more about how so much trash winds up in the river...

Roger MacBride: Everything goes downhill to the river then goes downstream. And that's a fact. And ultimately the river, for the longest time, was a sewage pit. You know people used it to dump everything they wanted to just go away 

You know these banks this used to be the city dump just down past the Chouteau Bridge. You know, the city dump was right on the edge of the river and had been. They would burn everything, and it destroyed the ecosystem for the longest time.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Roger’s right. For many years, the U.S. Government didn’t regulate water pollution. Factories, cities, and citizens could dump chemicals, trash or sewage directly into rivers… even if that meant communities downstream wound up with dirty water.

Mary Culler: You know, I get asked that question frequently of like well, you know, is our water getting better or worse compared to, you know, several decades ago? And the answer is, it depends.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Mary Culler is the Executive Director of Stream Teams United. Just a quick background: Missouri Stream Team is a statewide working partnership of citizens who are concerned about Missouri streams, and it’s been around since 1988. River Relief is technically a Stream Team, and so are hundreds of family groups, municipalities, and other organizations. Some examples of Stream Team programs include litter pickups, water quality monitoring, tree-planting, and storm drain stenciling. Those are co-facilitated by the Missouri Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, while Mary at Stream Teams United works on education, stewardship and advocacy.

Mary is gonna help us learn about what’s happening with water policy in Missouri today. So, water nerds -- listen up!

Mary Culler: When the Clean Water Act came around 1972, you know, that brought a lot of additional protections as far as treating waste that's coming out of towns, you know, so a lot of times your stream impacted may have been impacted by what we call a point source. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Ready for some vocab lessons? Point sources are a single, identifiable source of pollution. Think of the dump Roger mentioned in Kansas City or sewage treatment plants, oil refineries, paper and pulp mills – anywhere pollution originated that you can identify.

Mary Culler: Now, those point sources are regulated, and we tend to have more pollution from what we call nonpoint sources. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Nonpoint source pollution occurs when rain or snow runs off a large area and carries pollutants from many sources into our waterways. An example could be an urban area’s collective pet waste, lawn chemicals, motor oil, and a bunch of construction sites — or the agricultural pesticides and fertilizers different farms use on their land. Nonpoint pollution is hard for the federal Clean Water Act to regulate.

In fact, The Missouri Department of Natural resources says over 85% of our impaired rivers and streams are impaired by nonpoint source pollution. And Mary says, in the last few years Missouri laws have gotten worse at protecting against it.

Mary Culler: In 2016, we saw legislation that allowed for a change in the makeup of the Clean Water Commission that essentially reduced the representation of the general public. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: A few years later, the state legislature made it harder for the agriculture industry to be prosecuted for hazardous runoff into nearby water sources.

Mary Culler: In 2018, there was some legislation that exempted agricultural stormwater runoff from that. In 2019, Senate Bill 391 passed. And what that did was it basically said that, um, local counties could not have any ordinances that were, um, more strict than state law as it relates to agriculture.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Senate Bill 391 was in 2019 and has a huge impact on potential pollution from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs. These large-scale agricultural operations house thousands of farm animals, like cows or pigs or chickens, all in one place.

And the animal waste found there can contain disease-causing pathogens, plus any residual hormones or pharmaceuticals. This waste often remains untreated and can mix into stormwater and find its way into freshwater systems like rivers and streams.

Before the bill, a number of Missouri counties had ordinances that regulated how CAFOs managed their waste. But now…

Mary Culler: Basically the local counties don't have any say in whether or not these facilities have additional restrictions. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: Some Missouri citizens were not happy about that. After SB 391 was signed into law, Cooper County and residents in Callaway County sued the state to block it. The case wound up before the Missouri Supreme court. In 2023, the court unanimously upheld the law. Mary believes this is already having a negative impact on water quality across the state.

Mary Culler: What it's done is set up an environment where there could be less accountability, okay. And it's also set up an environment where, oh, like we see there's an out of state company, possibly more out of state companies that are looking at Missouri's regulations saying, okay, this is an inviting place to bring our wastewater… so I think you have to ask ourselves, is that the type of scenario that we want to promote? 

Tina Casagrand Foss: The answer for Stream Teams United is no. Which is why Mary says one of the most important parts of her job is education and building awareness of how all of our actions contribute to healthy or unhealthy water in our communities and beyond.

Mary Culler: I think one thing in, and I've been working in the state of Missouri in water for 18 years now. Um, we still have a general unawareness as a public about what a watershed is and how our actions that we, we do daily may positively or negatively affect downstream waters. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: In case you’re wondering what a watershed is… it’s basically a term to describe an area of land that drains water into the same lake, river, or sea. In Missouri, all of us live in the Mississippi River Watershed — meaning eventually, the water we use will end up in the Mississippi River. From there, it’ll travel downstream into the Gulf of Mexico.

So when a Missouri county is unable to regulate CAFO runoff… that can wind up contributing to toxic algae blooms all the way off the Southern coast of the United States.

Mary Culler: Every person on planet Earth lives in a watershed and we all make choices, right? So there's something we can do. We can choose to make positive choices. We can choose to make choices that are not so great for downstream waters. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: That’s why keeping track of what’s happening in our water locally is so important. So, in addition to organizing trash clean ups, Stream Teams also monitor water quality in streams and rivers across the state. Volunteers can apply for testing kits and training from Stream Teams. Then, they go out and take water samples, watch stream flow and count macroinvertebrates. They send their data to a central database monitored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Being part of a statewide, mostly volunteer effort to help keep Missouri water clean helps Mary feel hopeful.

Mary Culler: Missourians care, and we're starting to hear people get really vocal about this. And when we think about Missouri, we are just like, absolutely blessed with freshwater resources in this state. ... So, we've kind of been a little bit spoiled by both the quantity and quality of our water here in Missouri. But we need to also realize like what an absolute treasure it is, and we cannot, you know, allow for it to be degraded, because it's much easier to protect our water than to try to restore something that's been degraded.

[river boat sounds]

Chris Kennedy: Nothing is worse than seeing trash go up and down the river.

Tina Casagrand Foss: This is Christopher Kennedy, out on his boat on the Missouri River. Chris is a fisheries biologist, and until this year was the Diversity and Equity Chair for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He’s been working on Missouri rivers for over 25 years… and been enjoying the river recreationally his entire life. He comes from a long line of river racers.

Chris admits that at different moments in his career, he has gotten really down about river pollution.

Chris Kennedy: Back when I was a young biologist. I was feeling like, man the river is really in bad shape. And I was thinking about it just in my timeframe. I almost felt like it was getting worse than getting better. And I was at a -- they call it Cape Rock, it’s this overlook at Cape Girardeau and overlooks the river. And there was this 80-year-old man. He was standing out there on the water on an overlook. And I asked him I said, so is the river better now than it was when when you were younger when you were my age. And he kind of chuckled. And he said, Son, I can remember when you can set the river on fire … when you it was nothing to see raw sewage, constantly going down the river. And so, you know, when we think about whether things are getting better or worse, it's important to look at it generationally. Because things happen slow. And in my little lifetime, I may think that things are getting worse, but they're actually getting better. 

Tina Casagrand Foss: I love hearing Chris talk about the long view and alternative ways of seeing water. I think sometimes people become a little myopic, maybe a little too black-and-white. Even something like flooding gets cast as an entirely bad thing, but as Chris explains it, it’s part of a natural cycle.

Chris Kennedy: You definitely don’t wanna say it when it’s flooding… The flooding is a good thing. And we never talk about it being a good thing. And I understand, because it can be somewhat disrespectful. Usually when it's flooding, homes are being demolished, people are being misplaced. It's not a time to talk about the benefits, or the ecological benefits of flooding, you know, when people are losing their lives as they know it. But, when the flood comes up, you know, it's real muddy, right, a lot of sediment in the water or when it goes in the floodplain, speeded up water does what? It slows down. When it slows down, contaminants, soil falls out. Clean water comes out of the of a floodplain when it gets done flooding. It helps purify that water. it percolates through the soil, which adds to that filtration. 

Tadeo Ruiz: Wow. And I’m sure there’s way more that happens with flooding.

Tina Casagrand Foss: That’s River Town Producer Tadeo Ruiz.

Tadeo Ruiz: Is it a matter of none of us have been asking what’s the good side of flooding? Why is it just not mainstream that people…

Chris Kennedy: Scientists know it. Fourth graders know when you teach them the water cycle. But somewhere along the line we we forget about the fact that this water that we depend on and our planet depends on is cycling from the river, through the soil, through the trees in the atmosphere…And so somewhere along the line, we forget about those fourth grade lessons that simple lessons about how water moves, how it benefits us. And we become more consumed with moving commerce, and doing it as effectively and as cheaply as we can.

Tina Casagrand Foss: Like Mary, Chris says education is key to helping keep our rivers clean and healthy. If more people are aware of the benefits of flooding, for example, they can call for water policies that will encourage flooding in safe areas, rather than in our cities.

Chris also told Tadeo that when confronting a problem as big and seemingly endless as pollution, he thinks it's important to keep a positive attitude.

Chris Kennedy: It's hard to do that if you plug in garbage in your mind every day. But if you want to focus on gloom and doom, there's plenty of it. Enough of it on social media, it's one of the worst traits of human beings, we have a tendency to point it out. You don't have to live that way. You don't have to think that way. You don't have to exist in that vibration.

Tadeo Ruiz: And I'm assuming the river helps a lot with that. Kind of like a refresher.

Chris Kennedy: I can’t get dark out here, man, how can you be dark out here? It's hard to have hatred out here. And you know, mostly all the people I've met on the water,  I mean, all the people I've met and most of which didn't look like me. But they still it would appear to me that most people that are enjoying the outdoors and enjoying the water. Recreating are very, very positive. People and, and accepting. 

Tadeo Ruiz: So this is your saltine cracker in a way. And the reason I say that is whenever you go to food tastings, you have to eat a saltine cracker in between each meal you have because it cleanses your palate and you're starting over in a way. 

Chris Kennedy: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I never thought about that analogy, but yeah, absolutely. This is my saltine cracker. 


Tina Casagrand Foss: Next time…

Greg Olson: If you're out here on the river, you're definitely in a spiritual place, you can kind of feel that now. Right? 

Tina Casagrand Foss: We’re going to learn a little more about the spiritual connections people have with the river. That episode is out next Friday.

Check out our website at columbiamissourian.com/rivertown and see more Missouri River stories from River Town and beyond at newterritorymag/rivertown.

River Town was reported by Tadeo Ruiz [tah-DAY-oh roo-EES], Ailing Li, Ellie Lin, Kaylin Hellyer, Olivia Mizelle [mye-ZELL], and Kiana Ferandes.

Ava Neels, and Ashley Cochrane (COCK-rann) also contributed reporting for this episode - [and it was their first time doing audio reporting.]

Abigail Keel is our producer and editor. Jessica Vaughn Martin is our project manager. Music for River Town comes from Gloria Attoun and Jason Shaw, via the free archive created by Creative Commons license.

Our audience teams and our photo teams are led by Professor Kara Edgerson and Professor Brian Kratzer at the Missouri News Network. Special thanks to the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

River Town is a collaborative project from KBIA, the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri News Network, and The New Territory magazine

Executive producers of River Town are Janet Saidi, and me, Tina Casagrand Foss, in partnership with PRX.

Kiana Fernandes is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism.
Tina Casagrand Foss is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of The New Territory. Raised in the Gasconade River Valley of the northern Ozark border, her love for mossy woods knows no bounds. She graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in magazine journalism and anthropology and worked as a freelance environmental journalist before starting The New Territory. As executive director of The New Territory Magazine’s newly formed nonprofit, she looks forward to a long future of reaching more readers, fostering Midwestern writers and editors, and nurturing connections among New Territory readers both on and off the page. Tina lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, just a mile away from the Missouri River.
Kaylin Hellyer is a senior at the University of Missouri School of Journalism studying cross-platform editing and producing and minoring in history. She has been a reporter and afternoon newscast anchor with KBIA, and is currently an afternoon newscast producer.
Abigail Keel is a senior student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and grew up hating the drone of public radio in her parent's car. In high school, she had a job picking up trash in a park where she listened to podcasts for entertainment and made a permanent switch to public-radio lover. She's volunteered and interned for Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, IL, and worked on the KBIA shows Faith and Values, Intersection and CoMO Explained.
Abby Lee is a student at the University of Missouri studying journalism and women’s and gender studies. She has interned with mxdwn Music and The Missouri Review.
Ellie Lin is a senior Journalism student at the University of Missouri. She’s studying Cross-Platform Editing and Production with an emphasis in Multimedia, UX and UI Design.
Jessica Vaughn Martin is a food journalist and gastronomic enthusiast. Her work centers around the people involved in food and agriculture, and the idea of food as memory, tradition, and cultural roadmap. She is a co-founder of Leftovers Community, an emerging food media platform that celebrates and sees potential in the scraps of life: leftover food, overlooked places and unheard voices. Jessica is an alumna of the Missouri School of Journalism and a former contributing editor for Feast magazine; she has also contributed to Food Network, Farm Journal, and COMO magazine, among other publications. Most recently, she’s taken a dive into audio, managing the Canned Peaches and River Town podcasts for mid-Missouri’s local NPR affiliate, KBIA. She lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, with her young family in an old bungalow, where she’s running out of space for her growing collection of vintage Missouri cookbooks.
Olivia Mizelle is a student reporter at KBIA
Tadeo Ruiz is a Freshman in the Missouri School of Journalism from Mexico City. He's a reporter and producer for KBIA.
Ava Neels studies journalism and Chinese language at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She was born and raised in South City St. Louis.
Janet Saidi is a producer and professor at KBIA and the Missouri School of Journalism.