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Transparency is nice, Dye says, but it still doesn't address the heart of the issue. "The bottom line is, a lot of this is stuff that ordinary citizens shouldn't have to know," he says. "They should be able to visit recreational areas with confidence that they're not going to get sick. This whole water-fees thing has created one hell of a mess, and it's not good for any party involved."
Bacterial problems lurk in waterways all over the state. Steve Seyer found that out the hard way when his 80-pound giant schnauzer, Dolphus, nearly died after becoming ill from playing in a creek.
In the spring of 2007, Sever went for regular jogs in Castlewood State Park, a five-mile, 1,818-acre slice of green where tall limestone bluffs cradle the Meramec River below.
Seyer and his dog would end their runs at the bank of Kiefer Creek, which runs for about a mile from its spring to its confluence with the Meramec. "There's a place under a bridge inside the park with this great 4-foot pool that's just phenomenal for letting kids fully submerge," Seyer says. "It's a neat place to play."
Seyer would let Dolphus cool off in the water before they climbed back into his van at the end of each run. Soon, though, the dog began suffering from an odd range of maladies. "I started to notice lumps on his back," Seyer says. "Two big ones. And black eye discharge and diarrhea that wouldn't stop. He was a sick puppy for a while. I didn't know what was causing it at the time."
The jog-and-swim ritual continued until that June, when Seyer says he got tired of the lingering wet-dog smell in his van and put a stop to Dolphus' dunks in Kiefer Creek. Dolphus' health improved after that.
Seyer had always noticed a monitoring station operated by the U.S. Geological Survey at the intersection of Castlewood Road and Kiefer Creek Road. Out of curiosity, he poked around on the Internet, looking for the station's data. "I found 10 years' worth of flow, depth and bacterial data monitoring on Kiefer Creek," Seyer says. "I'm an IT guy, so I can look at the legend that describes what's normal for bacteria and what's not. One thing that kept popping up as incredibly abnormal were the E. coli levels."
The bacteria species E. coli grows in colonies and is found in the intestinal tracts and feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Some types are less harmful than others, but the nastiest strains can cause serious illness and even death. The DNR will close a beach in a state park if a single-sample test for E. coli results in more than 235 colonies per 100 milliliters — at a level of 235, according to the EPA, eight people out of 1,000 who get in the water will get sick.
When Seyer crunched the USGS' numbers, he concluded that 65 percent of the E. coli levels at Kiefer Creek were far higher than any of the troublesome test results at the Lake of the Ozarks.
"In 2009, the Lake of the Ozarks had E. coli levels at 2,400 colonies per 100 milliliters," Seyer says. "Kiefer Creek regularly had levels of over 20,000 to 40,000 colonies per 100 milliliters, with a high-water mark at 590,000."
Seyer contacted Miya Barr, a hydrologist with the USGS Missouri Water Science Center in Rolla, who confirmed that Seyer's interpretation of the numbers was correct, and that they presented evidence of a significant sewage problem in Kiefer Creek.