Water Quality

Beneficial Use Attainment

Most permanently-flowing basin streams are suitable for: aquatic life protection and fishing, livestock and wildlife watering (MDNR 1996). However, due to the fish consumption advisory on Big River fish, MDNR classifies the lower 93 miles of Big River as not suitable for aquatic life protection and fishing or livestock and wildlife watering (J. Madras, personal communication). Lower Flat River (lead and zinc from mine waste and low dissolved oxygen and high ammonia from waste water discharge) is classified as non-attainment waters. Outside of these areas all of Big River and Sunnen Lake, and portions of Mineral Fork, Terre Bleue Creek, and Old Mines Creek are designated for whole body contact (MDNR 1986). Recreation and irrigation is approved on Big River (RM 0-52). No basin streams are designated for drinking water.

Recreational Use and Citizen Involvement

Despite its lack of statewide notoriety, Big River is a popular resource. Bachant et al. (1982) found Missourians ranked Big River fifth out of 38 major Missouri watersheds in recreational value. Bachant et al. (1982) noted that few people are familiar with Big River on a statewide basis, but local users highly value it and that many Missourians perceive Big River to be polluted (i.e. lead) and highly urbanized (i.e. club houses). A 1983-85 telephone survey found that recreational use on Big River ranked 10th out of 46 watersheds (Weithman 1987). Anglers annually spent an average of 36,602 days fishing Big River from 1983-88 (Weithman 1991). Fleener (1988) found that Missourians spent over 1.6 million hours recreating on and around Big River (including 129,000 hours fishing) in 1980. In 1996, anglers spent 13,571 hours fishing Big River from RM 40 to RM 59, with over 70% of angling effort coming from Jefferson County residents (unpublished data, K. Meneau, MDC).

Boating is popular on Big River, especially with anglers below RM 60. During 1992 and 1993, 61% of anglers fishing from RM 40 to RM 59 used a boat or canoe (unpublished data, K. Meneau, MDC). About 75% of boat anglers used outboard motors. Canoeing's popularity is demonstrated by the presence of six canoe liveries (mostly in Jefferson County) that currently serve Big River. Mineral Fork supports spring and early summer canoeing. Bank and wade fishing are popular where access is good. Bank fishing takes place at boat ramps and below mill dams. Wade fishing is popular in upper Big River (above RM 93) and tributary streams like Mineral Fork, but little public bank fishing access exists.

The STREAM TEAM program is well represented within the basin with portions of five streams being adopted by 18 TEAMs. A STREAM TEAM association was formed by Big River TEAMS, in 1996, to improve communication. Basin STREAM TEAMs are active in tree planting, water quality monitoring, and trash pick up. In 1992, STREAM TEAMs incorporated Big River into Operation Clean Stream (annual Meramec River basin trash pick-up). In 1995, Big River STREAM TEAMs removed 6,180 pounds of trash and 1,033 tires during Operation Clean Stream (J. Wacker, personal communication).

In 1995, a 30-minute film documenting Big River's lead pollution problems was produced by two TEAMs. This was the second film made by these TEAMs to educate and urge action on Big River lead issues.

In 1998, Big River TEAMs constructed 1.5-miles of trails along Big River in Washington State Park (B. Stewart, personal communication). These included spur trails to gravel bars to improve fishing access.

Water Quality

Water chemistry and benthos samples indicate that Big River basin streams generally have good water quality (Missouri Water Pollution Board 1964; Ryck 1973; Miller et al. 1974; Mills et al.1978; MDC 1995d). Data collected from USGS gaging stations also indicate good water quality (Table Wq01). However, some localized problems exist. About eight miles of basin streams are chronically impacted (excessive algal growth, low oxygen, odor) by discharges from sewage treatment facilities (MDNR 1994a). Ryck (1974a) found depressed aquatic invertebrate populations and listed 1.5 miles of Spring Branch (near Bonne Terre) as seriously polluted from municipal sewage effluent. Recent facility upgrades have greatly reduced these impacts (MDNR 1994a).

In addition to affecting aquatic habitat, mine waste affects the water quality of some basin streams. Ryck (1974b) categorized 10.5 miles of Mill Creek and four miles of Flat River as seriously polluted from mine waste and listed four other basin streams that were affected. Kramer (1976) found elevated levels of lead, zinc, cadmium, and copper in Flat River water. Zachritz (1978) and Czarnezki (1987) found elevated lead and zinc concentrations in Big River water samples taken below the Leadwood and Desloge tailings piles and the confluence of Flat River. Schmitt and Finger (1982) found elevated copper, iron, lead, and zinc levels in Big River, especially during periods of high flow. They felt the majority of copper, lead, and iron was tied to sediment movement, while zinc was transported in liquid form. USGS has detected copper, iron, lead, and zinc from samples of Big River (Richwoods) water (Appendix 5). However, copper, iron, and lead levels were below those observed by Schmitt and Finger (1982) and Missouri State Water Quality Standards (MDNR 1994).

Cattle watering is a common practice in basin streams, though not intensive enough to present significant problems. Cattle activity increases organic pollution, bank erosion and subsequent sedimentation within the basin. Also, trampling and grazing by cattle destroys riparian vegetation.

Fish Kills, Contaminant Levels, and Consumption Advisories

Fishkill data (Table Wq02) indicate localized, but recurring problems with livestock manure and liquid fertilizer spills, as well as lead and barite mine waste erosion (MDC 1995a). Since 1966, 20 fishkills have involved releases of livestock manure from farms or liquid fertilizer leaks from the Williams Brothers pipeline in Jefferson County. The worst documented event occurred in Calico Creek (Washington County) on 9/6/77, when an ammonium nitrate (liquid fertilizer) pipeline leaked, killing 62,589 fish.

Lead and barite mine waste releases have negatively affected the biota of many basin streams. Some mine waste releases occur daily; 16 major releases have been documented since 1966.

Fishkills have occurred with many of these. Depression or extirpation of invertebrate populations and loss of habitat have also occurred (Ryck 1974; Duchrow 1976; Kramer 1976; Zachritz 1978; Buchanan 1980; Jennett et al. 1981; MDNR 1984).

In 1975, a barite pond dam failed near Blackwell, sending an undetermined amount of clay into Mill Creek and causing an extensive fishkill in the 11.5 miles of Mill Creek and Big River immediately below the dam (Duchrow 1976). The red-colored runoff increased turbidity of Big River for 73 miles to its confluence with the Meramec River and depressed invertebrate populations for up to 264 days in Mill Creek.

Though the most dramatic results of mine waste releases are felt locally, the effects are often seen far downstream. Elevated lead levels have been found in fish (Kramer 1976; Czarnezki 1985; Schmitt and Finger 1982; Missouri Department of Health 1999), mussels (Schmitt and Finger 1982; Czarnezki 1987), plants, and crayfish (Schmitt and Finger 1982) up to 75 miles downstream from mine waste releases.

Lead concentrations in Big River fish have been monitored since 1979 (Table Wq03). Lead levels in fish tissue were high enough (> 300 ppb) to issue a consumption advisory against eating carp, redhorse, and suckers from Desloge to Washington State Park in 1980 (Missouri Department of Health 1999). In 1992, the advisory was updated to include catfish and the remaining 58 miles of Big River (93 miles total) to the Meramec River. Re-analysis of the data caused catfish to be removed from the advisory in 1993. Sunfish (longear, green, and bluegill) were added to the advisory in 1994. Subsequent testing (unpublished data, K, Meneau, MDC) showed Big River black bass (spotted, smallmouth, and largemouth bass), rock bass, and catfish lead levels to be safe for human consumption. Mill Creek bleeding shiners and rainbow darters showed high lead levels in 1996 tests, but sunfish suckers, and rock bass levels were well below Federal standards (unpublished data, K. Meneau, MDC).

The fish consumption advisory prevents beneficial use classification of aquatic life from MDNR, negatively affects some anglers' fishing enjoyment, and causes some Missourians to doubt Big River's value. This advisory is likely to continue as lead-ladened sediment (from previous mine waste releases) continues its way through Big River.

Water Use

Only one public water supply withdrawal (Jefferson County PWSD No. 2 on Big River, RM 8) uses significant amounts (0.75 million gallons/day) of basin surface water (MDNR 1984 and 1986). Additionally, 10 wells with a maximum pumping capacity of 24.5 million gallons/day operate within the basin (MDNR 1994a).

Point Source Pollution

The basin contains 102 point sources of pollution (Figure Wq01), including five stormwater sources from landfills and quarries and 16 mining sources (MDNR 1994a).

About eight miles of basin streams are impacted (excessive algal growth, low oxygen, odor) by discharges from municipal sewage facilities (primarily lagoons). There are no permitted discharges of heavy metals or toxic organic materials.

Non-point Source Pollution

The Big River basin receives non-point source pollution from 65 documented sites, mainly runoff from intensive poultry farms or mines which affect 188 miles of basin streams. Mining (mostly near Big River) is responsible for 98% of the basin's non-point source pollution, primarily sediment influx (MDNR 1994a).

Chat and tailings piles are difficult to stabilize and subject to wind and water erosion. At times, this erosion can be very serious. The worst case happened in 1977, when a lead tailings pile near Desloge (RM 105.6) collapsed and discharged about 50,000 cubic yards of tailings into Big River. Runoff and erosion from barite processing ponds and dams affect nine basin streams, but this could be corrected by enlarging and rock lining emergency spillways and stabilizing dams (MDNR 1994a). Sediment and water samples showed negative effects of mining activity. Zachritz (1978) and Czarnezki (1987) found high lead and zinc concentrations in Big River sediment and water samples. Elevated zinc, sulfate, cobalt, lead, and nickel were found in Big and Flat river water and sediment (MDNR 1994a). Kramer (1976) found elevated levels of lead, zinc, cadmium, and copper levels in Flat River sediment, water, and biota (minnows and crayfish). In 1980, due to sedimentation from mine waste, 15 miles of Big River (from Desloge to Bonne Terre) was the only segment in the entire Meramec River system found to be devoid of mussels (MDNR 1984).

Sheet erosion on watershed lands is responsible for about 3 tons of eroded soil/acre/year (Anderson 1980). Gully erosion is considered moderate, 0.16-0.32 tons of soil/acre/year (Anderson 1980). Runoff from sheet, gully, streambank, and urban erosion contribute 77%, 15%, 3%, and 3% of annual streams sediment yield, respectively (Anderson 1980). Localized erosion (especially around tailings and chat piles) has greatly reduced the quality of some aquatic habitat.

Livestock is not heavily concentrated within the basin (MDNR 1984). The total number of hogs and cattle in the basin was estimated to be equal to 512,100 PE (human population equivalents). However, during summer, cattle spend much time near or in streams, which results in increased organic and bacterial loads, bank erosion, turbidity, trampling of the riparian corridor, and locally-high concentrations of algae. Though not a basin-wide problem, livestock activity has decreased the quality of some local habitat.

In 1983, 15 confined animal farming operations (mostly poultry) generated about 42,100 PE of waste, which were stored in "no discharge" lagoons (MDNR 1984). In 1994, MDNR (1994a) listed 18 operations existed within the basin.

Figure Wq01: Point Source Pollution Sites in the Big River Basin

Point source pollution locations within the Big River basin

Table Wq01: Water Quality Data for Big River Basin Streams

Water quality data for Big River basin streams taken from USGS gaging stations (USGS,1993)

Table Wq02: Fishkills Reported in the Big River Basin

Fishkills reported in the Big River Basin.

Table Wq03: Lead Levels in Fish from Big River

Lead levels in fish from Big River