The clean, the dirty and the just plain gross of Columbia

It's time to get dirty

  • Comments
  • 18 min to read
Feature image

Water, sewage, trash — these services and systems in Columbia are so integrated into our lives that we don’t even think about them. At least, until something seems off. 

Catch a whiff of an unpleasant odor while driving in the southwest part of the city? It’s a reminder that Columbia’s sewage plant is nearby. Tap water look a little foggy and have a funny taste? That might be a cause for concern. Have to stargaze outside city limits and beyond the reach of light pollution? That’s the result of a growing city and the many outdoor lights that accompany it. 

Columbia is relatively clean, but it doesn’t start out that way. The city’s departments and workers collaborate to make the city a place where residents don’t have to think or worry about the dirty little things. If you want to get rid of the trash piling up, someone will be there to take care of it. The dead raccoon on the side of the road will probably be gone by the time you drive home, and you’ll forget it was ever there. 

Vox dug deeper into the often-unspoken aspects of everyday life that need some extra work — public health, air and light pollution, solid waste, parks and water — to find the nitty-gritty details of Columbia’s muck and see what it takes to clean them up. City, county and state employees do the dirty work so we don’t have to. 

Click on the links below to read the details of each section.  

Public healthLightWaterWasteAirRecreation

Public Health

By Cassa Niedringhaus

Calling in sick

Mumps appeared on MU’s campus last July with at least nine confirmed cases. The wave sparked the city’s Public Health and Human Services Department to declare an outbreak and set into motion a monitoring and outreach plan. The department typically announces an outbreak any time it sees a number of reported cases above historical averages and then involves the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this situation, one confirmed case of the mumps was enough to prompt a declaration. Mumps is an air-borne illness, easily transmitted from one person to another, and in close quarters such as residence halls, it can spread quickly. Andrea Waner, a Columbia and Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department officer, walks through the reporting process.

Hover over the red dots below. 

When it comes to certain diseases, people should be in the know and on the lookout. Health professionals keep track of infectious diseases to keep Columbia’s residents healthy and safe. These are some of the most frequently reported diseases:

City environmental health supervisor breaks down rules for cleanliness 

By Cassa Niedringhaus

Even if the kitchen is squeaky clean, restaurateurs can dread a visit from the health inspector. But Environmental Health Supervisor Kala Wekenborg-Tomka makes it her mission to look out for local diners. Vox sat down with her to talk about Columbia’s food codes and potential violations.

What happens after a restaurant gets a violation?

Violations are split up between critical and noncritical. Critical items are things that could lead to foodborne illness, such as food at the wrong temperature, people not washing their hands and bad food-handling practices. Noncritical items are general maintenance and cleanliness problems. Critical violations should be rectified within 72 hours. We follow up with a re-inspection to verify that those critical items are fixed, but we try very hard to get on-site correction. 

What are the most common violations?

We adopted a new food code in 2014, so some things that were previously noncritical items became critical. For example, in the old food code, it was a noncritical if you didn’t have soap or paper towels at a hand sink. Now, it’s critical. We see temperature violations, too. Frequently, the dirty food contact surfaces, such as utensils, plates or anything food comes into contact with, are not clean but are put away as clean. Those are probably the most common. 

How did the new food code get put into place?

We adopted the Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 model code for local jurisdictions or state health departments. The reason they said it’s a model code is that it’s possible or hopeful that, in Columbia, we’re using the same food code as they are in St. Louis or New York. We held stakeholder meetings with industry officials. We talked about it in front of the Board of Health. Then it went to City Council. The council adopted it in 2014. 

Is there ever a point when a restaurant will get shut down?

Food establishments can be closed based on the number of violations they have, but that’s also based on the type of establishment. Food establishments are categorized by high, medium or low priority. A high priority is a food establishment that is full service. A low priority is a gas station. We’re not in the business of closing establishments. We’re educators. 


By John Bat

Forgotten pollution

Light pollution is one of the lesser-known forms of pollution. It is “largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it’s not wanted,” according to a National Geographic article from November 2008. 

Wondering why you can’t see as many stars in your neighborhood compared to out in the country? Blame artificial lighting, especially municipal street lighting. To curb excess artificial lighting at night, Water and Light Public Information Officer Connie Kacprowicz says the City Council must approve all new municipal lighting and usually asks for consent of neighbors before installations. Smarter, pricier and more efficient LEDs replace new or broken lights. 

Artificial lighting and your health

Residential street lamps look normal, but they can actually be detrimental to people’s health when they spill into homes at night. Excess lights that bleed through windows, especially in urban areas, have the habit of keeping people up past their bedtimes. 

Artificial lights at night, which include street lights, can disrupt our biological clocks, according to the International Dark Sky Association. They can also affect melatonin levels, which are necessary for a good night’s rest. Considering that much of America is already sleep-deprived, according to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s important to try to block out excess light from the street with curtains if you feel it’s disrupting your sleep.


By John Bat

Untroubled Waters

Since 1972, CoMo’s drinking water has come from a 44-billion-gallon aquifer about 11 miles southwest of the city in McBaine. The aquifer stores water between grains of rock and a 110-foot well pumps the water out from the Missouri River bottom. “We’re very fortunate in Columbia that we have a large aquifer with an abundance of water,” says Connie Kacprowicz, communications supervisor at Columbia Water and Light. “It is a very clean source of water.” The sandy silt deposits inside the aquifer, formed by Ice Age glacier movements, act almost as a natural filter for the water. 

But the aquifer’s natural filtration isn’t enough, Kacprowicz says. CoMo’s water supply first goes through an aeration process that strains out compounds such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide creates a rotten-egg smell, but Kacprowicz says the levels for Columbia are too low for such a stench. Next, lime is added to soften the water. After that, fluoride is mixed into the water for the dental health of Water and Light’s roughly 48,000 customers. Finally, the water is put through an anthracite coal and sand filtering system to flush out any existing particles. 

Despite McBaine’s pesticide-ridden terrain, water tests consistently find undetectable levels of pesticides. Kacprowicz says Columbia Water & Light runs over 4,000 tests in 41 various locations each year, even in homes and businesses, for different chemicals in drinking water that are regulated by the EPA.

Kacprowicz says starting in the summer of 2008 Columbia Water and Light began to receive a lot of phone calls from residents complaining about the taste of chlorine in their tap water. It all started when a boil advisory was issued because elevated levels of trihalomethane, a harmful chemical, were in the water. 

The chemicals are a problem, Kacprowicz says, because they have the potential to cause cancer if consumed consistently over the years. The elevated levels emerged from a byproduct* of the chlorine-only disinfection process and raised a red flag due to tighter regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency. An MU study conducted that same year found the solution to the problem. The study said Water and Light should switch to a chloramine disinfection method, which is when a small amount of ammonia (the equivalent of six grains of table salt per gallon) is added to the chlorine to help prevent trihalomethane. It just so happens that the ammonia, which is used mainly in fall, winter and spring also weakens the taste of chlorine. The city switches back to chlorine-only disinfection during summer months to prevent pipe nitrification buildup in Columbia’s 689 miles of water pipes. Therefore, residents might detect that their water has a more noticeable chlorine taste during the summertime. 

Looking downstream: 

Dirty little secret

Katie Essing

Katie Essing

Did you know the water that funnels into Columbia’s storm drains winds up in places such as Flat Branch and Hinkson creeks? Every time someone litters, he or she makes a conscious decision to throw that item into a fragile ecosystem. What goes in doesn’t come out filtered. That’s why under the currently imposed EPA MS4 plan, Columbia is playing offense to combat littering and educate the public on making eco-friendly choices. Katie Essing, executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District, says the installation of 50 cigarette-recycling boxes throughout downtown aims to curb the amount of cigarette butts going down drains. The District pays Block by Block, a custodial company, to pick up litter on every downtown corner and street.

Going the distance

Mike Heimos

Mike Heimos

Mike Heimos, Columbia’s stormwater educator, says if all of Columbia’s stormwater drains formed a straight line, they would span the distance to Boston and back. The drains don’t get cleaned often or worked on besides the occasional maintenance issue, Heimos says. People rarely touch the roughly 2,600 miles of drains, many of which were built during the 1930s. The more litter that goes in, the more likely the drains get clogged. But that’s just one problem in the grand scheme of things. Heimos says litter in drains is a culmination of poor choices. He says all residents should know their watersheds, or where storm drain water from a certain area is deposited. To check which local creek your litter has most recently polluted, visit como.gov to find an interactive map.

The watershed moment that changed CoMo forever

Hinkson Watershed

This photo of Hinkson Creek outhouse was presented to Columbia residents with the hope of convincing the city to switch to a municipal water system.

According to Columbia Water and Light’s Centennial Celebration research, a typhoid outbreak in Ithaca, New York, almost shut down Cornell University in 1903. The event spurred Columbia residents and City Council alike to investigate the city’s surface water. 

At that time, much of Columbia’s drinking water was coming from natural sources such as Hinkson Creek. The council determined that the surface water was unsafe for public use and suggested the public water come from deep wells instead. 

Columbia Water and Light Company, which was privately owned and commissioned by the city at the time, refused to transition to deep wells. In response, a group of citizens called The Municipal Ownership League protested by handing out pamphlets that included “graphic descriptions of hog wallows, animal carcasses and outhouses along the Hinkson Creek watershed and urged the citizenry to vote for public ownership of the facility,” according to Columbia Water and Light’s Centennial Celebration. 

After much back-and-forth, the company and the city struck a deal for public purchase of the utility. A public vote approved the deal in 1904, and the city arranged to build Columbia’s first two deep wells next to More’s Lake.

Cleanup Columbia saves the day

For 19 years, Columbia volunteers have taken to city streets and parks to prevent excess trash from making its way into the stormwater system. When trash enters the stormwater drains, it becomes impossible to measure. On April 11, 2015, Cleanup Columbia did what they do best and cleared the city of its garbage. 

Hover over the red dots below. 

That’s 13,456 pounds of trash that would have eventually found its way into the city’s watersheds if it weren’t for the volunteers of Cleanup Columbia. 

The dog days are over

Heimos says he has little patience for pet owners who don’t clean up their dogs’ poop. The stinky stuff frequently ends up in stormwater drains before it biodegrades. 

He says there are twice as many pets in Columbia as residents, and in just a month’s time, a dog can relieve half of its body weight going to the bathroom. That’s a lot of dog poop. 

A dog’s waste takes 90 days to decompose, Heimos says, unless it’s intentionally fertilized. Their waste is just like human waste, he says. It carries diseases such as E. coli. 


By Paul Albani-Burgio and Caitlin Busch

Be it a squirrel on Providence or a deer on I-70, Columbia is no stranger to roadkill. Domestic animals such as dogs and cats are kept for a couple of days after collection in an attempt to notify potential owners, but those verging on the wilder side go in the landfill or are deposited just off the road. 

Small animals in CoMo

If a dead creature is within city limits, it’s under the jurisdiction of the city’s animal control division. Last year, Columbia collected 260 animals in the city. The most common types of roadkill in Columbia are opossums — the ones that aren’t playing dead — and our favorite little bandits, raccoons. Animal collection services typically ignore small birds, but feathered friends such as hawks, owls and turkeys are collected.


The most noticeable roadkill: deer. This is partly because of their size and the damage they do when hit (an animal that large is more likely to do damage to a new paint job than the occasional squirrel). Columbia employs an independent contractor for deer collection, which it doesn’t do with smaller species. The contractor is paid on a per-deer basis and typically responds within 24 hours. The service costs between $50 and $150 per deer. Most estimates put the number of deer hit per year in Missouri at about 8,000 to 10,000. 

Off the road

Roadkill is generally removed within half a day of receiving a report. Columbia Animal Control collects roadkill the old-fashioned way — with a pair of gloves, a trash bag and good, old-fashioned upper-body strength. Some Department of Conservation employees use tools such as winches, to gather the animals, so they don’t have as much contact with the carcasses. Employees of the Missouri Department of Transportation, which deals with roadkill on highways, also sometimes use scoop shovels to load smaller animals. 

Safety is the main impediment to roadkill removal. So if there’s a raccoon in the middle of Stadium Boulevard during rush hour, it’s probably going to be there until traffic calms down. It’s not worth putting a life at risk to remove an animal. But Missouri’s most prolific and aggressive roadkill remover turns out to be none other than Mother Nature. John George, a wildlife regional supervisor at the Department of Conservation, says the majority of roadkill is consumed by scavengers before it can be removed. He guesses that 10 to 20 percent of larger animals are taken to a landfill. 

The circle of life

If you’ve noticed more roadkill than usual lately, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Bambi’s been busy and Thumper is multiplying like, well, a rabbit. Roadkill is a bigger problem during the spring and fall when animals are looking for mates and food, as opposed to during winter when they’re lying low and have fully stocked pantries to keep them busy. 

Down the Drain

By Caitlin Busch

The Columbia Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant was completed in 1983. The plant cost $21 million to build, and it cost an additional $30 million to install new sewage lines that bring in wastewater. But the city approved a new $56 million facility in 2010 that replaced over 100 smaller facilities. Columbia treats approximately 16 million gallons of wastewater per day, but that amount reduces by about 1 million gallons per day during school breaks due to the drop in student population. After going through the treatment process, wastewater is expelled to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area on the Missouri River.

Where does the wastewater come from?

Sinks, showers, dishwashers, toilets, washing machines and anything else with a drain can create wastewater in homes. 

Stormwater infiltration, runoff and groundwater can also accumulate wastewater. For example, water can sneak its way into the sanitary sewer system after a storm and groundwater can squeeze through cracks in the pavement.

Industrial buildings, schools and businesses also produce wastewater, including toxic chemical waste, from any standing structures that aren’t living spaces. This includes factories, food-service operations, schools, hospitals and shopping centers.

A tall drink of water

On average, each person in the United States contributes anywhere from 50 to 100 gallons of wastewater per day. That’s a lot of toilet-flushing, shower-taking, 

clothes-washing and water-drinking for the people of Columbia. Meanwhile, The Water Project, a fund that aims to supply clean water to impoverished villages, reports that more than 1 billion people worldwide have problems accessing safe, reliable water.

Wastewater treatment

Parks and wrecks

By Niki Kottmann

Hover over the red dots below. 

Columbia Park Services Manager Gabe Huffington says humans — not animals — are behind a majority of the waste in Columbia’s parks. Huffington explains how the department keeps up with the large volume of trash. 

Get trashy: A roundup of CoMo's garbage

Hover over the red dots below. 


By Laura Davis

The worst offender

Ozone gases are Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to air pollutants. In a technical sense, ozone is composed of three oxygen atoms that form a highly reactive gas. And air pollution is getting worse due to emissions from vehicles, industrial facilities and other electric utilities. 

High ozone levels occur when the sun’s rays and heat become so strong that they pose health risks such as difficulty breathing. Episodes can happen any time of year but generally occur in summer because of sunlight and the high pressure that moves east of Columbia. 

The health effects of high ozone levels include decreased lung function, aggravation of asthma or other lung diseases and, if the air quality is at a very unhealthy or hazardous level, permanent lung damage. Other common air pollutants include lead, particle pollution, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The EPA requires cities with populations higher than 350,000 to record air quality levels daily, but many other towns do as well to benefit public health. To check air quality levels, visit the EPA’s website: airnow.gov

Colors of the wind

In Columbia, along with the rest of the state, city and state government agencies use a network to ensure that residents and businesses are maintaining healthy standards. “The department also utilizes computer modeling, when appropriate, to verify compliance with air quality standards,” Tom Bastian, communications director at the Department of Natural Resources, wrote in an email. 

When the air quality index — measured on a number scale and translated to colors — reaches level orange, it might be time to worry. The elderly, children and people with asthma should be on alert. The EPA advises against keeping windows open, prolonging outdoor activity and staying in high-traffic areas. It also recommends staying hydrated. Visit airnow.gov––. to check air quality indexes. 

Levels of Health Concern
Numerical Value
0 to 50
Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little to no
51 to 100
Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
100 to 151
Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.
151 to 200
Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of some sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects
Very Unhealthy
201 to 300

Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
301 to 500
Health alert: Everyone may experience more serious health effects.


Marking up the wrong tree

By Niki Kottmann

Big Tree vandalized

Graffiti marks the McBaine Bur Oak, also known as the Big Tree. The Big Tree is a frequent victim of vandalism.

Instead of using pages in a scrapbook or messages in a yearbook, John Sam Williamson marks his years with the rings on a tree. He’s the owner of the famed Big Tree, the nearly 100-foot-tall bur oak — the biggest in Missouri — that serves as the main tourist attraction in McBaine. He’s the sixth generation Williamson to own the property that the 350-year-old tree rests on, and he’s seen more acts of vandalism on its bark than he can count. 

Most recently, Williamson awoke this past January to a hodgepodge of orange and red graffiti covering the base of the tree. After he called authorities, their investigation ended with three suspects being charged with second-degree property damage. The proof was a Facebook selfie of the three posing with the graffiti. But perhaps the second-best-known act of vandalism done to the tree was two years ago when a high school student spray-painted the message “PROM?” on the base. 

When people vandalize the Big Tree, especially when they’ve painted curse words, Williamson says he simply covers it with mud. “Maybe two or three or four generations come down to look at the tree and take pictures, and I don’t want them to see bad words spray-painted,” he says. 

But the majority of the tree’s visitors, Williamson says, are extremely respectful. In fact, there’s an unsung tradition of keeping the grounds around the tree clean. Williamson says he sees visitors picking up trash before they leave, and bicyclists who can’t carry a bag of trash with them often leave it in a neat pile, and the next visitor picks it up. Most people — young and old, first-time visitors and Big Tree veterans — can’t leave the Big Tree without trying to conserve its beauty.

Getting trashed: The diary of a red Solo cup

By Katie Johns

Brown leaves surround me while people walk along the boardwalk overlooking Devil’s Icebox. Parents chase their kids on the trails as teens meander the paths during a break from Netflix. What they don’t know is that a college kid left me here. I’m not an animal nor a warning sign nor a stick. I’m a red Solo cup. 

My kind is usually reserved for beer pong and tailgating. I’m often filled with Bud Light or vodka sodas, but now, I’m empty. I won’t be properly disposed of. I won’t be recycled or get to rest in the dumpster with the rotten banana peels. I’ll sit here and besmirch the environment. 

Five feet above me, a McDonald’s cup sits on a bench. A lone Winnie the Pooh glove lies near the entrance of the park. A cigarette butt sits almost buried about 9 feet away from me, and an object that looks like an inhaler or a flashlight — I never can tell — rests useless 10 feet away. 

Day after day, we watch over the people who explore Rock Bridge Memorial State Park without anyone bothering to throw us away properly. We don’t like harming the park, and we especially don’t like being left outside in the unpredictable Missouri weather. We all sit here, wondering when humans are going to realize that there are better ways to get rid of us.

Floating away: The life of a plastic bottle as it travels down the river

By Katie Johns

Single-use plastics — such as plastic bottles, bags, straws and silverware — are found in rivers more than anything else, says Melanie Cheney, Missouri River Relief assistant program manager. Because of this litter, at least 267 wildlife species across the globe are ingesting plastic particles. Cheney explains what exactly happens when a plastic water bottle is tossed on the ground. 

A water bottle enters the waterways through the streets. For example, if someone drops a water bottle downtown, it could enter rivers and streams until it hits the next tributary. From that point forward, it can continue into the Missouri River. 

Following the bottle’s entrance into the river, two things could happen. The best-case scenario is that it is picked up by volunteer groups, such as Missouri River Relief. Once the river floods its banks, however, that doesn’t always happen. 

If not picked up and disposed of properly, the water bottle breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This has a number of effects. The pieces that break down soak up pollutants and accumulate throughout the food chain. 

Fish, birds and other wildlife that are ingesting the plastic have an impact on the entire ecosystem because we all live in the downstream effect, Cheney says. Chances are if you eat fish that ate plastic particles, you’re ingesting that plastic as well. 

Although Columbia gets its water from an aquifer, the Missouri River is a source of drinking water for other cities along its banks. A plastic water bottle from CoMo will inevitably contaminate other communities’ water sources.

Running amok

By Katie Johns

Litter goes far beyond plastic water bottles. Chad Pregracke, founder of the nonprofit organization Living Lands & Waters, has seen plenty of litter in lakes — such as prosthetic legs, mannequin hands, cars and barbershop stools. He also claims to have one of the world’s largest message-in-a-bottle collections. 

No one river is worse off than another in terms of litter because each one has its own flow and different people inhabiting the land around it, Pregracke says. Water cleanliness has gotten better through the years, but it’s still a problem. Pregracke says a lot of people think litter ends up somewhere else, but that assumption is wrong. “It doesn’t just magically go away,” he says. 

Living Lands & Waters has pulled more than 5,065 gallon barrels of litter from rivers since it began in 1998, and much of the waste is from docks and docked boats, Pregracke says. Some chemicals like pesticides and herbicides still linger, which can harm humans and animals. 

In murky water: Diver Dwain Gardner explains how CoMo keeps its lakes clean

By Niki Kottmann

Dwain Gardner

Dwain Gardner, owner of Captain Nemo's Dive Shop is one of Columbia's resident lake inspectors. Once a year, he and a partner scour Stephens Lake to clear it of hazards. Their efforts make the lake swimmable.

Dwain Gardner owns Captain Nemo’s Dive Shop but also serves as half of the two-man team that inspects Stephens Lake every year. Gardner sat down with Vox to explain how he keeps this once-murky lake clean enough for swimming. 

When did you start doing dives for Columbia Parks and Recreation?

It actually started about 25 years ago. The place around Twin Lakes is really where we got started because they had some construction there when they built the swim area. After the construction was over, we went in and made sure there weren’t any hazards for swimmers. Sometime throughout the years, we started working on Stephens Lake.

What is you main goal on these dives?

To make sure the bottom is pretty clean. Of course, there’s no way we can cover every inch. In a non-pool environment like that, you can always worry about that type of thing. We do as much as we can to make sure it’s clean and safe for people to use. Mainly, we’re looking for anything that could be a hazard to a swimmer, anything that could injure them. At Stephens Lake, we find golf balls, bottles, cans, swimsuits, articles of clothing and shoes. You just never know.

What's a typical inspection dive like?

We go out and inspect the area that swimmers are going to be using. We walk in through the shore, then just lay out ropes on the bottom that mirror the area on the surface, so we can tell where we are when we’re in the water. In that water, you can’t really see where you are. On a good day, you can just see 3 or 4 feet ahead of you, so the ropes help. We go to one edge then swim back. It can be a little tedious, but that’s the only way we can cover it.


*Elevated levels of trihalomethane are a byproduct of the chlorine-only disinfection process. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated this. 

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus