Missouri has pools, spas and water parks just like any other state in the union, but when it comes to natural recreational water sites, Missouri has a unique set of sites that attract thousands of visitors from around the country and the world on any given day. The Missouri River runs from west to east bisecting the state. The “Big Muddy” Mississippi defines our eastern border. Many pristine rivers designated as national scenic water ways flow through the southern part of the state. Man made lakes, reservoirs and ponds abound. On any given day, the recreational activities in these waters may include fishing, swimming, boating, sailing, canoeing, tubing, wading or just sitting by the bank enjoying the scenery.

Natural water areas are dynamic, ever changing. Streams and rivers continue to deliver downstream what ever they have picked up upstream. Lakes, ponds and reservoirs are affected by currents and winds pushing water and what ever contaminants it contains from one area to another. A perfectly safe and healthy recreation spot on a river or lake can change in a matter of minutes to hours into one that presents real risks to its users. Many people do not make the connection to unsafe natural waters outside of industrial areas where water contamination concerns are more on people’s minds. Ironically, it is the very scenic beauty of our natural bodies of water that may be contributing to periods of risk in using them for recreational activities. The rustic beauty brought on an influx of tourists and new permanent residents. The increased population density means more pollutants from fertilizers, household cleaners, and sewage, to name a few, have to be dealt with. Often times, runoff after rains or inadequately functioning waste treatment plants (private home or city) contribute to the pollutant load that ends up in a stream or lake. These pollutants, can cause real and significant illness such as rashes, eye, ear, nose and throat infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Some recommendations for a safe and healthy trip to one of Missouri’s many natural recreational water sites include:

  • Avoid whole body contact if you have an illness that decreases your natural immune system.
  • Be aware that rainfall events have a tendency to wash the surrounding watershed clean of pollutants, depositing them in streams and lakes. It takes at least a day or two for these water ways to recover from rain events.
  • When swimming in a unknown area, check upstream and around the site to ensure there is not a direct pollution source such as livestock in the stream, an industrial facility or a waste discharge to the body of water. Check also for under water entanglement obstructions as well as for unusual currents in rivers which can also be deceptively dangerous.
  • Fishing is typically safe as well as consumption of the fish (if prepared appropriately) with the exception of certain areas and fish species due to heavy metal contamination. See the Fish Consumption Advisory link.
  • Canoeing, floating, and wading that don’t involve whole body contact or accidental water consumption are typically safe and present a relatively low level of risk.
  • If a body of water is posted with a “health warning,” use common sense in your decision as to your recreational activity. Do realize that bacteriological testing of these dynamic natural waters is only predictive, not diagnostic. A water test collected in the morning of any given day and analyzed the next day after incubation indicates the previous morning’s water quality, not necessarily the present water quality.
  • If you have questions about a specific area or body of water, call the local health department. All of them should be able to give you a general idea of the water bodies’ safety and some of them who have been doing regular sampling can give you a relatively accurate description of risks you may face.
  • Above all, have fun.