ALTON • Mike Bush steered his boat through the mocha-colored creek off the Mississippi River, shaking his head at the scene.
Rusted pipes protruded from the creek bank, and a rope swing hung over the water.
The pipes, Bush suspected, connected to the cinder-block fishing shacks on shore. But he didn't know for sure. As for what they spewed into the water, he could only guess.
"I wouldn't let my kids swim here," Bush said.
He put the engine in neutral, pulled a small jar out of a black bag and dipped it into the water - another sample for the lab.
For nearly two years, Bush has patrolled the Mississippi, Illinois and Missouri rivers and the creeks that feed them.
He's the St. Louis confluence's newest advocate - and protector. On his 22-foot boat, a large banner announces his role: Riverkeeper.
In 2008, Bush founded a local chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national organization that strives to clean up waterways and keep them from being polluted.
Bush first read about the organization in a book about a decade ago, before he began circumnavigating the eastern part of North America on a route known as "The Great Loop."
Bush started near Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron converge. His path took him down the Mississippi, along the Ohio and Tennessee rivers, into the Gulf of Mexico and around Key West. Then he traveled up the Intracoastal Waterway along the East Coast and eventually into the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada.
The trip took seven years to complete, much longer than he had expected. Health problems delayed him. At points, he parked his boat at marinas around the country and flew home for months at a time.
He saw water in varying conditions, from murky sludge to crystal clear.
"That got me wondering about water and doing some research on it," he said.
Bush returned to that book called "The Riverkeepers" - the story of how environmental activist John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cleaned up the Hudson River in New York.
In the 1980s, Cronin and Kennedy founded Riverkeeper, which grew into a national organization called the Waterkeeper Alliance. Today the alliance has roughly 190 chapters. Until recently, the St. Louis Confluence area had none.
For Bush, it was time for that to change.
Bush, 68, has a long résumé. He ran a truck leasing business for about 25 years, worked as an art broker and marketing director, among other jobs. His broad background helped him assemble a diverse board of directors for St. Louis Confluence Riverkeeper. Members include environmental activists, educators and industry advocates.
The confluence area today is a far cry from the Hudson 30 years ago. For one thing, it's much cleaner. The sources of pollution are hidden and at times nearly untraceable. The threats come from chemicals running off agricultural levees, waste from large livestock feeding lots and dilapidated sewer systems.
Bush patrols the rivers about once a month, weather permitting, and so far, has focused on a single contaminant: E. coli. It's the bacteria found in fecal matter, which has received a lot of publicity in recent years.
"It's the one that can get you sick the quickest," Bush said. If ingested, it can cause symptoms similar to food poisoning.
Bush regularly samples 10 sites from St. Charles to Grafton to south of Arnold where the Meramec and Mississippi rivers converge.
He posts the results on his website: stlriverkeeper.org. And he informs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of samples that show high levels of E. coli near corps property.
The most worrisome sample came from the Missouri River at St. Charles in April, just after a rain.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers a level of 235 colonies of E. coli bacteria for each 100 milliliters of water safe for swimming. The sample near St. Charles was roughly 1,500 colonies per 100 milliliters.
High water kept from him retesting the site over the summer. When he was able to return, the E. coli level had dropped to nearly within EPA limits.
Bush thinks a creek nearby might have been responsible for April's sample, but he can't tell for sure.
"We are looking but haven't found anything yet," he said.
EDUCATION CALLED KEY
It's tough to measure Riverkeeper's impact thus far.
"We are just getting started here," said Tom Birkenmeier, a Riverkeeper board member and managing partner of Orca Partnership, a marketing and new product development company.
Paul Rohde, vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., said he agreed to serve on the Riverkeeper board because "it could have a real positive influence on the quality of the water."
But right now, he's not sure what that influence will look like.
"It's difficult for us to answer," Rohde said. The Waterways Council is a Virginia-based advocacy group for commercial boaters.
Others said Riverkeeper's most important function is education. Bush informs people about the importance of clean water, through his presence on the rivers and through booths and community events where he tells people about his organization.
"A lot of people don't realize their drinking water comes from the river," said Kimberly Rea, recreation manager for the corps' River Project, adding that Bush is helping to change that.
Out on the water recently, Bush acknowledged that much of his role has to do with prevention.
And if the rivers have taught him anything, it's that he shouldn't trust appearances. The cloudiest water can be clean, while the clearest can be filled with pollutants.
That murky creek off the Mississippi River, with the pipes that feed into the water?
"It's never shown elevated levels," he said.