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E. coli at the Lake of the Ozarks: one year later

Swim at your own risk

Photo courtesy of Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Lake of the Ozarks welcomes thousands of tourists, who come to swim, water ski or relax, each year.

May 13, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

In Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, residents in the small island community of Amity were left for bait when the mayor decided not to report the sighting of the infamous great white shark for the sake of tourism. Visitors to one of Missouri’s top vacation destinations, the Lake of the Ozarks, faced a similar situation last summer, but instead of a shark, poop was the perpetrator.
Delayed reporting of elevated E. coli levels, a bacteria commonly found in feces, made lakegoers reconsider splashing around. The problems began when water samples taken near the two public beaches on May 26, 2009, revealed abnormally high levels of the bacteria. The Department of Natural Resources chose not to publicly release the results until a month later on June 26, and vacationers and residents swam in the contaminated water unknowingly. Levels in one cove reached 988.3 E. coli colonies, almost eight times the maximum (see sidebar on everything you need to know about E. coli), and more than half of the sixty samples taken on May 26th exceeded the standard.
The communication delay occurred because the DNR thought releasing the findings would hurt the tourism and businesses around the lake, according to a July 2009 Kansas City Star article. Ken Midkiff, chairman of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign and an author of Missouri water quality legislation, agrees with the possible financial consequences. “The (contamination) has become an issue because the lake is so popular with folks from Kansas City and St. Louis,” Midkiff says. “The entire lake area is dependent almost solely on tourism — from boat sales to condos to hotels and motels to fast food joints and restaurants.”
Many lake residents and frequent visitors, including Carter Turnbull, agree that the delayed reporting was to save local establishments, which thrive on seasonal business, from a loss of customers. But Turnbull says the cover-up was wrong. “Our government is supposed to be for the people and run by the people, so regardless of the financial impact, (the DNR’s) job is to report their findings, period, to all those that are affected,” he says.
Although some residents feel strongly about the late reporting of the findings, others, such as Brooke Christy, aren’t as put off. “I wasn’t too concerned (about the fact that reports were delayed) because the Lake of the Ozarks is so much larger than people realize, and while there are hundreds of coves, E. coli was only found in a few areas,” she says. Despite Christy’s nonchalant attitude, many residents still weren’t completely comforted.

Suspected sources

Although the DNR discovered no official cause for the high levels of E. coli, Judd Slivka, DNR spokesman, believes that a number of different environmental factors, most notably rainfall, could have contributed to the elevated levels. “There had been a heavy period of rainfall right before the public beaches were tested, and rain can sweep things like animal feces and chemicals into the water that otherwise would have not been an issue,” he says.
However, DNR data reports show that the rainfall amounts were not as much above average as Slivka indicates. According to the reports, the average rainfall for Camden County (where much of the lake is located) in April 2009 was approximately 3.4 inches, but it was nearly double that amount at 5.8 inches in April 2008, when there was no reported problem. May 2009 precipitation levels also proved to be lower in comparison to the 2008 levels, with the reports showing an average of 5.4 inches for May 2009 and 8 inches for May 2008. Although rainfall on the days leading up to the May 2009 sampling might have been heavy, the official DNR reports show May’s rainfall certainly wasn’t out of the normal range. So far, rainfall for 2010 has been fairly typical as well, with an average of 3.4 and 3.2 inches in April 2009 and April 2010.
As for the origins of E. coli, it can come from a number of different sources, such as faulty septic tanks or sewer systems, wastewater treatment facilities, large concentrations of waterfowl and runoff from animal feces.

The lake is 75 years old, spans 92 miles and covers more than 54,000 acres ...

One possible reason for higher E. coli levels is heavy rainfall, which can cause more ...

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Open water?

To keep the public safe from contamination, Gov. Jay Nixon put into effect the Lake of the Ozarks Initiative on Sept. 23. One of the department’s largest water sampling sweeps to date, the initiative includes a new zero-tolerance policy for water quality violations, monthly inspections of all of the wastewater treatment facilities near the lake and increased scrutiny of new businesses applying to discharge wastewater into the lake.
As to just how rigorous these new amendments are, DNR spokesman Larry Archer says they were simply designed to ensure that things such as getting rid of wastewater improperly and machine maintenance would no longer be ignored and that there would be an immediate response to these concerns. “All of the facilities that discharge wastewater into the lake are required to meet certain standards,” Archer says. “And from now on, if they are out of compliance, they will be given so many days — the number of which is to be determined by the DNR based on the circumstances, like what exactly caused them to be out of compliance — to get compliant before we will have to take legal action. There will be no more wiggle room as there might have been in the past with allowing facilities longer periods of time to become compliant.” For the public’s protection, this means referring the violating cases to the attorney general’s office to take legal action.

Violator's row

The DNR proved it was not joking about scrutinizing uncooperative businesses. Since the initiative’s implementation, staffers have investigated the 419 active facilities that have been permitted to discharge wastewater into the lake. They found that only 265 were compliant with the conditions of their permits. Of the problems found at the remaining 154 establishments, common violations involved the disinfection of wastewater and the malfunctioning of disinfection machinery. Those in violation were given seven days to respond with a solution to achieve compliancy in a timely manner. Of the tested facilities, 75 corrected their violations while an additional 37 signed agreements to return to compliance by a date set by the DNR. The department has reported 42 businesses to the office of the attorney general for further legal action.
DNR officials assure that the lake water is still safe for swimming and other activities due to their new no-nonsense policy. The 2010 Division of State Parks sampling, which includes tests from the lake’s two public beaches, began last week and will continue through October.
Another continuing initiative is the Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance Study, which began in 2007 and is an agreement with AmerenUE for a five-year study of bacterial levels in the lake coves. The plan includes collecting monthly samples from approximately 30 coves each year beginning the Monday after Memorial Day, June 7.
Despite these steps, some residents still feel that the DNR’s initiatives efforts leave much to be explained. “The report left me void of the answer everyone should be looking for: What was or is the root cause of the two coves that had high levels of E. coli?” Turnbull says. “If you don’t know the root cause, then you don’t know what to fix, and I don’t believe it is fixed.”
The December report on the initiative’s progress was also very brief when discussing the results of the 419 sampling sites. Residents and visitors such as Turnbull agree that there needs to be more transparency in the findings. One example would be including the wastewater test results in the reports and assuring residents that the contamination will not have further adverse effects on their personal property. “As a property owner, I don’t want to see my property values go down due to one of the 419 wastewater treatment facilities (or any new ones built) not being up to standard,” he says.

The public's reaction

So with summer quickly approaching, what does last year’s E. coli fiasco mean for this year’s lakegoers? For Turnbull and Christy, the findings did little to deter their activities. “I swam in the lake during that period (of contamination) and didn’t think twice about it,” Turnbull says. “If I need to swim in water that has zero bacteria, I’ll just go to a swimming pool with chlorine.”
Christy agrees with Turnbull’s sentiments, and though she notes that the water, as with any lake, isn’t clean, it doesn’t hold her back from splashing around with friends and family. However, Slivka says that caution should still be used when deciding to take a swim. “The Lake of the Ozarks is truly a jewel of Missouri, but if you have an open wound, it probably isn’t the best lake to swim in.”
Lake of the Ozarks resident Lauren Buckley has experienced the side effects from E. coli contamination firsthand. “I know a lot of people that won’t go swimming in the lake anymore because the water has gotten so bad,” she says. “I even got a bladder infection once, and they found the E. coli bacteria in my urine, which we all assumed was due to the condition of the lake water.”
Doctors couldn’t definitively attribute Buckley’s infection to the elevated E. coli levels, but they couldn’t rule it out as a possibility, and it changed Buckley’s relationship with the lake for good. “I am a lot more careful now when and if I decide I want to get in the water,” she says. “And if I do go in, it’s usually just to go tubing or wakeboard, not swim.” Despite Buckley’s concerns, Slivka assures that the lake is still perfectly safe for visitors to swim in and notes that the results will be released as soon as possible to assure that any possible contamination is reported.
Buckley’s case shows that despite Turnbull and Christy’s laidback approach and the fact that no cases of proven E. coli-related illnesses have been reported, exposure to the bacteria can still have adverse health effects. Symptoms include vomiting, fever and diarrhea, among others. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, the likelihood of a swimmer becoming ill from water with elevated E. coli levels is fairly low. The EPA estimates that eight swimmers per 1,000 might develop some form of gastrointestinal disease from swimming in water with an E. coli level of 126 colonies per 100 milliliters. The 2007 sampling average for the Lake of the Ozarks was 5 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water, and it was 7.6 E. coli colonies in 2008, both of which are well below the EPA’s suggested average. In 2009, more than 30 samples measured higher than the safe limit. Slivka assures that the DNR is taking the proper measures to improve the water quality and making sure the contamination doesn’t happen again for the 2010 sampling season.
Although some still focus on the DNR’s inability to enforce water quality laws, Christy sees the media’s portrayal of the situation as exaggerated. “I think the media has made locals and tourists more worrisome than necessary, and I feel that the stricter punishments (administered by the DNR) on putting illegal discharges into the lake will benefit everyone.”
So should lakegoers take heed when thinking about taking a dip? Christy says it’s all a matter following a few simple suggestions. “Anyone who looks at the lake water can see it is not the cleanest, so keeping the water out of one’s eyes, nose, mouth or open wounds is a smart practice.”
In many cases, E. coli is used as a marker for other contamination identification. Michael Cooperstock, medical director of the Infection Control Department at the MU Health Center, says E. coli can be used to assess the threat of other possible medical issues. “There are very few risks for swimming in water with E. coli,” he says. “It’s more of an index that there may be fecal contamination in the water, and you should be more worried about Hepatitis A or other infecting agents because the E. coli itself is not a likely cause for concern.”

DNR backlash

In addition to the effects the delayed reporting had on many of the lake’s residents, it also had one on the DNR itself. DNR Director Mark Templeton came under the harshest public criticism, which resulted in the governor suspending him for two weeks without pay in September 2009. He has since been reinstated, but the incident also led to a great amount of organizational restructuring and the eventual firing of numerous top DNR officials.
Despite the DNR’s initial denial of the danger to the public, they were willing to admit to their mistake and have since taken the initiative to make sure a delayed reporting doesn’t happen again. However, water quality experts such as Midkiff believe that the problem is far from over and that solutions are unlikely. “The only solution I can envision is to deal with the problems of failing on-site septic systems,” Midkiff says. “Short term, there needs to be a crackdown of these illegal systems and long term, the establishment of a regional sewer system with one or more wastewater treatment plants.”
However, Midkiff says the problem also lies within the resources of the DNR itself — an issue he sees as a state-rooted problem. “The DNR is vastly underfunded and understaffed,” he says. “The amount of general revenue funds has decreased drastically. The fault for much of the failure to monitor and enforce (water quality laws) lies within the state legislature.”
Luckily, Slivka is quick to own up to the DNR’s mistake and has high hopes for the future. “We aren’t denying that things should have been done differently, but we are trying to make up for our mistakes now,” Slivka says. “The (E. coli incident) brought additional scrutiny to our department, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing because we are now making a better effort to put the processes in place to make everyone more accountable, ourselves included. We are taking the steps necessary to try and make the lake the best place possible for visitors and residents.”

Results at the click of a mouse

The Department of Natural Resources now gives the public access to more than 2.4 million laboratory test results on its Web site. Users can easily view findings dating from 2002 to the present that relate to air, solid waste and water management programs. The public can also search specifically for E. coli sampling results from lakes and rivers that have public beaches run by the Division of State Parks, such as the Ozarks, before they decide to swim.
Although Slivka says the site is not a direct response to last summer’s E. coli scare, the transparency is appreciated by the lake’s visitors and residents, especially Turnbull. “I think (the public sampling records) are an excellent idea,” Turnbull says. “Governments should and need to be transparent. That’s one of the reasons they’ve gotten to the point of the general public not trusting them.”
Slivka has high hopes for continuing to keep the public informed. “Our goal is to communicate the results to the public within two business days of acquiring the samples,” Slivka says. “This is a huge step forward in terms of communication with the public, and right now we are putting a system in place for recreational swim season, which we hope to be even faster with releasing the results than the cove sampling.”

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