Missouri's E. coli problems are not confined to the Lake of the Ozarks

A year ago this month, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was getting spanked over the revelation that the department had failed to report data on dangerous E. coli levels at Lake of the Ozarks. The motivation, media outlets reported, was tourism dollars — the DNR knew about the high E. coli readings before that Memorial Day weekend but didn't make them public until the holiday beach traffic subsided.

The resulting scandal prompted a state Senate investigation. That probe ceased in February, but fallout continued until, on the last day of the legislative session, the Senate's committee on Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources let the clock run out without passing the bill to renew the DNR's Water Protection Program. Industrial and agricultural polluters pay for permits granted by the program; permit fees provide as much as 37 percent of the DNR's regulatory operations. Because the bill didn't pass, the DNR will be unable to collect permit fees in 2011. If the DNR can't afford to operate its federally mandated clean-water program in 2011, under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will step in and take over the program.

Big-business lobbyists and Sierra Club activists agree that the Missouri DNR needs an overhaul. Right now, it can afford to monitor only a small fraction of the state's water bodies for pollutants and pathogens such as E. coli. But building a new water-quality program under a different agency could take years.

Steve Seyer and his giant schnauzer Dolphus on the gravel bed of Kiefer Creek in Castlewood State Park. Swimming in this water nearly killed the dog.
Steve Seyer and his giant schnauzer Dolphus on the gravel bed of Kiefer Creek in Castlewood State Park. Swimming in this water nearly killed the dog.
State Sen. Brad Lager (R-Maryville).
State Sen. Brad Lager (R-Maryville).

Missouri's tourism slogan used to be "Where the Rivers Run" because more miles of water flow through this state than any other. More than 155,000 miles of Missouri's rivers and streams are "unclassified" by the DNR, meaning that the agency does not test them for bacteria or specific pollutants, including mercury, iron and lead. People are floating, boating, fishing and swimming in some of those waterways right now, downstream from a municipal water-treatment facility or a large factory farm with an unchecked spillover from a lagoon of animal waste (two major sources of elevated bacteria counts).

To date, there is only anecdotal evidence of sickened beachgoers at the Lake of the Ozarks over the 2009 Memorial Day weekend. The reason, experts say, is that an outbreak of E. coli poisoning is hard to trace back to a recreational area. Tourists travel long distances to visit the Lake of the Ozarks and may not suffer symptoms until they return home. And people suffering stomach illnesses are more likely to blame the egg salad they ate at the lake rather than the lake itself.

The DNR's reason for not testing the water quality of 90 percent of Missouri's rivers and streams: money. Since the early '90s, the Legislature has consistently reduced the DNR's allocation from general revenue, and for the DNR, lack of money means lack of manpower.

"I find it extremely ironic that the Legislature is screaming at DNR for not doing their job competently and quickly enough, and then refuses to give them any resources to do their job," says Scott Dye, the national coordinator of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program.

This summer, the DNR has published its notifications of bacteria levels at public beaches online, an obvious response to last year's fiasco. Department spokesman Judd Slivka says: "We're much more transparent. This year, we put 2.4 million archival lab records online, dating back from 2002. Our lab results now go online within 48 hours of them being delivered to the programs that ordered them. Every time there's E. coli exceedance, it's put on a blog."

Transparency is nice, Dye says, but it still doesn't address the heart of the issue. "The bottom line is, a lot of this is stuff that ordinary citizens shouldn't have to know," he says. "They should be able to visit recreational areas with confidence that they're not going to get sick. This whole water-fees thing has created one hell of a mess, and it's not good for any party involved."

Bacterial problems lurk in waterways all over the state. Steve Seyer found that out the hard way when his 80-pound giant schnauzer, Dolphus, nearly died after becoming ill from playing in a creek.

In the spring of 2007, Seyer went for regular jogs in Castlewood State Park in Ballwin, a five-mile, 1,818-acre slice of green where tall limestone bluffs cradle the Meramec River below.

Seyer and his dog would end their runs at the bank of Kiefer Creek, which runs for about a mile from its spring to its confluence with the Meramec. "There's a place under a bridge inside the park with this great four-foot pool that's just phenomenal for letting kids fully submerge," Seyer says. "It's a neat place to play."

Seyer would let Dolphus cool off in the water before they climbed back into his van at the end of each run. Soon, though, the dog began suffering from an odd range of maladies. "I started to notice lumps on his back," Seyer says. "Two big ones. And black eye discharge and diarrhea that wouldn't stop. He was a sick puppy for a while. I didn't know what was causing it at the time."

The jog-and-swim ritual continued until that June, when Seyer says he got tired of the lingering wet-dog smell in his van and put a stop to Dolphus' dunks in Kiefer Creek. Dolphus' health improved after that.

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