If you think Missouri's water-quality issues are limited to the beaches at the Lake of the Ozarks, you ain't seen shit.
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 the lake. 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.
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 tells The Pitch: "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 exceedence, it's put on a blog." (Click here for a map of Missouris recreational beaches.)