E. Coli at Lake of the Ozarks blamed on leaking sewage

The greatest threat to water quality at the Lake of the Ozarks comes from thousands of aging septic tanks, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday. Fixing or replacing them is among recommendations he outlined.

Koster was in St. Louis to release a 12-step plan to address E. coli and other water concerns at the popular lake, which is home to a growing number of residents and a vacation spot for hundreds of thousands more who swim and boat in the water and play along the beaches. The report is the result of a two-day symposium Koster hosted in August that included experts on water quality.

"All Missouri citizens receive benefits from Lake of the Ozarks, and it is our collective responsibility to protect this outstanding resource from degradation," Koster said.

E. coli is a bacteria found in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals, including humans. Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some can cause gastrointestinal illness.

In 2009, the Kansas City Star reported that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources waited more than a month to release results from a water quality test showing high E. coli levels at Lake of the Ozarks.

Months after the lake E. coli problems became public, Gov. Jay Nixon fired a longtime aid and suspended Missouri Department of Natural Resources director Mark Templeton for more than two weeks without pay after an investigation revealed repeated state failures to protect the public from contaminated waterways. An internal review by Nixon's office found 10 cases over three years in which public beaches at state parks were not closed despite high E. coli levels, Nixon said at the time

Koster said more than 15,000 septic tanks operate on private property along the lake. Many were in place before new standards were established in the mid-1990s, "and many of them are likely failing," leaking sewage into the waterway, he said.

Among the recommendations is formation of a regional sewer district for Camden, Miller, Morgan and Benton counties that could lead to a sewage system to replace many of the septic tanks. Koster said a local sales tax could help pay for sewer development.

But that could take years. As a more short-term solution, Koster is asking lawmakers to consider a tax credit or tax deduction for needy lake area residents to replace aging septic tanks.

Koster said the state also needs to develop better methods of determining E. coli problems and alerting the public to those issues. One recommendation called for the DNR to develop a predictive modeling tool that would record real-time data on water quality, rather than relying on information-gathering that takes several days.

Other recommendations call for better inspections of septic tanks and sewage systems and tougher enforcement for violators. Koster wants significant violators of Missouri's Clean Water Law to face felony charges. Currently, even violators who cause wide spread problems face only a misdemeanor.