Maybe every state needs a “dirty Watergate.”
Every year beaches and lakes all over the country as closed down when levels of fecal coliform bacteria levels reach or exceed certain levels. Only when high E. coli levels close truly popular recreational waters is there much attention paid.
Since last spring, however, Missourians have learned enough to fill a textbook about E. coli contamination of recreational waters and maybe a short course on political corruption to boot.
It all started when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources tested waters in the popular vacation Lake of the Ozarks, finding in it high levels of E. coli.
In a year when the economy of the “Show Me” state was about as fragile as anywhere else, the state DNR opted not to sit on the results and let tourists and residents alike flock to Lake of the Ozark beaches.
Four weeks went by with the Ozarks economy enjoying its visitors and its visitors enjoying the waters. Then the Kansas City Star newspaper broke the story that state officials were keeping from the public results of tests showing dangerously high bacteria levels at the Lake of Ozarks.
Missouri politics went wild after that.
Both Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and the Legislature launched investigations. Republicans suspected there had been a cover-up and called for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Top officials in the state DNR took responsibility; saying not closing beaches was “an error in judgment.”
For his part Gov. Nixon is both taking responsibility and insisting two aides in his office who knew about the high E. coli levels never told him about it nor the decision to favor tourism over public health until the Star broke the story.
“Systems failed and people made mistakes,” Nixon said. “Because these communications failures involved members of my staff and my administration, I take responsibility for them. Failures like this are not acceptable in this administration.”
Nixon said there were beaches other than those at Lake of the Ozarks that were not always closed when they were experiencing high bacteria levels. He also reported on multiple discharges of sewage into the Lake of the Ozarks that were higher than allowed and not made public.
A wastewater treatment facility on the lake had discharges hundreds of times above the allowed limits.
While waiting for incoming fire from the Legislature, Nixon has turned into a water quality convert, calling for “immediate steps to clean up the lake.” He’s called for a plan from DNR to accomplish that goal, and ordered all beaches and swimming areas immediately closed when water sampling shows dangerous levels of bacteria.
“DNR has failed on this account for a number of years and I will not stand for continued failure,” Nixon said at a press conference. He also wants test results made available to the public “quickly and transparently.”
Missouri failed to close Lake of Ozark beaches in each of the past three summers when E. coli levels went over limits.
Like other states, Missouri water quality takes a hit from both sewage spills and animal waste runoff. A Sept. 25th break sent 3 million gallons of raw sewage into Blue River from Kansas City’s aged sewer system, the Star reported. Other Kansas City spills in last year totaled 21.6 million gallons.
One spill alone from the St. Joseph sewer system sent 31 million gallons into the Missouri River.
So while Nixon started out focused on the Lake of Ozarks, where he said the state would have a “zero tolerance” policy on sewer spills, that policy has now gone statewide.
State DNR Director Mark Templeton, who Nixon ordered to take two weeks of unpaid leave as punishment for “Ecolligate,” is now promising to use enforcement authority against violators. It could mean big penalties for aged cities like St. Louis, Kansas City, and St. Joseph.
Even some tourist industry advocates like the twist the whole “dirty Watergate” thing has taken.
“Lakefront businesses will benefit from progressive municipalities expanding center sewer to replace aging system,” writes the Lake Expo’s J.B. Simpson. “Water testing will continue. If poor publicity is the price of success, so be it.”