LAKE OZARK - Public officials have disagreed about whose responsibility it should be to give safety warnings at the Lake of the Ozarks, but a bill in Congress could require notifications within 24 hours of a sewage overflow.
The Kansas City Star reports that human waste spills into the lake fairly often, sometimes creating a health hazard, but officials in Missouri are not required to notify the public, and they usually don't.
"People are basically swimming at their own risk," said Ken Midkiff, a former co-chairman of the National Clean Water Network who continues to write and advocate for water quality in Missouri.
The proposed bill, Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act, in Congress would require notification by public health departments and others of a sewage overflow within 24 hours in any waterway.
But public officials continue to disagree about whose responsibility it should be or whether warnings are necessary.
A small amount of lake samplings have resulted in high readings of E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination, said Larry Archer, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources' field services division.
But he says, "E. coli is fickle. You might get a high reading one month and then get a reading the next month that is perfectly normal."
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that between 1.8 and 3.5 million Americans become ill every year from swimming in water contaminated by sewer overflows. Symptoms associated with E. coli include diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea.
"Whether you are wading or fishing, you are in the same risk," said Kevin Hess, the department's water pollution section chief. "If you get it on your body, touch your mouth, you can get sick."
Gauging pollution at Lake of the Ozarks is difficult. Not much monitoring for E. coli was done until last year, when Ameren Corp. agreed to provide $15,000 a year for five years as part of a state settlement over a dam failure.
The Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance, in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources, has sampled 120 sites, finding several spots that far exceeded state standards, though readings dropped when monitored a month or two later.
Hot spots occurred near Jennings Branch Cove and the cove where Tan-Tar-A vacation resort is located.
Fred Dehner, general manager at Tan-Tar-A, said the contamination was close to a residential area and unrelated to his resort, which prohibited lake swimming because of boat traffic.
The town of Lake Ozark has had six violations for discharging sewage into the lake in the last couple years.
The federal government and the state said they were investigating the city for intentionally discharging tens of thousands of gallons of raw sewage into the lake and the Osage River since 2005.
Richard Sturgeon, Lake Ozark's former public works director, has pleaded guilty to failing to report the discharge of raw sewage into the lake. He faces up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Charles Clark, Lake Ozark city administrator, said he could not comment because the city was nearing a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Scott Dye, director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinel program, said agencies need to notify the public.
"They are there for a reason," he said.
Department of Natural Resources officials said, however, that their mission was to regulate pollution in state water bodies.
"Local health departments, they are the ones that make the call to notify," Hess said.
But county health departments said the Department of Natural Resources was responsible.
"It is not us, it is DNR," said Bruce Jenkins, Miller County Health Department administrator.