JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon questioned the safety of one of Missouri's major tourist attractions Wednesday.
In response to a reporter's question asking if the Lake of the Ozarks was "unclean and unsafe," Nixon responded: "Well, clearly. We're near beaches that had to be shut this year in the middle of the tourist season. Having situations like that arise is not tolerable."
Nixon's spokesman Jack Cardetti said the response was an affirmation, but that Nixon meant the water quality was "unacceptable" at a personal level, not a Department of Natural Resources safety level.
Controversy swirled this summer surrounding withheld DNR reports of high E. coli levels at the lake this summer. The records were requested in early June by the department's former deputy director, Joe Bindbeutel, to show to the governor. What Nixon knew and when became the focus of investigations and open record requests.
In light of the summer's events, Nixon announced a plan to clean up the water in Lake of the Ozarks.
As part of what Nixon termed a "bold" clean-up initiative, he instructed the Department of Natural Resources to immediately begin focusing on preventing wastewater permit violations and testing the lake's water for a number of contaminants, including gasoline and pesticides.
One specific aspect of the state's contamination crackdown will require the department to inspect more than 400 facilities at the lake within eight to 10 weeks to ensure they are meeting statewide standards for sewage management and disposal.
"Understand this: Those with (wastewater) permits from DNR who are violating their permits, they will be inspected, they will be found and they will be punished," Nixon said.
Nixon did not cite any instances of sewage violations by permitted facilities that might have inspired his actions but suggested there needs to be a complete shift in the way sewage is handled in the area.
"I think getting to the point at which we are moving out of the days of septic tanks and moving into the days of sewage treatment in modern ways is going to be vital and important in the long run," Nixon said. "Ultimately, you want to get to a place in which you had a sewage treatment system that was more modern and does not rely as heavily, as it has in the past, on drain fields. That's not today's action, but as we move forward getting a regional sewer authority is certainly something that should be looked at."
Natural Resources Department Director Mark Templeton said although his department will head efforts toward ensuring a cleaner lake, "We also look forward to working with a broader group of stakeholders in this area to address these critical needs."
Such cooperation, apparently, has yet to begin. Osage Beach Mayor Penny Lyons said she was not informed of Nixon's plans in advance of his announcement. The mayors of Camdenton and Lake Ozark confirmed that they, too, had yet to be contacted by the governor's office. They were not informed by the governor's office of the press conference either.
Nixon said lakewide water tests and facility inspections would begin immediately. The governor could not say how much the program will cost the state or from where the funding will come.