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Columbia Missourian

Failing septic systems contribute to high E. coli levels at the Lake of the Ozarks

By Rebecca Berg
November 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST
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Although everyone has E. coli bacteria naturally in their intestines, people and animals can be infected with the strand of E. coli 0157:H7, which can sometimes be found in undercooked foods, contaminated water and feces.

JEFFERSON CITY — At the Lake of the Ozarks, dirty water is a fact of life.

Last summer, high levels of E. coli forced the closure of two state beaches. Lake residents were not surprised.


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Although at one time the Missouri Department of Natural Resources attributed the unsafe levels of E.coli to animal waste, health officials and homeowners say another problem is failing septic systems.

For years, septic systems have been draining into the lake where people boat, swim and fish — into the same lake that attracts thousands of visitors and millions of tourism dollars annually.

Although no exact number is recorded, local health officials estimate that tens of thousands of homes around the lake — 60 to 80 percent — use septic tanks. It is the primary method of on-site or residential wastewater management around the Lake of the Ozarks.

And that is exactly the problem.

Old septic tanks are leaking or overflowing. Homeowners are emptying the contents of septic tanks into the lake, and home drainage pipes for septic systems pour directly into the lake. When it rains, any standing sewage is washed into the water.

"The issue at the Lake of the Ozarks, as I understand it, is … you've got a lot of old septic systems," Department of Natural Resources Director Mark Templeton said in a recent interview with Senate investigators. "You've got septic systems that need to be inspected, maintained, repaired, shut down. It's just not a great place to have septic."

Lake resident Wesley Nyhaug understands the danger leaking septic tanks pose to the lake. When he bought his home, the property came with a small, old tank that emptied its contents into the water.

If he hadn't noticed sewage draining toward the water, he said, he might not have replaced the tank. He installed a 1,500-gallon septic tank with a pump system that moves wastewaster uphill, away from the lake.

"There's really no way to know that septic tanks are in trouble until they have a problem," he said. "Then it's too late, and they have to be replaced."

At its core, the issue of failing septic systems today has much to do with the original purpose of the lake.

The Lake of the Ozarks was initially meant to be an energy source, not a vacation destination.

In 1931, Union Electric, now AmerenUE, completed construction on Bagnell Dam. The utility still owns the lake and its shoreline. The lake's dam produces enough hydroelectricity in one year to power more than 40,000 households.

Unlike energy production, limiting development and preventing pollution were not originally priorities at the Lake of the Ozarks.

According to Dwight Weaver, a historian who has written a number of books on the Lake of the Ozarks and has lived at the lake for 45 years, tourism was a small industry at the lake prior to highway improvements in the 1970s. Overall, he said, development has been gradual until recently.

"There has been more big development in the last 10 years than at any other time in the lake's history," Weaver said.

As development took off around the lake, oversight of the lake water's environmental quality did not keep pace. It was not until 1996 that the state even began to partially regulate septic tanks, and it took a lawsuit filed against AmerenUE by the state to implement regular testing of water quality at the lake.

Water sampling was sporadic before the 2007 launch of a five-year water-quality testing program funded by AmerenUE under a court settlement. AmerenUE was sued after a massive breach in the Taum Sauk Reservoir that spilled a billion gallons of water.

In June, the public was notified that two beaches in the Lake of the Ozarks State Park had to be shut down because of high levels of E.coli in the water. More than half of the 60 samples taken in May exceeded the state standard for E. coli — 126 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.  At least two samples were 19 times above the standard.

The report was not released until June 26, and it reported that lower levels had been found in June samples. Heavy rains in May had washed bacteria into the lake, which later returned to the safer levels.

"Runoff from heavy rains may transport waste found in soil from faulty septic tanks or sewer systems, wastewater treatment facilities, large concentrations of waterfowl, and animal waste and manure," said a statement released by the Department of Natural Resources in June.

The Missouri Natural Resources Department attributed the unsafe levels of E. coli in the water to a high concentration of geese at the lake.

However, University of Missouri soil science Professor Randall Miles said septic tanks have a major effect on E. coli levels at the lake.

"In some parts of the lake, the largest contribution (to E. coli) may be the wastewater," Miles said.

According to Michael Cooperstock, medical director of the infection control program at the University of Missouri, E. coli bacteria in the water could lead to illnesses such as hepatitis and various gastrointestinal disorders.

"If there's contaminated water, it may contain … diseases and you would most certainly want to tell people, 'Do not go swimming in that place,'" Cooperstock said.

The Missouri Health Department reported 310 confirmed cases of illness and two deaths from dangerous strains of E. coli in 2007 and 2008. So far this year, 97 E. coli-based illnesses have been confirmed in the state.  

For the Lake of the Ozarks, the Camden County Health Department has reported two cases of E. coli-based illness so far this year.

These numbers may be low. Local and state health officials say illness in humans from E. coli is often misdiagnosed or unreported.

According to Bee Dampier, a registered nurse for Camden County, exposure to E. coli bacteria may come from a number of sources, including "being in the water."

The health risks associated with human and animal waste in the water have caused worry among some visitors like Darquita Hoffman from St. Louis, who recently spent a day at the lake with her children.

"It'll make me think twice, because if you're out in the water and you've got to inhale different stuff and smell it, I don't think that's healthy at all," Hoffman said. "I am very concerned now."

Hoffman is not alone in her apprehension. Trent Freegard, the manager of Bridgeport Marina in Osage Beach, said he has noticed more customers inquiring as to the safety of swimming in the lake.

Freegard said he tells tourists not to worry, but to err on the side of caution.

"We've had families come in and ask me about the E. coli, and I tell them … to stay out of the areas where the high risk is," Freegard said.

Nyhaug said he lives with lake pollution. Since moving into his lakefront home 11 years ago, he said he has seen diapers, driftwood and bags of garbage floating in the lake after storms.

Each summer when Nyhaug and his wife, Constance, play host to their extended family, they let their three grandchildren swim in the lake. This summer, the weather was sunny during the family's annual visit.

But, Nyhaug said, "if the grandkids had been here after a rain or something like that, I think by the looks of the water they would have said, 'No, I'm not going swimming today.'"

The pollution visible to the eye constitutes only a fraction of the contamination cocktail in the lake's waters. Pollutants include animal and human discharge, commercial byproducts and fuel.

In September, Gov. Jay Nixon pledged to clean up the Lake of the Ozarks by increasing water testing and by investigating polluters. Nixon announced that the department would also begin testing the lake for traces of pesticides, gasoline and other petroleum-based pollutants.

An internal investigation by the governor's office confirmed 14 instances of illegal sewage discharges by commercial wastewater treatment facilities into the Lake of the Ozarks since 2005.

Lake residents like Wesley Nyhaug must wait for relief from a failing sewage system at the lake. On-site septic tanks were not addressed by the governor's initiative.

For the sake of the environment and the economy of the lake, Nyhaug said he hopes relief will come soon.

"I think the governor has a good idea, but I think they have to put more stringent rules and regulations in here with the septic systems," he said. "Something has to be done."

Wednesday, this series will explore specific causes of failing septic systems at the Lake of the Ozarks.