JEFFERSON CITY — For Terry Robinson, summer at the Lake of the Ozarks often smells like her neighbor's leaking septic tank.
"In the summer when it gets real hot, you can kind of smell it once in a while," said Robinson, who owns a home in Gravois Mills.
Tune into the 7 a.m. morning newscast Thursday on KBIA/91.3 FM for another angle on this story.
Her personal experience is one example of the problems caused by failing septic systems around the lake.
Health officials and residents point to a number of factors that contribute to the breakdown of on-site, or residential, septic systems. They include the high cost of maintenance, uneven compliance with government regulations, old septic tanks and variable soil conditions surrounding the lake.
Robinson speculates that her neighbors with the leaking septic tank simply can't afford to replace it. The neighbors have an ill family member and have suffered financially as a result.
"I'm sure the reason they can't do anything about it is because to put in a new septic tank is not cheap," she said.
Pay up or pollute
As Robinson and other lake residents know, proper maintenance of on-site septic systems at the Lake of the Ozarks comes at a high price. Despite the obvious wealth around the lake, many of the residents live near the poverty line.
In Gravois Mills, where Robinson has her home, nearly 25 percent of families are below the poverty threshold, according to U.S. census data from 2000.
Replacing a septic tank can cost as much as $35,000 — more than the median annual income in the area. Even relatively minor maintenance procedures, such as pumping a septic tank, cost about $200.
The village of Gravois Mills, located in Morgan County on the Lake of the Ozarks, is a microcosm of larger socioeconomic problems at the lake.
According to data from the 2000 census, more than 10 percent of the population in the four counties on the lake live below the poverty line. In Morgan and Miller counties, more than 15 percent of residents are below the line.
Neither state nor local governments in Missouri typically pay for or subsidize septic system maintenance and replacement. Instead, residents are left to foot the bill; in the cases of many low-income homeowners, septic maintenance is simply ignored.
It is an issue that frustrates area officials such as Tracy Rank, an environmental public health specialist for Benton County at the Lake of the Ozarks. It is Rank's job to ensure area homeowners adhere to state regulations governing septic systems, but she said her ability to force compliance is limited.
In even the most severe cases, Rank said she can do little more than mail the offending homeowner an order to stop polluting.
She said she has encountered a number of extreme cases of noncompliance. In one instance, she saw a homeowner empty a septic system directly into the lake using an industrial vacuum cleaner.
At the Lake of the Ozarks, Rank said, such actions are not unusual.
"In my capacity, you see a lot of nasty stuff," she said. "You've got some people who just can't afford to do anything different, and I think that is a huge problem that we have in the state of Missouri. There is nothing solid in place to help economically challenged people to fix things."
In some instances, Rank said families are forced to choose between keeping their home or maintaining a septic system.
"I have one family right now that has to abandon their house because they cannot afford to fix the septic," she said. "I have a job to do, and I say, 'You have to stop polluting,' but the only way for them to stop polluting is for them to stop using water, so they're going to leave their house. There's no money available to help them."
It is no coincidence that lake residents are suddenly facing the daunting economic prospect of replacing failing septic tanks. A 1996 revision to an existing law effectively exempted old septic tanks at the Lake of the Ozarks from compliance with newer regulations.
The revision required new septic systems to be built to a stricter code with an inspection conducted when a home is sold.
Older septic tanks, however, were allowed to remain in place until the sale of the property — with no provision insisting that new state regulations be met.
The intent was to clean up the lake, but Jim Miller, an environmental public health specialist in Morgan County, said the law might have only complicated sewage management there.
"These last couple of years, most of our permit applications have been for tank replacements," Miller said. "When the sewage ordinance went in, anything existing at that time was grandfathered in as long as it was working OK. A lot of those old systems had small steel tanks that we won't allow now, and those tanks are deteriorating and need to be replaced."
Miller predicts a surge of tank failures and replacements more people buy homes and move to the lake full-time.
"There's been a lot of them replaced, but there's still a lot of old tanks out there that will need to be replaced at some point in the future," he said.
From weekenders to full-time residents
Mike and Carroll Rinker know firsthand the cost of dealing with an old septic tank.
The Rinkers' home at the Lake of the Ozarks has been in their family since the 1960s, when Mike Rinker's parents purchased it as a vacation residence. The couple eventually inherited the property as a second home.
When Mike Rinker retired in 2001, the family moved permanently from Kansas City to the lake.
At the time, the septic system buried on the property was as old as the home itself, and the Rinkers were faced with wastewater problems soon after moving.
"The old septic tank was an old cinder block tank, very small, that went out to a gravel pit," Mike Rinker said. "The gravel pit got clogged up and wouldn't take water anymore. The little water that got out was leaking through the tank."
Replacing it cost the Rinkers about $10,000. Nearly 10 years later, they worry that others will have to pay a similar amount or even more as they establish primary residences at the lake — if they are able to afford the cost at all.
"We're getting too many people around this lake with septic tanks, and a lot of them have old septic tanks that are feeding polluted water into the lake," Mike Rinker said.
His wife, Carroll, added, "It's the age of this lake and the age of the septic tanks that have been built here that need to be replaced."
Soil and sewage
If the area surrounding the lake becomes subject to significant population growth in the near future, the septic-tank issue is expected to worsen, particularly if vacation homes become year-round properties.
Donna Swall, executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance, predicts that a swell of retirement could cause the number of full-time residents to skyrocket, with negative effects on septic tanks. The alliance is a citizen-based, nonprofit environmental organization created to preserve the quality of life at the lake.
"We do know that they (retirees) will be going to these places they've had for years, or their grandparents' place, and there could be a pretty old septic there," Swall said. "Maybe it's only used two or three times a year now, but once they move in permanently and the septic is used all year, we could have an issue."
Carroll Rinker said an increase in full-time residents could also present problems for those with small lots who need to install larger systems.
"Let's say the people next door need to replace their septic system," Carroll Rinker said. "Where are they going to put a tank bigger than a couch? They don't have the room to put the amount of laterals they need to run to make that water safe. So even if they had the $20,000 to replace it, where are they going to put it?"
Mike Rinker added: "They don't have hardly any ground, so they can't put in a true septic tank. They're kind of between a rock and a hard place."
Inconsistencies in soil at the Lake of the Ozarks can also make it difficult to find enough usable ground for a septic system.
Randall Miles, an associate professor of soil science at MU, has been studying the interplay of septic systems and soil at the Lake of the Ozarks for nearly 20 years. He said incompatible soil types are one of the reasons septic systems create sewage problems at the lake.
"The soils there are quite variable," Miles said. "Some may be very deep, some are very shallow. Whether it's deep or shallow, they might still have some limiting characteristics for utilization of an on-site wastewater system."
Often, Miles said, even switching to a septic system compatible with soil quality can be confusing for some homeowners. Newer systems are generally more complex and more costly.
"If somebody is used to something they put in 50 years ago that was a 55-gallon drum and a few feet of pipe, the cost of this is quite different," Miles said. "It's kind of like going from a bicycle to a Cadillac. It does the job and it does it very well, but it requires money and it does require maintenance."
Tomorrow, this series will examine the bureaucracy behind on-site wastewater management at the Lake of the Ozarks.