JEFFERSON CITY — A decade ago, Table Rock Lake near Branson faced many of the pollution problems plaguing the Lake of the Ozarks today, including sewage carried into the lake by rainwater.
One of the factors was leaking septic tanks on residential property.
"One thing that really was being ignored was small discharges from treatment systems or on-site septic systems," said David Casaletto, the executive director of Table Rock Lake Water Quality Inc.. The nonprofit corporation has worked to reduce water pollution at Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri since 1998.
Today, the lake is significantly cleaner, according to water quality test results published by the Lakes of Missouri Volunteer Program. Phosphorus levels, a key indicator of water pollution, have decreased by 50 percent since 2001.
Casaletto said dealing with on-site, or residential, septic systems at Table Rock Lake has made the lake significantly cleaner.
Like the Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock Lake is characterized by hilly terrain, variable soils and small areas of very dense populations, Casaletto said.
And just as septic tanks are the primary method of residential wastewater management at the Lake of the Ozarks today, the majority of homes around Table Rock Lake depended on septic systems — many old and failing.
Now, largely as a result of Casaletto's work at Table Rock Lake, homes are required to use a more modern form of wastewater management that is less prone to failure. In addition, local governments enforce stricter regulations.
"We've been pretty successful because we've changed the way the state and the counties look at advanced systems," Casaletto said. "We've also in our local county influenced them to implement ordinances to require maintenance, so we feel it's been a pretty successful project."
But finding the funding to continue his work has become difficult.
"I have been trying for five years to find sources of funding, and what really frustrates me is that all the grant money and all the stimulus money that was earmarked for wastewater systems went to municipal treatment systems," Casaletto said. "Even though Congress and the EPA encouraged states to put some of it (the money) to septic problems, Missouri has chosen to spend no money on on-site or small treatment systems. All of it went to city sewers, and to me that's a really frustrating situation."
Funding has dried up
At the Lake of the Ozarks, funding for environmental projects is also drying up.
Donna Swall, executive director of the nonprofit Lake of the Ozarks Watershed Alliance, said her organization recently was able to sponsor educational and maintenance programs through government grant money. Swall said the programs, which have since run out of money, were successful.
"Basically, what we've learned is those folks have gone home and talked to their neighbors, and so the word has spread," Swall said. "We've had the phone ringing with people still wanting to participate in the program and, of course, it's over now. But we will be continuing."
Swall said she is hoping to procure a larger government grant for her organization; however, a quirk with funding distribution could complicate grant applications made by Swall and others like her.
Although county health departments have jurisdiction over on-site wastewater management systems, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources received the government stimulus money earmarked for environmental projects. The federal government recommended as much as 20 percent of environmental stimulus money be spent to improve wastewater management, but none of the funds were appropriated to modernize or replace septic systems. Instead, according to the Web site that tracks Missouri's spending of federal stimulus money, funds appropriated to address "leaking underground storage tanks" were instead used to pay for department benefits and salaries.
Menu of solutions
Even when funding is available, there is no immediate panacea for the sewage problems at Lake of the Ozarks.
Instead, said Randall Miles, an associate professor of soil science at MU, solving the problem of sewage draining into the lake will require a multifaceted approach.
"If you just replace septic tanks in these older systems, over 75 percent of the systems will still malfunction as the tank only provides some treatment," Miles said. "It is the soil dispersal and treatment network which needs replacement and updating for the system to work."
According to Miles, a number of technologies could be implemented at the lake with varying degrees of success. He said each should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
"There's a menu of possibilities out there, and there's no one technology on that menu that's going to be the magic bullet and solve it all," he said.
One technology, known as a "drip system," removes much of the harmful bacteria from wastewater before expelling it from the system. It has been successfully implemented in some areas around Table Rock Lake, where more advanced wastewater systems are required, but some estimates put the cost at twice the amount for a standard septic system.
Another option, a sewer system, has already been put in place in some areas of the Lake of the Ozarks, such as Osage Beach, but Miles questions the practicality of extending this solution to the entire lake.
Installing a sewer system at the Lake of the Ozarks would not be cheap, he said, and more than 1,000 miles of shoreline and hilly terrain would make the project difficult.
"Because of elevations, there would have to be a lot of pumps put in, what we call lift stations, to pull it (the wastewater) up," Miles said. "There's a big misconception that once the sewage goes into a 4-inch pipe from a municipal system, everything is taken care of."
Lake resident Mike Rinker said something must be done to modernize wastewater management at the lake, where he says the immediate cost of improving the situation is low in comparison to the longer-term costs of inaction.
"If you pollute this lake to where it can't be used, that's a lot of money down the drain, a lot more than we're talking about with (building a sewer system at the lake)," he said.
A model lake
The future of water quality at the Lake of the Ozarks is, like the water itself, murky at best.
Some, like Gov. Jay Nixon, are publicly hopeful. This summer, the governor announced he would spearhead an effort to clean up the lake by strictly regulating major polluters and widening tests of water quality. As of Oct. 16, the governor's office confirmed that nearly 300 facilities have been inspected and 21 violation notices issued.
Nixon said there are no official plans to address the issue of on-site septic systems at this time.
Even so, Rinker said he thinks septic systems will eventually be addressed on the government level.
"It will happen, but will it happen in a timely manner? No," Rinker said.
Miles said he thinks the progress made at Table Rock Lake should serve as an inspiration to those attempting to clean up the Lake of the Ozarks.
"They had problems (at Table Rock Lake) initially, too, much of the same nature and with very similar soil limitations," Miles said. "But they've come in and applied some of these technologies, and they've been very successful."