Low bacteria levels kept Missouri beaches open during hot summer

Sunday, September 2, 2012 | 4:15 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A hot summer gave Missouri residents plenty of reasons to want to cool off at state park swimming beaches, and a drought seems to have helped offer more opportunities to do so.

Tests from water samples at state swimming beaches showed that bacteria levels were low enough to keep beaches open more often than during the past two years.

Results from the past three years were provided to The Associated Press by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. They showed bacteria were high a dozen times at beaches this spring and summer, with half coming in April or May. That is less than half the frequency of 2011 and just a fraction of the nearly four dozen times that high bacteria were recorded at beaches in 2010.

High bacteria levels did not force any state park beaches to be closed this year from late May through the last week of July as summer heat was setting records. Since the end of July, the beach at the Cuivre River in northeastern Missouri was closed for one week and Watkins Woolen Mill near Kansas City has been closed in August.

This past week, park officials closed one beach at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. The area around the popular tourist lake received some rain last weekend. Water samples are collected near the state park beaches at the beginning of the week.

Ken Midkiff, director of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign, said the lack of summer rainfall has contributed to fewer tests showing high bacteria levels and more open swimming beaches. Pollutants can be washed into lakes and rivers.

"A lot of the high readings were attributable to runoff. We've had no or very little rain," Midkiff said.

Precipitation figures collected by the National Weather Service from local airports and observers showed how little rain has fallen in Missouri. The figures are from May 1 to Aug. 29, which was just before the start of Missouri's drenching from remnants of what once was Hurricane Isaac. Those statistics showed that St. Louis was short by nearly 9 inches of rain, and Farmington was behind by 10 inches. Columbia has reported its driest summer ever and was short by 13 inches.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map reported that through Aug. 28, more than 97 percent of Missouri fell in the two worst categories of drought.

Missouri closes state park beaches when the bacteria level from a single water sample or a rolling average of sample data exceed the levels recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Officials say the tests provide important information but are a small snapshot from a single moment and do not reflect the overall water quality in a lake or river.

"It's unfortunate that Missouri's facing a drought and certainly many have been affected. However, the public continues to enjoy Missouri state parks, and we have experienced high attendance this season as people try to find ways to beat the heat and cool off," said Renee Bungart, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "They continue to enjoy our Missouri state parks and our beaches."


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