Missouri officials contemplate what it'll take to clean up lake

LAKE OF THE OZARKS, Mo. — The county health official could barely believe her eyes when she spotted the do-it-yourself septic tank.

There it was, buried in the yard — an old car with a sewer pipe running into the front and out the back, leaking sewage everywhere.

Bizarre septic tanks are only one challenge in any plan to clean up the Lake of the Ozarks.

But a cleanup has quickly become a priority after a state agency withheld information earlier this year about bacteria levels in the water, creating a firestorm of criticism.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has since proclaimed he wants a clean lake, and he is expected to receive recommendations Dec. 31 on improving the health of the lake. A state Senate committee also will hold a hearing soon.

The Kansas City Star has found, however, that stopping the frequent flows of sewage will take a lot of money, manpower, regulatory changes — and willpower.

No one knows the extent of contamination, but decades of studies have warned of the dangers, and few disagree that it needs to be addressed.

As Nixon said in September in announcing his cleanup initiative: “It is not in dispute that present water quality is unacceptable.”

The numbers are daunting: Tens of thousands of unregulated septic tanks, many of them leaking into the lake. A hundred or so of the 400 wastewater treatment plants violating state law.

“This is a long-term problem that requires long-term solutions,” said George Connor, a professor of political science at Missouri State University in Springfield. “The solution would require making lots of people do many different things.”

Some state officials are optimistic.

“I cannot account for decades-long delay in addressing these issues,” said Bill Bryan, the deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources. “The record shows that we haven’t followed up on what we have learned.

“That is going to change,” said Bryan, whom Nixon appointed in September as part of a reorganization of the department after disclosures about the lake.

The contamination may not be as bad as the perception, said Greg Gagnon, the president and CEO of the Central Bank of the Lake of the Ozarks. He said most of the bacteria tests have been normal, and he expects the problem will be very manageable.

“In the short run, obviously the headlines have a negative impact on Lake of the Ozarks,” he said. “But in the long run, I’m glad that the governor has shown so much interest in Lake of the Ozarks as well as the rest of the state.”

Gagnon and nearly everyone agree that the lake is a state treasure that needs protecting. Tourism is big business. According to the Tri-County Lodging Association, 5 million people visit the lake annually, and some estimates say those visitors spend more than $1 billion.

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