It’s as predictable as the spring rains: right when school lets out and families across the Midwest eye their summer vacations, someone with a microphone starts fretting about the Lake of the Ozarks water quality.
In the most recent iteration, apparently a scientific water quality test that found nearly-zero levels of e. Coli at a single Lake of the Ozarks beach led to the conclusion, “E. coli test results high at parts of the Lake of the Ozarks.” At least, that was the headline on Tuesday morning, the week leading up to Memorial Day weekend. By Tuesday afternoon, ABC 17 had changed the headline to read: "E. coli test results high at Bagnell Dam Access but low at Lake of the Ozarks public beach." Not quite as juicy. But someone clearly called them on it (we know, because he called us afterwards). The headline said one thing; the story said something utterly different.
To be fair, one of ABC 17's E. coli tests did show high e. Coli results… but that test was conducted on the Osage River, just downstream of Lake of the Ozarks near Bagnell Dam, where exactly no one swims, and the turbine-roiled waters are likely to produce all sorts of interesting things (among them: huge catfish!). We don't need a water bottle full of river water sent to a laboratory to tell us not to swim at the Bagnell Dam Access on the Osage River.
Rookie mistake? Or maybe just a "don't-understand-the-Lake-but-trying-to-report-about-it" mistake. Hey, it happens. But it happens way too often.
Water quality is absolutely important, and testing the Lake that millions of people visit every summer to ensure it's healthy and safe is a good thing. But tests show again and again that the Lake of the Ozarks is actually an especially clean lake. State Rep. Rocky Miller, who represents a portion of Lake of the Ozarks, told LakeExpo, “Our average [e. Coli measurement] in Lake of the Ozarks is five times lower than Mark Twain Lake, and they drink out of Mark Twain Lake!”
The history of water-quality scares on Lake of the Ozarks is a complicated one... and not devoid of some ugly stains on state government and urban news outlets.
In 2009, back when the national economy stank to high-heaven, and foreclosures were exposing decades of rotten federal loan policies, e. Coli levels were occasionally testing high at Public Beach #1 & #2 (such unfortunate naming, those beaches have). The news was concerning, and local businesses—which depend on revenue from the always-too-short tourist season—worried it would keep some visitors away. The Department of Natural Resources sometimes very publicly closed the public beaches.
At the time, a single test showing abnormally high levels would trigger a Lake of the Ozarks beach closure, and the hurdles to reopening were legion. The next year, the Kansas City Star mounted a summer-long campaign of stories casting isolated incidents of elevated E. coli levels into generalized fears that 1,000+ miles of shoreline were unsafe.
With the “Lake of the Ozarks is a cesspool” narrative in tow, then-Missouri Governor Jay Nixon descended from the capitol in September of 2009 to publicly announce clean water incentives, with the Lake of the Ozarks in the background. "It is not in dispute that present water quality is unacceptable," Nixon said then, during a press conference held at Lake of the Ozarks State Park.
"I'll be the first to make sure the Lake of the Ozarks is designated as a distressed body, and I strongly believe the Clean Water Commission will agree with me," Nixon stated publicly at the time.
In October, 2009, he sent the DNR to inspect all 419 active facilities that hold a permit to discharge water into the Lake. The DNR was specifically ordered to use the strictest standards. The agency did what it was ordered to do by the governor: Find violations. Agents found violations in some of the most well-run facilities in the entire state, including one of the DNR’s own systems. Of the 419 facilities, the agency found violations at 154, but only took enforcement action against 42. Of the 42, many were cited simply for not submitting paperwork, missing permit renewal dates, and not monitoring discharge on schedule.
Speculation as to the cause of the e. Coli at the Lake of the Ozarks' beaches in those years ran wild, with goose poop as a favorite scapegoat. The geese sure may have contributed. But a major cause was nothing short of ironic: a nearby septic pit administered by the Missouri Parks Department. During heavy rain, dye tests showed the septic pit was leaking into a nearby creek, which flowed directly into Lake of the Ozarks, just a stone’s throw from the beach. The septic system was connected to a maintenance workshop owned by the state Parks Department. “For the next several weeks, dye was detected in the west tributary and at several locations within [Grand Glaize Beach] cove, including the beach itself,” a U.S. Geological Survey report explained.
That was discovered in 2011. Since then, the City of Osage Beach along with the Parks Department have solved those problems. “Those were all… put on the central sewer,” Rep. Miller explained. The city in 2012 extended sewer infrastructure to the area to help pump out some of those old tanks and connect the Parks Department buildings to the central sewer system.
The Parks Department paid for the infrastructure to be installed, and Osage Beach is now responsible for maintaining it. City water service was run to the area at the same time.
Now the Lake, proven to be clean, continues to be maligned by Missouri news organizations, in spite of their own evidence.
It would be wrong to say Lake of the Ozarks is a pool of perfectly pure, reverse-osmosis-filtered, sparkling H2O, devoid of bacteria or blemish. It’s a Lake: an entire ecosystem, full of fish, aquatic plants, and micro-organisms. So of course, gulping down lake water isn’t the same as gulping down a bottle full of Evian (which is “naive” spelled backwards, in case you hadn’t noticed). You won't find us drinking either.
But the Lake of the Ozarks isn’t for drinking, anyways. It’s for boating, paddling, swimming, tubing, wakeboarding, splashing, sliding, and cannonballs. And if you don't want to swim in the Lake, that's okay: these days, nearly every Lakefront restaurant has a huge, chlorinated pool. Soak up the rays and the gorgeous Lake views from there.
So poo-poo the fearmongers! The Lake of the Ozarks is the Midwest's playground, and it's a great—and safe—place to play. Here's to a long and glorious summer! See you on the water...