I’ve talked a lot about books on this blog, but one I haven’t mentioned yet is Traci Angel’s The Scars of Project 459: The Environmental Story of the Lake of the Ozarks. I’m not especially fond of the book; I think the title promises more than the book delivers, and it’s written in a choppy-sentence, newspaper-journalism style that wears me out after a while. (If you want a deeper, more comprehensive account of the lake’s origins, I recommend Damming the Osage, which I have written about before.) But whatever its perceived deficiencies, the book offers a great glimpse into one of the enduring truths of the lake: it’s all about the money.
The Lake of the Ozarks is above all else a developer’s lake, designed and built to extract as much possible money from all conceivable uses. For all their garish commercialism, even Table Rock, Beaver, and the other big Ozark lakes have an ostensible “flood control” justification, and once in a while that justification actually emerges. But the Lake of the Ozarks doesn’t even have that. It’s a commercial enterprise, start to finish.
One of the stories told in The Scars of Project 459 is the notorious “goose poop” incident of 2009, and the book is worth reading just for that. The sequence of events runs roughly like this: Department of Natural Resources routine testing reveals high E. coli levels near the public beaches of the park, right before a major holiday weekend. DNR sits on the report until the holiday weekend is over, then releases it. Howls from environmentalists and public health advocates over the suspicious timing of the report’s delay and release brings the governor at the time (Jay Nixon) down to the lake to announce a major cleanup campaign. Howls from local businesses lead to a new suspect in the E. coli reading: a flock of geese that had been loitering suspiciously in the area and a coincidental heavy rainfalll that had surely, surely, caused the spike in contamination. Heads roll at the DNR. Winter comes, the incident is more or less forgotten, and no comprehensive effort to manage the lake’s water quality takes place. A comprehensive effort, you see, would require two things that are anathema to the powers-that-be around the lake: the expenditure of money for a public good, and cooperation among the four counties that comprise its local government.
The lake watershed is indeed a complex system, and no single source of contamination can be blamed for all its environmental ills. A 2014 report from the U.S. Geological Survey and Missouri DNR about surveys conducted in later years didn’t exonerate the geese, but it also took notice of contamination from local sewage treatment facilities during the frequent times that rainfall causes overflows of those facilities, household septic systems that have outlived their effectiveness, and leaking septic pits from sources around the lake, including (ironically enough) one in the state park itself. If all those episodes teach us anything, it’s that understanding the lake’s water quality requires science, and lots of it.
Which is why it’s so dispiriting to read the news today and see the usual passel of Missouri congresspeople pressuring the EPA to take the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir off its list of “impaired” waterways, where they were placed in November. The EPA’s list of impaired waterways included 481 bodies of water that both the state and the feds agreed were impaired, which is troubling enough. The state did not include the two big lakes and 38 other Missouri water bodies on its list, but the EPA disagreed with that decision, bringing the overall number up to 521. (On the semi-bright side, the two agencies agreed to remove 44 bodies of water from the list.)
So the state and the feds are in disagreement over the science on about eight percent of the total listings. So why are the congresspeople, none of them scientists or even remotely interested in science as far as I can tell, so worked up? A passage in the AP story gives the clue. “The letter said the impaired designations ‘would have significant impacts on families, landowners, small businesses,’ and on the state’s economy. . . . For example, the listing could force local governments to update wastewater facilities, potentially costing them millions of dollars, [Congressman Blaine] Luetkemeyer’s spokeswoman Georgeanna Sullivan said.”
Good heavens! Updating their wastewater facilities! What horrors. [Sorry for the sarcasm here.]
The congresspeople’s letter also says that fish kills at the lakes “were not verified by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources or the Missouri Department of Conservation.” Notice that it doesn’t deny that the fish kills occurred, which can easily be determined by looking at local news reports. Now again, the science behind fish kills is complicated; sometimes they occur simply through seasonal causes, and other times there are human-related causes. But the disingenuous phrasing of the letter reveals a desire to mislead, to cast doubt, where none needs to exist.
The more things change, as they say, the more they remain the same. Go to the lake and enjoy yourself, and if the water smells a little funny or looks a little green, don’t worry. It’ll wash on downstream eventually.