JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri water records show bacteria counts spiked at the Lake of the Ozarks this year, nearly tripling the number of high E. coli tests from the previous six years combined.
Results from E. coli tests at the popular central Missouri tourist attraction were high enough in 2009 that the state's two beaches should have been closed 11 times since May. That's more than twice the number of times those beaches were to be closed from 2003 until 2008. It's also more than this year's closings at every other Missouri waterway.
The Department of Natural Resources monitors water near beaches at nearly 20 state parks across Missouri. The state is supposed to close beaches when the bacteria levels exceed state standards on either a single sample or on the average of several recent tests.
Department records released to The Associated Press show the number of tests with excessive bacteria is at its highest point since 2003. Beaches in six parks had high enough E. coli to be closed 19 times in 2009, but most of the closings were at the Lake of the Ozarks.
From 2003 to 2008, a total of four bacteria tests -- at least once per year since 2006 -- should have resulted in a state beach being closed at Lake of the Ozarks.
But it's unclear from the testing records how often those beaches actually were closed. An electronic spreadsheet used to track test results automatically indicates that a beach should be closed when bacteria levels reach certain thresholds. But that doesn't mean the beach was closed.
That issue arose last week when a Lake of the Ozarks beach remained open despite test results showing high E. coli levels. A May 18 test showed E. coli was too high. The next test on May 27 showed less E. coli, but the beach should have remained closed because of the high bacteria results from the first week.
E. coli can cause influenza-like illnesses and death in people infected through open cuts or when it is swallowed.
The chairman of the Missouri Clean Water Campaign, which is part of the Sierra Club, said it's likely the Lake of the Ozarks had so many tests showing high E. coli levels because more people put wastewater into the lake.
"It comes as no surprise to me that the Lake of the Ozarks would be highly contaminated simply because of the amount discharged into the lake and number of dischargers," said the chairman, Ken Midkiff.
Since 2003, only one beach has equaled the Lake of the Ozarks' tally of high bacteria levels. Lewis and Clark Lake, in Rushville along the Kansas border between St. Joseph and Kansas City, has exceeded the state bacteria levels 15 times over the last seven years, including at least once per year from 2004 to 2008. The most recent high E. coli test was in September 2008.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon last week thrust into the spotlight the issue of E. coli testing at state beaches. Nixon, who had incorrectly stated that a Lake of the Ozarks beach was closed in May, blamed the Department of Natural Resources for providing him inaccurate information. Nixon also angrily criticized the agency for not closing the beach.
DNR Director Mark Templeton and two unidentified agency employees have since been suspended.
Nixon's administration has been under fire since July, when media reports revealed the DNR waited until late June to release results of a different set of E. coli tests taken May 26 from the Lake of the Ozarks. Those tests also showed high bacteria levels at numerous other locations in the lake.
The delay has triggered an investigation by the Senate environment committee, which is interviewing numerous current and former employees at the agency.
Earl Pabst, the former deputy director for the DNR division responsible for environmental quality issues, told Senate investigators that he urged the E. coli test results to be released in early June and believed there were delays because Nixon's administration didn't know the background of the testing. The transcript of Pabst's interview was released Monday to the AP.
Pabst, who said he retired Thursday partly because he did not feel trusted by department leaders, told investigators that he believed the May 26 tests showed high E. coli levels because of heavy rain.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)