By Liz Forrestal and Caroline Ishida

We are gratified that Gov. Jay Nixon has returned Mark Templeton to his job as Director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Templeton was an unfortunate victim of the recent controversy over elevated levels of the bacterium E. coli in the Lake of the Ozarks. But this flap has distracted from a far more troubling problem: the insufficient monitoring of ALL Missouri waters.

Along with many others, our organizations were dismayed to learn of the serious oversight and bungling of mid-level officials in both the DNR and Governor’s office. The miscommunication between these two offices was inexcusable and deserved to be investigated. Moreover, we completely agree that the lake’s beaches should have been closed to protect public health. But the origins of E. coli in the lake -- and what that says about the water quality monitoring and enforcement program at DNR – should be front and center in this discussion. Furthermore, a large-scale cleanup at the lake like the one Nixon announced is merely a band-aid solution to a larger water quality monitoring and enforcement problem all over the state.

At the root of the problem is that funding for DNR’s water quality monitoring and enforcement program is completely insufficient to protect the health of our waters. General revenue support for DNR was gutted by the Blunt administration, and permit fees have not been raised in more than a decade, even for inflation. These are the problems that should be at the center of the E. coli discussion, and they started well before the arrival of Templeton.

Missouri Coalition for the Environment has commented on hundreds of industrial and point-source pollution discharge permits in the state in the past few years, and a few glaring themes have become obvious about the DNR that Templeton inherited. First, different DNR regions set different limits for dischargers, oftentimes the pollution limits in permits are not adequate to protect water quality, and there is inadequate DNR enforcement of permit limits, renewal, and water quality violations. Second, there is also inadequate enforcement of non-point source pollution, like stormwater runoff from parking lots, building sites, and homes (a large source of E. coli at the Lake).

Gov. Nixon has pledged to undertake and follow-through on the cleanup effort at the Lake of the Ozarks, but we urge him to make this the beginning of a larger cleanup of the water program at DNR.

Missouri must provide adequate funding to the permitting program, take a serious look at septic systems and stormwater runoff, and ensure that permit writers and monitoring and enforcement officials are doing a thorough job upholding Missouri’s Clean Water Law and the federal Clean Water Act.

The Lake of the Ozarks is far from the only water body in this state that needs serious attention from DNR. Without resolving some of the systemic problems, a piecemeal solution that just focuses on the lake alone, is not truly going to protect Missouri citizens or give them confidence that their state officials have public and environmental health and well-being at the center of their agendas.
Forrestal is the executive director for Missouri Votes Conservation. Ishida is staff attorney for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Missouri Forum. 11/09