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Table Rock offers best, worst in water quality

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by Steve Vert

SBJ Contributing Writer

They are the No. 3 reason visitors say they come to Branson, and last year more than one of every four of the city's 6.7 million visitors took part in some activity involving them activity that accounted for an estimated $300 million in revenues.

But they aren't entertainers in a theater or clerks in an outlet mall. "They" are the lakes of the Ozarks, and their health plays a key role in the economic vitality of the region.

"Overall, the lake systems in southwest Missouri are in pretty good shape," said Bruce Martin, director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Southwest Region. "That is, with the exception of the developmental pressures that Table Rock Lake is experiencing. The issue there is related to the nutrient loading it is receiving from urbanization."

Professionals such as Dan Obrecht, who monitor the condition of Missouri's lakes, agree with Martin's overall assessment. Still, they hesitate to issue a clean bill of health to something as large as Table Rock, which encompasses 43,100 acres and 745 miles of shoreline in five Missouri and Arkansas counties.

"We judge the health of a lake by comparing it to other lakes in the region," said Obrecht, who is coordinator of the Lakes of Missouri Volunteer Program. "And we make comparisons from site to site on the same lake to create a snapshot of the lake's condition."

Created in 1992, volunteer program measures the quality of water in participating lakes over time and attempts to educate the public concerning lake ecology and water quality issues. The program, which began with four lakes in the Kansas City area, has grown to include 11 lakes around the state. Now, the only area lakes taking part in the program are south of Springfield. Lakes to the north and west, such as Stockton Lake, have not signed up. Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and DNR, the volunteer program is administered through the School of Natural Resources at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Through volunteers Obrecht said this year 17 will monitor 24 sites on Table Rock and Taneycomo the program collects data eight times each year. Samples are checked for levels of silt and clay (inorganic solids), phosphorus, nitrogen and chlorophyll (algae).

These measurements, along with water clarity readings, are combined to produce annual reports that are provided to volunteers, the EPA, DNR, and the general public.

What Obrecht and his volunteers found last year was some of the best, and worst, water in Missouri. "Near the dam on Table Rock Lake you have some of the most pristine water in the state," Obrecht said. "On the other hand, near site 13, on the James River arm, you have some of the worst."

Obrecht said the state of the water at Site 13, with its elevated readings for phosphorus and algae, demonstrates the influence of humans and shows the negative impact sewage effluent could have on the lakes.

"What our volunteers are afraid of," Obrecht said, "is that the algae and phosphorus readings from Site 13 could spread down the lake. Which they will, if something isn't done to stop the inputs in the future."

Wally Miller, an environmental specialist with DNR, said the effects of phosphorus are well-known. "It acts as a nutrient," Miller said. "The algae, which is in reality a plant, uses the nutrients to grow in the water. If the stream or lake is "productive" enough, it can affect the clarity and quality of the water. If it gets bad enough, it can cause a crash, resulting in a mass die-off of fish due to the competition for oxygen that results when the algae die and begin to decompose."

Some changes are in the works that should improve the situation. Among them are upgrades to Springfield's Southwest Wastewater Treatment Plant. Bob Schaefer, assistant director of Public Works in Springfield, said even though it is not yet required by law to do so, the city is moving to install equipment to remove phosphorus.

"We've already installed equipment on a portion of the plant that treats 30 percent of the flow," Schaefer said. "And we're designing a phosphorus removal system for the remaining portion of the plant."

Schaefer said construction on the changes should begin in about a year. The upgrades, he said, would add the chemical removal process to a facility that now uses a biological method.

"It appears that (the state is) going to establish .5 milligrams per liter as the standard," Schaefer said. "In order to consistently achieve that level, it's necessary to have the chemical facilities. The biological only removes phosphorus to 1 milligram per liter."

Once the chemical facilities are done, Schaefer said, Springfield's total wastewater output will have most of its phosphorus removed. "You can't get to 0 percent," Schaefer said. "But 100 percent of the flow from the city of Springfield will be treated," Schaefer said. "Our northwest plant already has the capability due to its use and design." With the help of a $1 million matching federal grant, courtesy of Sen. Kit Bond, and Missouri's Revolving Fund, Schaefer said the modifications to Springfield's treatment facilities would result in only a 4.5 percent rate increase spread over five years an increase of about 60 cents on a household's monthly sewer bill.

"That rate increase will fund not only the phosphorus removal," he said, "but also an expansion of the plant to accommodate future growth." And Springfield is not alone in its efforts to protect area lakes.

Miller said other cities, particularly Nixa, Ozark and Cassville, are working to secure funding that would finance similar changes in their wastewater treatment systems. "You've got to have the money first to make changes in infrastructure," Miller said.

But, as Obrecht is quick to point out, even though there is a lot of phosphorus at Site 13, right now he and other environmental professionals can only guess at where it's coming from.

"Sewage treatment plants are a large source, and they're easy to identify," Obrecht said. "But they are not the only sources. Other things, like applying excess fertilizer to lawns, runoff from feedlots and erosion from construction sites can add phosphorus to streams and lakes."

That's why DNR officials have been working hard to educate contractors about the danger construction-site runoff can pose to the environment. Studies show that stormwater from construction sites can hold as much as 20 times as many inorganic solids, which can contain phosphorus, as water exiting other surfaces.

And that stormwater often contains major pollutants, such as petroleum products. Because he estimates that only 10 percent of construction sites set up and maintain the erosion control measures required by DNR as a condition to receiving a land disturbance permit, Martin has requested funding for four inspectors to travel the region and serve as DNR's eyes and ears.

"In the past, we've relied on developers to follow the rules," Martin said. "Inspections were performed on a complaint basis only. But this year, we're looking at a special enforcement program for construction sites."

At the other end of the James River Basin, Branson, with sewage treatment plants that empty into Lake Taneycomo, has had a rule since 1995 that requires phosphorus removal to the level of 0.5 milligram per liter. Obrecht said his volunteers noticed the difference right away.

"After Branson went on line and started removing phosphorus, not only did we notice the readings in Taneycomo going down, but we no longer had the danger of having the algal blooms that had become almost yearly events," Obrecht said.

Soon, cities upstream from Branson may find themselves coping with a similar regulation, Miller said. One of the new rules Missouri's Clean Water Commission will consider this month would give existing wastewater treatment plants that discharge more than 1 million gallons a day into the Table Rock Watershed Basin four years to reduce phosphorus levels to a monthly average of .5 milligrams per liter.

Other DNR recommendations before the commission would give smaller plants, from 100,000 to 1 million gallons per day, four years to reach the one milligram per liter level and eight years to achieve the .5 milligram mark. And all new plants built within the basin after the implementation of these rules would be required to meet the .5 milligrams per liter standard.

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