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Environmentalists demand tougher laws to address runoff in Missouri's large lakes

An aerial view of Lake of the Ozarks.
Courtesy Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau
The state is proposing standards to monitor nutrient pollution in Missouri's large lakes.

Missouri will soon adopt new regulations to clean up the state’s 150 large lakes and reservoirs.

But environmentalists contend the state’s plan won’t be strong enough to address pollution caused by harmful nutrients.

Missouri currently does not set limits on nitrogen and phosphorus. A combination of agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff, sewage treatment plant discharges and other sources can cause an excessive amount of the nutrients to enter lakes, rivers and streams. Nutrient pollution can render bodies of water unsuitable for drinking and recreation, cause fish kills, and drag down oxygen levels to create “dead zones,” similar to the one that exists in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The proposed standards have received support from the Missouri Farm Bureau and other groups. But several environmental groups, including the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club, filed comments opposing the state’s plan, which aims to measure algal blooms, fish kills and other consequences of excessive nutrients in the water. However, the plan does not set numeric limits nitrogen and phosphorus.

“They need to come up with actual numbers to define what’s clean and what’s dirty, and right now they don’t have that,” said Peter Goode, an environmental engineer at Washington University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic. “What they’ve proposed now only protects aquatic life. They need to protect drinking water sources and they need to protect for recreational uses.”

A settlement reached last year between the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency requires that the EPA propose a plan to address nutrient pollution in Missouri’s lakes by Dec. 15 unless the state comes up with its own plan by that date. The EPA requested a 90-day extension, a federal judge denied last week.

Nearly a quarter of Missouri’s lakes that encompass more than 10 acres are impaired.

“We originally were proposing [criteria to protect] both drinking water supply and aquatic life but through stakeholder discussions, we decided to just focus on aquatic life use,” said John Hoke, chief of the watershed protection section at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “In two-thirds of the state, the aquatic life use actually does protect what we project to be a protective drinking water supply use for the new lake nutrient criteria.”

The department last proposed standards to control nutrient pollution in 2009, but they were rejected by the EPA. The state agency estimates that the cost to implement the state’s plan could range from $48 to $83 million. Implementing the EPA’s plan could cost the state $2.4 billion.

The MDNR originally planned to present its final recommendation on the water quality rule to theMissouri Clean Water Commission Wednesday but postponed the meeting. An email the department released Tuesday noted that the department received hundreds of pages of comments.

"The Water Protection Program staff were not able to give full weight and respond to each of the points raised by stakeholders in time," MDNR officials wrote.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.