By Andy Ostmeyer
While neither Missouri nor McDonald County officials test one of the most popular recreational streams in the state, neighbors to the west watch it carefully.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has found that Elk River, where the agency tests it for bacteria, has levels so high that people who get in the water are increasing their odds of getting sick. That state's recommendation is that what it calls "primary body contact-recreation" - swimming, for example - "is not supported" in Elk River.
The Elk River analyses are part of Oklahoma's efforts to find out what is flowing into the Grand Lake watershed.
A survey of other Oklahoma records found:
At every monitoring site along the rivers and streams that feed what Oklahoma officials call the Neosho Grand Lake sub-basin - and there are 15 of them - recreation such as swimming is "not supported" because of bacterial contamination. That includes not only Elk River near Tiff City, but also Spring River at Quapaw, Okla.; the Neosho River at Commerce, Okla.; and Honey Creek near Grove, Okla., on the north and east sides of the lake. The mean for enterococci bacteria in Honey Creek is 362.7 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, 10 times the federal standard of 33 colonies per 100 milliliters for enterococci. The mean of 19 samples taken in Elk River over the past six years is 50.6 colonies of enterococci.
In 2004, 30 percent of the samples collected in Grand Lake proper by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board had elevated levels of enterococci. Those readings were as high as 600 colonies of the bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Bacteria such as enterococci and E. coli are predictors of what is known as swimming-associated gastroenteritis and have been linked to other illnesses. In 2006, so far, the lake has tested at levels considered safe. State officials test the lake every other year, relying on volunteers to fill the gap.
Of the 353 samples collected by volunteers around the lake and surveyed for bacteria during the past three years, 53 of those, or 15 percent, had levels of E. coli or enterococci that put swimmers or water-skiers and others who get in the water at increased risk. There have been no elevated levels so far this summer.
State and federal agencies say there is much that can affect bacteria levels day to day and point to point at area lakes and streams. Rain and snowmelt that flush the surrounding land can wash in bacteria, and Canada geese, which find lake shorelines inviting habitat, can drive up bacteria levels at select locations from defecation.
Grand Lake has 1,300 miles of shoreline, drains more than 10,000 square miles and covers, at normal pool, 46,500 acres.
The surveys beg the question: Is the lake itself safe for recreation such as swimming and water-skiing?
"I have no problems getting in the lake," said Don Roderick, of Grove, one of the Oklahoma volunteers testing Grand Lake.
"I wouldn't have any objections to my grandkids swimming down there, and they have."
Roderick said he stays away from coves and developed areas, particularly in hot summer weather.
"Depends on where you are, I think," said Bill Castles, who said he lives four miles from the dam and also does volunteer testing.
"Down-lake, we're in pretty good shape. Up-lake," he said, specifically mentioning Honey Creek and Twin Bridges, where the Spring and Neosho rivers meet, "(there's) more of a problem. The east end of the lake, up to Missouri and Kansas, they do have some problems. The state has really zeroed in on the east side of the lake."
Asked if he swims in the lake, he said: "Sure, I do it every day. We're pretty comfortable down on the south end. It is amazing that it stays as clean as it does."
But another area resident, Riley Needham, has his doubts.
"I have not been comfortable getting in Grand Lake for years," he said. "My children go to a neighbor's pool. They don't go to the creek like I did or the lake like I did."
He said clarity is down to 1.5 feet in some areas of the lake.
"When I was a kid, it was 10 feet," said Needham, who is active with Concerned Citizens for Green Country Conservation, which formed a decade ago because of water-quality degradation.
Asked about Honey Creek, which comes out of Missouri, Needham said: "It has been unsafe for a decade. We have checked ourselves in the past on Honey Creek and those areas, and I can't recall pulling a sample that was safe."
Needham also said a "synergism" exists between bacteria levels and "nutrient loading" of phosphates and nitrates. Sunlight kills bacteria, but in areas where excess nitrogen and phosphates cause algae blooms, the sunlight cannot penetrate, resulting in elevated bacteria levels.
"We are not seeing enough strong action to reverse the trend we are seeing," he said of the region's water-quality findings.
The Ottawa County (Okla.) Health Department also has an advisory against swimming in any unchlorinated water in the county, including the upper reaches of Grand Lake near Twin Bridges State Park. The Delaware County (Okla.) Health Department referred calls to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.
'The lake is safe'
Bill Cauthron, head of the Water Quality Monitoring Section for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, said that so far this summer, the state has not found any elevated bacteria levels in Grand Lake.
"We didn't have any violations of our criteria," he said.
Asked if people should be concerned about swimming in Grand Lake - given problems in previous years and given the fact that all streams and rivers leading into the lake are unsafe - Cauthron said: "I am not too terribly concerned about it. I feel pretty comfortable saying the lake is safe."
Andy Ostmeyer is the assistant metro editor for The Joplin Globe.
'Chance of becoming ill'
At a level of 35 colonies of enterococci per 100 milliliters of water, 19 of every 1,000 people who get into the water might be expected to come down with diarrhea.
"In other words, if water quality of a particular waterbody is maintained at or below this standard, then swimmers have a 1.9 percent chance of becoming ill."
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
By Andy Ostmeyer
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