Despite assurances to the contrary, state Rep. Rocky Miller says he still isn't sure if the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will change its policy on testing for E.coli bacteria at state park beaches, before the beginning of the tourist season.
"Now, I'm being told to just leave my bill attached to House Bill 881, and when it comes across the governor's desk, the DNR won't object to the changes, and it will automatically become law," Miller, R-Tuscumbia, said last week.
Miller was referring to a bill he introduced in the Legislature last January. It would change the DNR's policy on testing for high E.coli levels at state park beaches, and for closing those beaches to the public when the readings from those tests are elevated.
The House Tourism and Natural Resources Committee took testimony on his bill on Feb. 14, but never recommended it for full House debate.
The House passed the second bill on April 25, and it's scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Senate's Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee.
To become law, both houses of the Legislature must approve the same language on a bill before 6 p.m. Friday, and the governor has to sign that bill.
Under the terms of Miller's bill, the DNR would be required to use the Environmental Protection Agency's Method 1603, or an equivalent method, to determine if E.coli bacterial levels at state park beaches are too high for public safety.
The DNR would be required to take several samplings of the water at public beaches over a 30-day period. Then, if the test results consistently exceed the EPA-established geometric mean standard for public safety, the DNR would post a sign reading, "Swimming Not Recommended" rather than using "yellow crime scene tape" to close the beach, Miller said.
Miller sought input from the DNR when writing the legislation, and his language reflected their recommendations.
He said he also received a promise from the DNR that the agency would change its testing policy to reflect safety standards set by the federal government more directly.
Miller said he wrote the bill because "Missouri has the strictest standards for E.coli levels of any state in the nation, and even exceeds the levels the EPA considers safe for public use."
The Tuscumbia Republican said he had been contacted by a number of business owners and tourism organizations that believe the DNR's beach closure policy is damaging the economy in tourist areas.
Jim Divincen, Tri-County Lodging Association administrator, was one of the lake area representatives who expressed concern about the effect of the DNR's policy on the local economy. When the DNR closes a beach because of elevated E.coli levels, it often gives visitors the idea that the water quality in the entire lake presents a health hazard, Divincen said.
"As important as it is that the method of testing be changed, it is equally important that the DNR change the way in which it notifies the public of a beach closing," Divincen said.
In March, Divincen and others testified before the House Committee on Tourism and Natural Resources in Jefferson City.
"The last lakewide sampling conducted on the Lake of the Ozarks, based on 285 samples from areas around the lake, has proven scientifically that the Lake of the Ozarks is one of, if not, the cleanest bodies of water in the state, in terms of bacteria." Divincen said.
In mid-April, Miller said DNR personnel told him the testing policy would be changed and that signs would be used when a beach was closed.
He was told the policy would be in effect before state park beaches open on Memorial Day weekend.
Bill Bryan, the DNR's director of state parks, did not return phone calls seeking a comment for this story.