Mexico native publishes book on Lake of the Ozarks
Mexico native, MHS graduate and previous Mexico Ledger reporter Traci Angel has recently published a book of nonfiction, "The Scars of Project 459; The Environmental Story of the Lake of the Ozarks." The book is about the state of the Lake of the Ozarks' water quality, its developmental history, the social and economic factors at play and what can be done to curb the critical issues of a lake that some have considered an environmental lost cause.
Angel said she hopes to use the book to provide a wake up call for people in the region who have connections with the Lake of the Ozarks.
She believes her childhood vacations to the lake make her a good person to objectively write this book. "I know the lake area. I was down there with friends throughout my childhood occasionally, once every couple years. My family doesn't have a lake home down there, so I wasn't a lake insider, but I am a Mid-Missourian and I can care about this region and know this region."
The Lake of the Ozarks was built by the Union Electric Company in 1931 by damming the Osage River. It was deemed Project 459 by the federal government. The lake has been nicknamed the Magic Dragon, due to its serpentine shape.
Construction displaced many people who lived on the land that is now under water. It was a highly-argued issue between those who promoted economic development and those who hoped to maintain their homesteads and farms within the proposed lake area. Several other issues followed post construction that are explained in the book, such as property line debates between Ameren and real estate developers.
Ameren was formed in 1997 by the merger of Missouri's Union Electric Company and Central Illinois Public Service Company.
At approximately 55,000 acres, the Lake of the Ozarks was the largest manmade lake in the United States at the time of completion (currently Lake Mead, located in Arizona, consisting of 1.5 million acres is the largest). It is surrounded by approximately 1,100 miles of shoreline, includes more than 70,000 homes and extends into four Missouri counties, attracting more than 3 million visitors annually.
According to the book, the lake's popularity has resulted in major present-day problems, such as poor water quality, loss of animal habitats and increasing concerns for aging waste-management systems for the homes surrounding the lake. Yet, many who depend on tourism as a source of income at the lake resist acknowledging these problems. Part of the sewage issue has been attributed to aging septic systems that were installed for use in weekend homes, but are now used by full time residents.
"I think a lot of people have anecdotal evidence; somebody has a story of seeing sewage dumping into the lake or somebody else has a story about these old homes with 55-gallon drums as their septic tanks that are leaking," Angel said. "But, I wanted to actually provide the evidence and the historical documents. There have been studies by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department of Natural Resources, along with scientific studies from masters and doctoral students from the University of Missouri scientists and all of these people, so I wanted to provide evidence to show that there are some problems down there that need to be addressed and maybe if enough people know about this things can happen.
"That's been the challenge, getting everyone to acknowledge that there's a problem that can be addressed now. I think there are some challenges to the infrastructure as far as the sewage. There are challenges, because the lake doesn't have a development plan, which plays in to the water quality issues. The lack of a development plan, I think, is really hindering how the lake could be improved.
"I've also talked to people there who say they like it the way it is. They like that they can build homes right up to the water. They don't care that it might be harming the aquatic life or nearby wildlife. It's a different mentality, but there won't be much changed until we understand the effects this can have on the area.
"It's an important area for Missouri that brings in millions of tourist dollars, so it's a big draw and beautiful wilderness. I just wish somehow they could get a handle on the development and start to put plans in place to preserve it."
The book began as an idea for a magazine article in 2006 after a watershed group formed to attempt to improve the water quality.
"I thought, here's an interesting article on what's going on down there," Angel said. "I pitched it to Ozarks Magazine a couple years later, after I thought I had enough material. I had also gotten some public records requests from where there was some of the sewage leaking and where the Department of Natural Resources had given a few notices of violations and just put it all together, but the magazine folded right before they published it, so I had all of these contacts, all of this information and I was hoping to get it out to the public somehow."
Angel then moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where she worked as a health reporter, before returning to Missouri in 2011.
Angel said, "At that point I would see headlines in the newspapers that talked about the E-coli situation at the lake. I guess the summer of 2009 they had a political situation where the state didn't release some of their data on high levels of E-coli and people started to pay attention to what's going on at the Lake of the Ozarks and the water quality again. It was still there, so I thought, here's the story that still needs to be told."
Angel pitched her proposal to several publishing houses and it was accepted by the University of Arkansas Press.
Angel returned to the watershed group, who she hoped would carry the story as a voice of change in the region, but the change actually occurred within the group itself.
"They changed their attitude from a watchdog, which was looking for the problems, to just educating people and saying the lake is fine," Angel said. "I think it became more about public relations. Originally, it was concerned citizens who I thought were going to tell the story. Instead, when I started to put the book together, I realized I was going to have to pull these historical records and these studies together to show how every 10-15 years someone would come up and say something and then it gets pushed back."
Along with the group of concerned citizens, the watershed group now includes business owners and Ameren representatives, such as plant manager Warren Witt, who has served as a member of the board," Angel said. "With these alterations, the group's core focus has become promoting tourism at the lake, rather than environmental consciousness.
"From even the early 1930s, even the original business association president had a proposal that stated we need to protect this area, have a scenic byway and have parks put in place so we don't have water quality issues. He was very forward thinking and they pushed him and he resigned shortly after because of that," Angel said.
According to Angel, the watershed group is pushing for nonprofit status, which requires money and the ability to function effectively.
Angel hasn't received feedback on the book from her sources at the Lake of the Ozarks, which she finds surprising. The book has received comment through the Post Dispatch that make Angel feel as though this issue remains charged.
"I'm curious to see how this issue will play out in the months ahead," Angel said. "The feedback I've gotten and the reviews I've had so far, I haven't been upset by them. I'm glad people are talking about it. I guess that was my hope, to add to the discussion."
Angel graduated from St. Louis University and worked for a weekly newspaper in Kansas City. She then worked at The Mexico Ledger. Angel left The Ledger to live in Ireland for six months, before returning.
"I learned a lot coming back. I was a different person and I guess I was young and curious. I wasn't a cheerleader for Mexico. I was looking for the investigative stories," Angel said.
Later, Angel moved back to Kansas City to work for the Associated Press and then to St. Louis to write for "St. Louis Magazine" for five years. She then returned to the University of Missouri fwhere she has a fellowship.
Angel said, "Now I'm freelancing and teaching an online master's class for the University of Missouri. I focus on health and science journalism, but as a writer I don't limit myself. I do some feature writing for The Kansas City Star, some profile work for hospitals and I'm working on maybe another book project that is a little bit lighter. I have a four-year-old, Jack, and a two-year-old, Zara. I was five-months pregnant with the two-year-old when I got the contract. We live in Kansas City and my parents (Jim and Glenda Angel) are still there in Mexico. My kids take up most of my time, but I'm trying to write as much as I can.”