Milford Lake — From underneath a giant tree, Vonnie Bryant watches the happenings at Milford Lake. She’s a regular at Flagstop Resort and RV Park and her camp spot has a wide-open view of the largest lake in Kansas.
“I’d rather sit out here than at home,” the Junction City widow said. “It’s peaceful and relaxing.”
But lately, Bryant hasn’t had much to look at. In the days before one of the biggest weekends of the summer season, the lake sat empty and still. Picnic areas were deserted, parking lots barren and boat ramps barricaded.
The culprit was just a few steps away from Bryant’s camper: a toxic, smelly blue-green algal bloom.
“You can sit here and watch the stuff grow,” Bryant said.
Known scientifically as cyanobacteria, the blue-green algal bloom has wrecked havoc on Milford Lake since mid-July.
Three dogs have died from the toxic bacteria and two human illnesses have been linked to it.
Last week, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment took water samples that showed toxin levels were 80 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems dangerous. It was that report that shut down all activity on the lake.
Last Tuesday, Bryant and her two campground comrades, Kurt Champagne and Dave Behrens, were among the few “diehards ” still at the campground.
“People keep calling me. And, I say, ‘no you can’t get out on (the lake). But you can still come here to play, party and drink.’ But people just don’t want to come,” Bryant said.
While Bryant lacks visitors, Flagstop Resort owner Jan Boan is in need of customers.
The resort’s 16 cabins had been booked for weeks. But when news of the warning went out, the cancellation calls came in.
Boan, who owns the resort with her husband, Gary, won’t know until the end of the year how bad business has been. But she knows it definitely wasn’t good.
“It’s been a difficult summer,” she said.
The Flagstop Resort isn’t alone. Private and government owned campgrounds, marinas, convenience stores and boat shops have all suffered, said R.J. Harms, Milford Lake project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“It’s pretty quiet. Not many people around. We’ve been sitting here looking at green water for the last month wondering when it’s going to change for us,” Harms said.
Tom Langer, the KDHE’s director of Environmental Health, is fully aware of the health and economic impacts of cyanobacteria.
“This is not done lightly,” Langer said of the warnings his agency puts out. “This is an issue we think will be with us for a long time. We are doing what we should do as stewards of the environment.”
A billion-year-old mystery
Cyanobacteria isn’t new in Kansas. In fact, scientists believe the organism has been on earth for billions of years and were key in placing oxygen in the atmosphere.
Despite its long history, there is much that remains a mystery about cyanobacteria.
“Bottom line, most lakes and reservoirs have the capability to have these blooms,” said Keith Loftin, a research chemist with the Kansas Water Science Center at the U.S. Geological Survey. “Yet the science isn’t advanced enough to understand when those blooms will happen and if they will be toxic.”
Loftin and research partner Jennifer Graham, a research hydrologist at the Kansas Water Science Center, have spent a good chunk of their careers studying cyanobacteria.
Across the country, Graham has seen toxic algal blooms in body waters covered in ice. She has seen them occur in one lake but not in one next to it. She’s also seen large algal blooms that aren’t toxic and small ones that were.
“One of the big questions outstanding in research is when and why do the organisms become toxic,” Graham said.
The lake’s water quality, sedimentation and hydrology could all determine how big an algal blooms could grow. So could the amount of nutrients being dumped into the watershed upstream and the weather pattern.
The causes are believed to be decades in the making, yet the scientific data tracking these blooms isn’t very extensive.
“Is it climate change, the normal weather cycle, water quality, excess nutrients?” Loftin asked? “It’s really kind of a complex problem to deal with.”
Why not Perry Lake?
Even without knowing the exact cause, everyone seems to agree that a“prefect storm” transpired at Milford Lake this summer to create the highest toxicity levels ever recorded in Kansas.
“I’ve been around the lake for 25 years and I’ve never seen it to this degree,” Harms said.
For starters, Milford Lake already has a high nutrient load with a thick layer of sediment built up over years of water runoff. Upstream flooding raised the reservoir water levels by 14 feet. That high water absorbed even more nutrients from the shoreline and banks.
Downstream flooding meant that water couldn’t be released. For most of the summer, the lake sat calm and quiet, a festering breeding ground for cyanobacteria.
Then there were the 20 days of 100 degrees or more temperatures.
“It’s like we are putting out a fire with gasoline,” Langer said. “It just doesn’t work.”
For Langer, the mystery isn’t why the outbreak was so bad at Milford, but why it wasn’t worse at some of the state’s other reservoirs.
A real scare came early in the summer when toxicity levels at Perry Lake forced the KDHE to issue a warning for people and animals to stay out of the water. Even before that, Langer had concerns about algal bloom outbreaks because of Perry Lake’s hydrology and history of nutrient loads.
“When there was a report of a bloom, we were really anticipating it might be a long-term process that could affect the water quality and recreational opportunities all summer long,” Langer said.
But the algal bloom peaked and then went away, taking the toxic bacteria levels with it.
“We were left scratching our heads,” Langer said. “We could see something that occurs next year that is totally different.”
He is also puzzled by Clinton Lake, which could be a concern because it is filling up with sediment far faster than anyone had anticipated and it holds drinking water for the city of Lawrence.
In August there was a report of an algal bloom at Clinton Lake.
“We went out there, looked at it right away and were taking samples,” he said. “It was a false alarm.”
An even bigger question mark is why some of the state’s oldest reservoirs built during the 1930s WPA era, such as Lone Star Lake and Lake Shawnee, don’t seem to have any problems with blue-green algae.
“It’s taught us that each water body is like an individual with its own unique characteristics and chemistry,” Langer said.
No federal guidelines are in place to monitor toxic levels of cyanobacteria. So last year, the KDHE adopted the World Health Organization’s recommendations for issuing public warnings and advisories for when toxicity levels are too dangerous for those in the water.
When the KDHE hears of algal blooms in the state’s water bodies, officials sample the water and monitor it.
Without having the sampling program in place, Langer said the situation at Milford Lake would have probably been signaled by reports of dying animals and from physicians who were treating patients with flu-like illnesses.
Graham and Loftin commended Kansas for tracking the levels of cyanobacteria. Not all states do. But they noted finding longer term solutions to the toxic algal blooms can be a little more problematic.
“The lake didn’t get this way in a year or two, and you can’t expect to fix it in a year or two. It is something that is going to take a lot of time,”Graham said.
Across the country, algaecides have been applied, copper sulfate is used and hydrology is changed. These short-term solutions are expensive, have potential harmful effects to the rest of the lake’s ecology and might not work.
“A lot of these are basically unplanned experiments,” Loftin said. “And, mother nature tends to fool us.”
More substantive changes revolve around better management of the watershed to reduce the nutrients and sediments that are deposited into the reservoirs.
“Long-term solutions are a bit more challenging,” Loftin said. “Nutrient issues and sediment issues are going to be an issue to contend with and there may be other factors we might not understand yet in terms of water quality.”
As for Milford Lake, some question what can be accomplished.
“There is not a whole lot that can be done by our agency or anyone else,” Harms said. “It’s a monumental task to clean up a watershed above a big water body and our hands are tied at the mercy of mother nature.”
Langer has a slightly different outlook. He believes improving bodies of water like Milford Lake is going to take a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of everyone who lives above a watershed.
“If we are going to truthfully address water quality issues we have to go all the way upstream and say, ‘OK, what are you doing, how are the lands being used and what practices should we look at changing and altering to keep nutrients from flushing off the surface and into the water?” Langer said.
Fun on dry land
As governmental officials look for long term solutions, the campers at Milford’s Flagstop Resort continue to look for ways to stay entertained while water advisories are in place.
“We have $50,000 worth of equipment and all we can do is drink whiskey,” Dave Behrens said on Tuesday.
Campers have put on scavenger hunts, held a 30-golf cart funeral procession for a broken dashboard hula girl and spent quite a bit of time talking about the water conditions, Kurt Champagne said.
In time for the Labor Day weekend, the KDHE lifted the ban on fishing and boating at Milford Lake. But it did so with a strong warning that people and animals should avoid any contact with the water.
Even with part of the ban lifted, Champagne said it will be a tough sell to convince some people to return.
“It’s hard to explain to a 7-year-old that you can’t go swimming,” he said. “You can only entertain the kids for so long.”
Regardless of the restrictions in place, neither Champagne nor Behrens plan to abandon the campground, whose occupants have formed an extended family of sorts.
“This is what we love to do,” Behrens said.