Solutions murky for fixing Kansas’ green blue algae problems

A sign posted at Milford Lake Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011 warned of a dangerous algal bloom, some of which can be seen along the shore line. High waters, 100-degree temperatures and an aging reservoir have all contributed to the massive bloom. The lake was closed days before when water samples showed toxin levels 80 times higher than what the World Health Organization deemed dangerous.

A sign posted at Milford Lake Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011 warned of a dangerous algal bloom, some of which can be seen along the shore line. High waters, 100-degree temperatures and an aging reservoir have all contributed to the massive bloom. The lake was closed days before when water samples showed toxin levels 80 times higher than what the World Health Organization deemed dangerous. by Christine Metz

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 mass of blue green algae near the shore line of Milford Lake. The algal blooms have wrecked havoc on the lake's economy since mid July.

A mass of blue green algae near the shore line of Milford Lake. The algal blooms have wrecked havoc on the lake's economy since mid July. by Christine Metz

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.”

High water at Milford Lake was one of the factors contributing to the outbreak of blue green algae this summer.

High water at Milford Lake was one of the factors contributing to the outbreak of blue green algae this summer. by Christine Metz

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.

Murky solutions

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.

Kurt Champagne, Vonnie Bryant and David Behrens all spend their summers at Flagstop Resort and RV Park. The trio is among the diehard campers who remain at the park despite the numerous warnings and advisories posted about the safety of the water.

Kurt Champagne, Vonnie Bryant and David Behrens all spend their summers at Flagstop Resort and RV Park. The trio is among the diehard campers who remain at the park despite the numerous warnings and advisories posted about the safety of the water. by Christine Metz

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.

Tagged: Milford Lake, cyanobacteria, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, blue green algae

More from Christine Metz

Comments

BorderRuffian 3 years, 2 months ago

Blue-green - aren't those the school colors for KU?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.

For the future »

Grasslands conservation program deadline nears

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The Natural Resources Conservation Service in Kansas says Jan. 25 is the deadline to submit applications for the grassland reserve program. ...

For the future »

Support grows for Kansas water policy reforms

The Associated Press Legislators say support is building for Gov. Sam Brownback's proposals to change Kansas policies to conserve the state's water and extend the ...

Research and development »

Bugs may be resistant to genetically modified corn

By Rick Callahan, Associated Press One of the nation's most widely planted crops — a genetically engineered corn plant that makes its own insecticide — ...

Friends of the Kaw »

Happy Holidays from Friends of the Kaw

Thank you to all who gave one of the best gifts to the Kansas River this year – your comments opposing in-river dredging. Hundreds of ...

Making good choices »

Kansas reservoirs filling up with sediment

In this 2007, file photo Frank "Jerry" deNoyelles, KU ecology professor of the Kansas Biological Survey, launches a boat off the banks of Kanopolis Lake southwest of Salina. DeNoyelles is part of a team of researchers that is measuring the silt filling up Kansas reservoirs.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two federal reservoirs in Kansas have been losing significant amounts of water storage capacity because of sedimentation, according to a study ...

Friends of the Kaw »

Kansas River Water Trail Makes Department of Interior Top 100 List

The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative has been set in motion by President Obama as a way to advance conservation and recreation in the United States. ...

For the future »

Ranch teaches farm to table process

Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, Colo., is offering a series of hands-on classes focused on the slaughter and butchering of farm animals.

JANET URQUHART, The Aspen Times BASALT, Colo. - It's one thing to grow a few backyard tomatoes. It's another to raise a pig and serve ...

Friends of the Kaw »

K-State Researchers to Release Kansas River Dredging Study

Dredging operation on the Kansas River owned by Kaw Valley Companies, one of the companies seeking expansion.

Private in-channel dredging operations on rivers like the Kansas River cause deepening and widening of the channel and accelerate erosion of the banks. As a ...

For the future »

Report shows Lawrence meeting goal to lower greenhouse gas emissions

By Chad Lawhorn In the battle against global warming, Lawrence can proclaim it is a good soldier, thus far. A new report from City Hall ...

Friends of the Kaw »

Friends of the Kaw Receives Awards and Focuses on Dredging Concerns

Friends of the Kaw Receives Two Major Awards Patagonia Environmental Grant: Patagonia has awarded Friends of the Kaw a grant for $8,000 dollars in support ...

Making good choices »

Fix-It Chick: Conserve energy by insulating hot-water pipes

By Linda Cottin Hot water loses 2-4 degrees of its heat when left in uninsulated lines. Insulating hot and cold water lines can save energy, ...

For the future »

Apply Today! City and County Launch "Common Ground" Program for Farmers, Gardeners

The City of Lawrence and Douglas County have made 12 sites available for community members to use during the 2012 growing season. The Common Ground ...

For the future »

KC firm helps develop low-cost green housing

KANSAS CITY, MO. (AP) - A Kansas City architecture firm has teamed up with an area Habitat for Humanity group to develop affordable, green housing ...

For the future »

FACT CHECK: GOP senator gasps for facts on asthma

Dina Cappiello, Associated Press It was a startling claim: Air pollution has no connection to asthma, Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul said on the Senate ...

Friends of the Kaw »

Major Dredging Expansion Threatens Kansas River

Thirteen sand dredging sites on the Kansas River are now up for public comment before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These sites comprise of ...

For the future »

Businesses hope to increase dredging along Kansas River; environmentalists warn that process is destructive

Several area companies hope to increase the amount of sand and gravel dredged from the Kansas River by 1 million tons per year. But before ...

For the future »

TransCanada says it will reroute planned pipeline

Keystone XL Oil Pipeline Hearing Rally at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center on 14th Street between Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue in NW Washington DC on Friday afternoon, 7 October 201

By Grant Schulte, Associated Press LINCOLN, Neb. — Canadian pipeline developer TransCanada will shift the route of its planned oil pipeline out of the environmentally ...

Making good choices »

Free workshop to give tips on weatherization and home energy conservation

Local sustainability advocacy group Transition Kaw Valley will hold a free home energy conservation and weatherization workshop from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday ...

For the future »

US delays massive oil pipeline from Canada

WASHINGTON (AP) The State Department is ordering the developer of a pipeline that would carry oil from western Canada to Texas to reroute it around ...

For the future »

US mulls new route for Canada oil pipeline

Demonstrators against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, protest outside the law offices of Nebraska Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, in Norfolk, Neb., Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, while Alex Pourbaix, president of TransCanada Corp.'s energy and oil pipelines, holds a meeting inside with state senators to discuss the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline through the state.

By MATTHEW DALY Associated Press The State Department is considering a plan that would reroute the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada away from ...

For the future »

Local group forming to support a tax on carbon

Most folks want energy costs to go down, so it’s rare to find a group pushing for energy costs to increase. But that’s the intention ...

Research and development »

Renewable energy options to be studied for Farmland Industries site

The former Farmland Industries site on the eastern edge of Lawrence is shown in an aerial photo taken Monday, May 16, 2011.

Federal agencies will spend $35,000 to study how the former Farmland Industries site could one day support the production of renewable energy. On Friday, the ...

Research and development »

Scientists hope to see birth of iceberg

Ben Panzer, a Kansas University PhD student in electrical engineering, works on snow radar equipment in NASA’s DC-8 aircraft as it flies over Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. Standing is John Sonntag, Instrument Team Lead for Operation IceBridge.

Radar technology developed at Kansas University is helping NASA scientists track something they’ve never monitored before: the birth of an iceberg. Last month, a crew ...

For the future »

Douglas County investing in long-term sustainability

Upgrades to heating and air-conditioning systems at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center are on pace to save county taxpayers more than $50,000 this year. ...

Making good choices »

Can you tell bottled water from tap?

Lawrence resident Sam Groth signs a pledge to avoid drinking bottled water after taking a taste test to distinguish bottled water from tap on Wednesday at the corner of Ninth and Mass streets. Representatives from Think Outside the Bottle spent part of the afternoon talking with local residents about their drinking choices.

Not all water tastes the same. Or does it? That was the question a group of community organizers were posing to pedestrians on Massachusetts Street ...

Friends of the Kaw »

FOK Annual Dinner & Silent Auction

“Into the Sun – Kaw River” watercolor on paper by local artist and FOK board member Lisa Grossman. Each year Lisa donates one of her Kansas River paintings to the FOK silent auction. This particular watercolor is 8x10” and will be available for bidding during this year’s event.

Friends of the Kaw is hosting the FOK Annual Dinner & Silent Auction on November 17, 2011 from 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. at the ...

Making good choices »

Firefighters, medics save energy, thousands of dollars during friendly competition

At  Station #2 at 19th and Massachusetts sits a piece of Lawrence History an American LaFrance pumper and branded it #68 as it came via a box car on the railroad.

By Mark Fagan Turning off lights, computer monitors and treadmills helped Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical trim more than $1,500 from their electric bills during a ...

Making good choices »

Local musician warns of vampire energy through song

Robert Baker isn’t what you’d call an environmentalist. The Lawrence resident is a lifelong musician who was tasked in 2010 with penning the score to ...

Making good choices »

Fix-It Chick: Put a stake through vampire energy-suckers

By Linda Cottin Vampire power is a term coined to describe electrical power wasted by typical household electronics when they are plugged in but not ...

Research and development »

Manhattan, K-State win energy challenge over Lawrence, KU

TOPEKA -- The city of Manhattan and Kansas State University teamed up to win a $100,000 prize by defeating the city of Lawrence and Kansas ...

For the future »

New report provides in-depth analysis of food system in Douglas County area

As a heavy rain falls outside, Douglas County farmer Mark Wulfkuhle, second from right, talks about some of his farming practices at his Rocking H Ranch during the Douglas County Food Policy Council tour of Douglas County farms Friday, Nov. 9, 2010. According to a new report released by the council, there are 1,040 farms in Douglas County, down 36 percent from 1,630 in 1950.

The Douglas County Food Policy Council released a 75-page report today that provided a smorgasbord of information about the food system in Douglas, Jefferson and ...

Research and development »

State makes battle plan for toxic algae

BY CHRISTINE METZ During the past summer, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment tracked toxic blue-green algal blooms in more than 40 lakes and ...

For the future »

Writer calls for better environmental foresight in new book

Bryan Welch

By CHRISTINE METZ In 2007, Bryan Welch nearly killed himself on a twisty mountain road in Oregon. He was on a motorcycle and entering what ...

For the future »

Advocates hope Food Day eventually gains same staying power as Earth Day

Hubbard squash, a plant native to the region, is among the crops being grown by Brett Ramey on the Iowa Reservation near White Cloud. The squash will be used in a variety of dishes this weekend at the Haskell Indian Nations University indigenous food festival. The event is one of many being held over the next week and half in celebration of Food Day.

In spring 1970, at a time when industries could pump and dump practically whatever they wanted into the skies and waters, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson ...

Westar Energy »

Westar begins citywide hookup to smart grid today

John Valdez installs Westar Energy's new SmartStar meters Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011, at the Graystone Apartments in Lawrence.

Starting today, Lawrence will get a little smarter. Well, at least the electric meters in the city will. Westar Energy is beginning the mass installation ...

Making good choices »

Lawrence Electronic Recycling Event, Saturday, October 15th

The City of Lawrence will host an electronic recycling event on Saturday, October 15th from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in the Free State High ...

For the future »

Don't forget: The Homegrown Lawrence Festival starts at 5:30 p.m.

Got Friday night plans? Tonight's Late Night at the Phog, of course, but if you aren't checking out the Jayhawks' first official scrimmage of 2011-2012, ...

Making good choices »

Add a little green to your Jayhawk tailgate

Crowds gathered on the hill near Memorial Stadium to tailgate for Thursday evening's KU football game against K-State.

What’s crimson and blue and green all over? With these tips, we hope it will be this weekend’s tailgate. An 8:15 p.m. start time for ...

For the future »

Pieces of razed buildings find new life at 'clean fill' site

Holli Joyce, stands on the edge of a Kansas City property that borders Interstate 70. Once a 1900s rock quarry, the property is now the site of a clean fill project, which accepts demolition debris with the hope of reusing the material.

Kansas City, Kan. — On a dead-end street in a not-so-nice neighborhood of Kansas City, Kan., a makeshift open air showroom has been set up ...

Making good choices »

Tips for removing leaves the green way

Turner Omelau, 7, left, hides inside a compost bag from his friend Taloa Lena, 6, as the two raked and played in the leaves in front of their houses in East Lawrence, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. The city is encouraging people to compost or mulch leaves rather than burn them or put them in the trash.

We all love the beauty of the changing leaves. What’s less enjoyable is managing them once they fall off the trees. Here are some ways ...

For the future »

Study of possible changes to Lawrence's trash and recycling system creating questions

You thought your trash day was a chore. Lawrence city commissioners are inching closer to their own trash day as a city-appointed task force moves ...

For the future »

EPA administrator job a whole new environment for KU professor

Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks lives in Lawrence and is a Kansas University professor of environmental history. Brooks took on the role of EPA Region 7 administrator in 2010.

Attached to Karl Brooks’ hip is a ringing, buzzing reminder of how much his life has changed in the past year and a half. When ...

Westar Energy »

Westar to offer $100 home energy audit program

Just as the state’s Efficiency Kansas home energy audit program comes to an end, Westar Energy has announced a program that could replace it. Westar ...

Making good choices »

Lawrence writer uncovers homes made from materials destined for the dump

Jessica Kellner, editor of Natural Home and Garden magazine, is pictured on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2011 in the dining area of her Lawrence home. Kellner, who has craftily furnished her own home with many reclaimed items, recently wrote a book about homes made of items that were otherwise destined for the dump.The book is called Housing Reclaimed.

As editor of the Topeka-based magazine Natural, Home & Garden, Jessica Kellner had plenty of stories of families and organizations from across the country who ...

For the future »

Land with historic buildings latest easement for Kansas Land Trust

A 261-acre property in Clay County that houses threatened bird populations and historic structures dating back to pioneer days is the latest piece of land ...

For the future »

Nature advocate inspires Lawrence crowd

Author Richard Louv poses on the dock at the Miramar Reservoir in San Diego Monday June 27, 2005.

In the mind of Richard Louv, the clump of trees at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac is just as important as Yosemite National Park ...

Friends of the Kaw »

Third Annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival

Friends of the Kaw will host the third annual Wild & Scenic Film Festival at 7:00pm on Friday, October 14 at Liberty Hall (646 Massachusetts ...

For the future »

$500,000 grant will help green buses

A $500,000 grant will help “green up” how students in Kansas get to school. Funded through Westar Energy and managed through the Kansas Association for ...

Making good choices »

State honors leaders in sustainability

Across Kansas, businesses, educational institutions and government offices have signed up to become “Green Teams.” Each year, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment recognizes ...

For the future »

Seed money: Homegrown Lawrence Festival raises money to get school gardens growing

Sesha Edie, 5, right, shows her father Brian something she found while playing in the garden while Jessica, left, helps Mira, 2, with a water bucket. Brian is an organizer of the Homegrown Lawrence Festival, Oct. 14. Part of his inspiration for working on the festival, which raises funds to start school gardens, is that Secha will start at public school next year.

How does your garden grow? If you’re a Lawrence school, you grow through grass-roots support. Several student gardens have sprouted up over the past few ...

Log in to your WellCommons account.

You may also use your LJWorld.com, Lawrence.com or KUSports.com account.

Forgotten your password?

Don’t have a WellCommons account? Get one now!

An account lets you join in the conversation, mark your favorites, get your own Blog and more.