State makes battle plan for toxic algae

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

Those blooms caused 16 people to fall ill and the deaths of at least four dogs. Money lost from visitors who stayed away from some of the state’s most popular summer recreation spots hasn’t been calculated. Neither has the number of other animals who became sick or died from algae-infested ponds.

As the weather cools, days grow shorter and winds pick up, the algal blooms across Kansas are disappearing. And as they do, state agencies are beginning to study just how well they responded to this year’s outbreak and how to better manage future blooms.

“As we go into the winter months, we aren’t just going to put the binder back on the shelf,” said Tom Langer, KDHE director of the Bureau of Environmental Health. “We are studying what we have learned. This was the second summer we have been collecting this type of data.”

The KDHE plans to have an epidemiologist look at the health effects of the blooms. They plan to write papers, publish their findings and share the information they’ve gathered with other states.

One thing’s certain: Algal blooms will return next year. When and where will be harder to predict.

“For our state, the one thing we all have to understand is based on the geography of where we live. Every lake, every pond is a candidate,” Langer said.

Key to controlling blue-green algal blooms is better management of the nutrients that run into watersheds and into lakes and ponds. Those nutrients makes it easier for algae to flourish.

“This is not something you can flip the switch and change. It takes decades and decades to get to a condition like this. And it will take decades before we resolve this,” Langer said.

One community in Kansas already has begun to take serious steps. Great Bend, which has had a blue-green algal problem in a community lake since January, is looking at ways to restore its watershed and better manage what flows into the drainage area. Langer hopes lessons learned in Great Bend can be applied throughout Kansas.

Last summer, the state got a glimpse of just how bad it could get when Kansas’ largest reservoir, Milford Lake, was closed to swimming, wading and water skiing for nearly three months.

Last week, an algal bloom that had been festering in Milford Lake since the end of June returned to normal levels. But it was far too late to attract many of the visitors who had stayed away during those hot summer days.

“It scared away a lot of people,”, said Jan Boan, who owns the Flagstop Resort and RV Park, a campground on the edge of the lake.

After Labor Day, most people packed up and went home, Boan said.

“There’s not much going on outside other than fishermen in the water,” she said last week.

A unique set of circumstances made the algal bloom at Milford Lake particularly bad this summer. At the base of the lake is nutrient-rich soil. Even more nutrients were absorbed this year when upstream flooding pushed the reservoir 15 feet above its normal level. And for much of the summer, none of that extra water could be released from Milford because of downstream flooding.

And then there were the days upon days of 100-degree temperatures.

“It was a giant Petri dish,” Langer said.

The toxic algal bloom in Milford Lake had a far reach. When floodwaters finally receded downstream in late August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from Milford Lake. When the water flowed through the Kansas River it brought with it toxic levels of blue-green algae that could be detected all the way to Johnson County. Those levels prompted the city of Lawrence to stop pulling water from the Kansas River.

Tests later showed that the blue-green algae levels weren’t be detected in treated drinking water. But it was one example of just how interconnected watersheds are.

“We want people to understand the severity of it. It’s not just white noise, Chicken Little or a boy crying wolf,” Langer said of the blue-green algae outbreaks and the health of the state’s aging lakes. “It is going to affect every single one of us. We rely on water. It’s important that we are taking the proper steps.”