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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Kansas officials prepare for toxic algae blooms

By Michael Pearce
The Wichita Eagle

State officials are hoping for the best but planning for the worst when it comes to blue-green algae, a toxic substance that can greatly limit the use of state lakes and reservoirs during the summer.

Last year the algae was particularly bad, affecting 38 Kansas lakes, including Cheney Reservoir.

“It was just like a ghost town out here, and our worst financial year ever,” said Tammera Snyder, of Snyder’s Marina at Cheney Reservoir. “It was super-hot, but with the algae, (campers and boaters) couldn’t get into the water.”

Contact with the algae made 13 people ill and killed five dogs last year, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The blooms also cost water departments thousands of dollars to get the algae, and its odor, removed from drinking water.

Experts know blue-green algae blooms will occur. What’s not known is the severity.

“The genie is out of the bottle and never going back,” Tom Langer, Kansas Bureau of Environmental Health director, said of annual blooms. “We’re just trying to prepare for it and be able to manage it, no matter what happens.”

Blue-green algae has always been part of our natural waters, Langer said, but becomes dangerous at high levels.

He referred to 2011 as a “benchmark” year, when it totally closed or greatly reduced what people could do at about three dozen Kansas lakes.

Conditions like extreme heat, high nutrient loads in the water and a lack of rain and wind to break up algae concentration all contributed to last year’s massive outbreaks.

Milford Reservoir, near Junction City, had levels hundreds of times higher than the levels that can trigger the state’s strongest warnings against contact with water.

The lake was closed to all human activity for several days, the first time that’s happened in Kansas history.

Several dogs died from ingesting water at Milford. Another one died from the water at Marion Reservoir.

It can be lethal to humans, too. The algae can produce toxins that affect the skin, the central nervous system and liver function.

Langer said about a dozen state and federal agencies have been working together to hone their response before outbreaks happen this year.

One main goal is to better educate the general public on what to expect when outbreaks occur.

Blue-green algae is easy to spot. The algae looks like bright green paint has been poured on the water. In higher concentrations, the lake will look like thick green pea soup.

A link to a new, five-minute informational video will soon be posted on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s website — www.kdheks.gov.

For now, it’s best seen by going to YouTube.com and typing in Harmful Algal Blooms in Kansas Lakes, Ponds and Streams, 2012.

“It’s geared for the general public, what to look for, why it’s a concern, how to keep aware of the situation and what to expect at their favorite lake,” Langer said.

Signs to be posted along impacted waters also have been improved so the public can better understand warnings.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is still trying to cope with budget shortfalls from last year’s algae blooms.

Cheney State Park, one of Kansas’ largest, experienced a revenue drop of about 50 percent in 2011 because of the algae and unusually hot weather.

Robin Jennison, department secretary, said he requested $1.1 million in supplemental funding from Gov. Sam Brownback. Jennison said he’s hoping to get at least $800,000 this year.

Currently a small lake in Great Bend is the only body of water in Kansas with an official algae bloom. More algae blooms are expected. Langer said his office is already getting some phone calls of algae blooms in other waters. Some major lakes in nearby Oklahoma have officially reported blooms.

“We predict an uptake later this month and into June, then it will really take off,” he said. “That’s not that far away.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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