September 2, 2011

Heat, algae, economy take toll on state parks

With revenues down, Cheney State Park manager Jody Schwartz is hoping for a busy Labor Day weekend.

With revenues down, Cheney State Park manager Jody Schwartz is hoping for a busy Labor Day weekend.

Things don't look good so far.

"I've never seen it this slow before a holiday weekend in my life," Schwartz said this week. "In a good year all of our utility sites are full about two weeks before the holiday. Today I've got about 70 percent vacancies."

He's been at Cheney State Park since 1979 and said he's never experienced years with so many challenges.

"The heat, the bad economy, high gas prices, the blue-green algae; it's a combination of a little bit of everything going wrong at once," he said. "Now the lake's 3 feet low, too. That's a lot of exposed shoreline on a lake like Cheney."

Schwartz estimated Cheney's revenues are down about 20 percent this year.

Linda Lanterman, state park director for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said most state parks have been facing lean times, including some in northern Kansas that have experienced flooding this year.

Lanterman estimated statewide revenue is currently down about 10 percent from last year. "And that wasn't exactly a great year, either," she said. "It's not good news."

That's a lot for an agency that's been running on shoestring budgets for many years.

Lanterman hopes the milder weather forecast for this weekend will draw more business.

Schwartz got a break this week when testing by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment lifted the blue-green algae advisory warning against contact with Cheney's water.

Blue-green algae can cause health problems if it's swallowed, inhaled or comes in contact with human skin.

It thrives under weather conditions that are hot, sunny, calm and dry.

Three dogs have recently died because they were exposed to blue-green algae at Milford Reservoir near Junction City. Milford was closed to boating and fishing most of this week because of algae counts up to 80 times what's considered dangerous.

On Thursday, KDHE announced that levels are low enough that fishing and boating will be allowed at Milford, but direct contact with the water — such as swimming, wading and waterskiing — is discouraged.

Troublesome algae outbreaks at Milford and Cheney began about six weeks ago and are especially problematic since they are two of Kansas' busiest state parks.

'The heat's killing us'

At El Dorado State Park, Kansas' largest, algae hasn't been a problem, but park employee Denise Nielsen estimated revenue is still down about 20 percent.

She largely blames the extreme heat.

"The most common thing we hear is, 'Why come to the lake if we just have to stay all day in an air-conditioned camper,' " Nielsen said. "The heat's killing us. Our Fourth of July was down, and Memorial Day weekend was only average."

Labor Day weekend, she said, is the least-busy of the summer's holiday weekends.

Shady Creek Marina manager Debbie Haled said revenue is down a bit but overall it's been a pretty good year.

She said heat is usually good for business but this year she's noticed El Dorado boaters have been leaving the water a little earlier on weekends.

The lake hasn't been used as much during the week, either. "Most years we stay pretty busy through the week, but this year Mondays and Tuesdays have been slow," she said. "I guess people got so sunburned and so hot over the weekend they had to rest for a few days before they came back for more."

Haled said high gas prices and a slow national economy may have helped the marina's business.

"I think people have been staying closer to home and spending money, not as many taking big vacations," she said. "All of our slips are full. I can't complain."

Nielsen and Haled said some visitors may have stayed away from El Dorado because of the state's blue-green algae scare, mistakenly assuming El Dorado had the same problems as Cheney and other lakes. So far it's had no algae warnings or advisories.

Haled said the marina has been dogged by calls asking about the lake's safety.

Nielsen gets several calls a day from people asking about on-land activities because they don't think it's safe to get in the lake.

"I keep telling them the water's fine, come on out," she said.

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