Friday morning Troy Myers was living a nightmare at a place he dreams about all year.
He was at a favored campground at Marion Reservoir, with a few days of vacation, with his father, Floyd, and grandson, Braden Barnes. The boat was ready, and the fish had been biting all week.
“All’s good, except it really bites that they won’t let us within 100 foot of the water,” said Myers. “We have three generations wanting to do what we love the most, go fishing together, but we’re going home instead.”
Myers was one of many campers and anglers affected by Thursday’s announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was closing all access to the 6,200-acre reservoir about an hour north of Wichita because of dangerously high levels of blue-green algae.
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Thursday’s news release from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment also stated that nobody can camp within 100 feet of the shore.
Camper Randy Windhorst was ordered to move from a favored campsite next to the water’s edge to one farther away.
“All I saw was a bunch of mad people leaving,” he said. “It’s not a good deal. We’ve been dealing with (blue-green algae) up here for years, a lot of years, and never had the lake totally closed.”
Warning signs were in place by Thursday evening. Most roads to boat ramps, beaches or camping areas near the shoreline were blocked.
The news release said the department had gotten complaints about a possible algae bloom, which can be unsightly and smelly, on Tuesday. Tests over the next two days showed elevated levels of the algae that can cause illness to humans if ingested or after prolonged skin contact. Pets have died from blue-green algae at Kansas lakes in the past.
“They had pretty darned strong evidence they needed to close the lake,” said Ron Kaufman, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism information services director. “There were some extremely high levels of blue-green algae. One location far exceeded the closure threshold; another well exceeded the warning threshold. The way that stuff can float around, you never know what it’s going to do.”
Kaufman said KDHE does the testing, and Wildlife and Parks attends discussions with them and the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Ultimately, the decision to close the lake came from the Corps of Engineers.
Repeated calls to the state health department were not returned.
All campgrounds at Marion are managed by the Corps of Engineers, which built the lake.
Kevin McCoy, Corps of Engineers assistant lake manager, said the lake will be closed at least a week, when more testing will be done.
“Public safety is our number one priority, always,” McCoy said from his office Friday morning, phones ringing in the background as campers and anglers called for more details. “We don’t know how long this will last. We appreciate the public’s cooperation. Last night I was impressed with the way they cooperated, even though some were not happy.”
“We have to do what the government says, I guess,” Floyd Myers said Friday morning, “but it sure seems pretty stupid to me.”
Warren Kreutziger has lived most of his life within a few miles of Marion Reservoir, including before the Cottonwood River was impounded to create the reservoir. He estimates it’s “been at least 20 years” that the reservoir has dealt with blue-green algae. Things haven’t gotten any better.
“It used to be we’d get a bloom, and then it would be a few years before we’d get another one,” said Kreutziger, who operated a bait shop and guide service at the reservoir for many years. “Now we get it every year. You kind of come to expect it.”
But neither he, nor anyone else, expected a total closure of the lake, the first of its kind at that lake.
Milford Reservoir, Kansas’ largest, has had several total or partial lake closures because of blue-green algae problems in the past.
Never has camping, or public access near the shoreline been closed, as in this year’s 100-foot ban on camping. Kaufman speculated it was to prevent people from inhaling dangerous particles when waves smashed blue-green algae against the shore.
Floyd Myers, who spends several weeks of the year at Marion, said he and his family been through many times when KDHE and the Corps of Engineers have warned against swimming, or having any kind of contact with the water.
“You learn to adapt, and to go where there’s not algae that day,” he said. “As soon as you back off the ramp, you’re usually out of it. It’s not out in the middle. The wind usually blows it all to one side of the lake. It’s easy to find a spot where it’s not, because you can see it. We just go fishing and catch fish.”
Mostly he and his family like to drift on the waves, using purchased shrimp to catch channel catfish, which they love about as much on a plate as they do on their lines. They follow warnings and make sure the fish fillets are clean before cooking.
“We’ve eaten a lot of them, and they taste good, like always,” he said. “They’ve never been any kind of a problem, at all, for us. We’ve never been sick.”
His 9-year-old grandson begged to differ a bit.
“I did get sick that one time,” said Braden Barnes, “but I think that was because I ate too much fish.”
Rather than stay at a campsite away from the water’s edge, without being able to fish, Troy Myers said the family would probably leave.
“I hate to do it because of the two vacation days,” he said. “It’s not like I can move them or use them some other time. They’re just gone.”
Myers was thankful he got in a few days of fishing earlier in the week. The elder Myers said earlier this week they saw no big concentrations of blue-green algae, which can appear like a green neon paint spill.
Myers, Windhorts and Kreutziger said they’d seen algae blooms much worse in the past.
As well as hundreds of campers and anglers, the total shutdown of one of Kansas’ most popular reservoirs disappointed a lot of area businesses, too.
Margo Yates is a past head of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, and current director of the town’s parks and recreation department. She said past studies showed the lake got more than 400,000 visitors per year, and many drove the few miles into town for anything from fishing bait, to groceries and gas, or to shop for antiques.
“They’ve never shut down the reservoir like this, so we don’t really know what it’s going to do,” said Yates. “It’s not going to be good. It has to hurt, at least some.”
Closing the campground also comes at a bad time since this weekend is the town’s annual Chingawassa Days celebration, which attracts thousands of guests. Many have stayed at campgrounds in the past. This year’s main event is a concert by Charlie Daniels on Saturday evening.
Windhorst, who moved his camper away from the water Thursday, expects to have plenty of room this weekend at the lake.
“It’s already very peaceful,” he said as he strolled around empty spaces while more campers and boats headed toward an exit Friday morning. “It’s quiet, but it’s also kind of spooky, too. It’s not supposed to be like this on a summertime weekend.”