Algae effect on parks assessed

09/25/2011 12:08 AM

09/25/2011 12:08 AM

TOPEKA — State parks officials are assessing the impact of large-scale, blue-green algae blooms at Kansas lakes and reservoirs that kept people and animals out of the lakes this summer.

Dangerous levels of the toxic algae prompted Kansas health officials to post advisories and warnings since May. Ron Kaufman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said the algae blooms, along with weather conditions, prompted numerous cancellations at state cabins and campsites.

"It certainly had a significant impact on our state park system and even more on the other parks and businesses in the area, particularly at the larger reservoirs," Kaufman said. "Visitors basically stayed away if they couldn't get in the water or take their pets in the water."

He said the agency was still assessing the economic impact on its summer revenue. The algae conditions occurred as many people were looking to spend their scarce leisure dollars closer to home, enjoying Kansas parks and lakes.

"If not for the algae, we were looking at a pretty decent year," Kaufman said. "We're sure hoping this year is an anomaly."

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, are found naturally in bodies of water. They become a health concern when they bloom in massive amounts and release toxins, which can cause rashes, vomiting, nausea and other symptoms. KDHE says the toxins can be harmful to humans and their pets.

High heat and drought conditions caused abnormal levels of the toxin this summer.

Kaufman said high water levels along with the algae blooms were particularly difficult for visitors and businesses near Milford Lake in northeast Kansas. Water levels were higher much of the summer after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted regular releases of water because of flooding downstream on the Missouri River.

Tom Langer, director of the bureau of environmental health for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the rising water meant more nutrient-rich land was under water, providing a good food supply for the algae to grow. That combined with the weather.

"These conditions are creating situations where the blooms are so intense that you can't enjoy the water for recreation and threatens freshwater drinking supplies," Langer said.

While algae blooms have occurred in the past, this year's situation raises concerns because of the blooms' frequency and intensity.

"We worry that it may be the start of a trend, but the only way to know is to monitor and analyze the situation," Langer said. "This year is serving us notice. There are a lot of reasons why we need to look at this issue and address it."

KDHE has issued regular advisories and warnings about bodies of water that still see dangerous levels of the algae. While the public response has been positive, Langer said there is always a danger in being "the boy who cries wolf" in raising the issue, especially if it's not directly affecting the quality of drinking water.

"We have raised the level of public awareness to an all-time high about this issue," Langer said. "We have not heard from anyone that this is a bad idea about what we are doing and how we going about it."

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