Toxic algae warning keeps crowds away at Cheney Reservoir

For a sweltering Saturday in late July, Cheney Reservoir was oddly still.

Campers sat in lawn chairs beside their RVs, looking out over the water instead of churning it up with their power boats or splashing around in it.

Many were trying to decide whether to stay, go home or try another lake.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment had issued a warning late Friday ordering people to stay out of the water due to high levels of toxic blue-green algae.

Brett Herrman of Colwich and Lindy Precht of Wichita, who had planned to go wakeboarding, instead found themselves researching the algae to see how sick they might become if they went into the water.

"When it's 105 degrees out and you're out on the lake and it's hot, what are you supposed to do?" Precht said.

Park manager Jody Schwartz, who has been at the lake more than 30 years, couldn't recall it ever being closed to swimmers.

"We've had algae blooms before, but apparently it wasn't of this magnitude, or it was a different kind of algae," he said.

Attendance, he said, was "considerably less than normal."

Only a few people ventured onto the lake in boats, he said.

"We haven't seen any water skiers. We saw a couple of jet skiers, but nothing like you'd expect on a day like this," Schwartz said. "People are heeding the warnings."

John and Cindy Ford of Wichita were swimming Friday a few hours before the warning was issued. They had showered and hadn't experienced any symptoms of the algae by Saturday, so they weren't too concerned, they said.

But, said Cindy Ford, "I'm glad we found to about it. It did make you look at each other and go, 'Should we go take another shower?'"

Michael and Lori Harvey of Halstead walked along one of the swimming beaches with their sons, Ethan, 10, and Jared, 4.

They looked out at the lake, but didn't go near it.

Ethan had tossed rocks into the lake on Friday, Lori Harvey said.

"Today, we don't want him to get close enough to do that," she said.

KDHE had warned visitors to be especially careful along shorelines if the water had a green tint or unusual odor. Small clusters of blue-green algae can pose a serious health risk, it said. They contain harmful toxins that can cause intestinal, respiratory or skin problems.

Warning signs were posted around the lake at entrances, boat ramps, swim areas and anywhere close to the water.

Damage from the algae spread beyond the shoreline. Shorty's Lakeside Country Store near the west entrance of the lake closed at noon because so many people had left the park.

"It hit us hard," said Candice Black, one of the store's owners. "It's already been slow before this. Now, this has really just ruined it."

People who came into the store on their way out were almost apologetic about leaving, she said.

"Everybody's stopping in saying, 'We don't want to leave, but we can't get in the water. We're heading to El Dorado'," said Walt Krolikowski, the store's other owner.

Shorty's will stay closed until conditions improve, they said.

KDHE has said it will conduct follow-up tests and provide new testing results next week.

Some visitors to the lake didn't fear the algae.

Darrin Swink, who was camping out with his girlfriend, Tina Hammond, and friends Joe and Amy Marshall of Hutchinson, said that the wind blew everything to the shoreline, and as long as that happened, they planned to take their boat out and jump in.

They come to lake every weekend no matter the condition of the water, Swink said.

"The beer's just as cold," he said.

The Marshalls had been at the lake since Memorial Day weekend, enduring all sorts of weather and water conditions.

"We'll check it out," Amy Marshall said. "If it looks all right, I'm getting in. We're going to die sometime, right? Might as well have fun doing it."