Officials still seeking answers about rare algae bloom

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Marion County’s two water “manufacturers” have followed slightly different paths since the discovery Thursday of a rare and potentially toxic algae bloom in its primary water source.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff at Marion Reservoir discovered a blue-green algae-tentatively identified as the anabaena species-in a restricted area at Hillsboro Cove swim beach and in small, protected pools at the base of the dam.

Some forms of Anabaena algae have been to known emit toxins when it dies that attack the liver and cause other sorts of health problems, according to Steven Garrett, Hillsboro city administrator.

“Because this sort of algae bloom is so unusual in Kansas-the last such algae bloom was in 1989-we can’t get good testing on it to tell us the amount of toxins or whether we can treat for the toxins or remove the toxins,” Garrett said Saturday.

In consultation with representatives from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, who happened to be in Hillsboro that day on other matters, Garrett said city officials decided to cease drawing water from the reservoir until they could be sure the treated water would be safe to drink.

“We couldn’t get enough answers that make us comfortable keeping the water (production) level to the level we’re comfortable with, so we decided to put our emergency water-use plan into effect, which says we’ll haul in water,” Garrett said.

As part of the emergency water-use plan, outdoor water use and excessive water use were prohibited starting Friday in order to preserve adequate amounts of water for otherwise normal and emergency use.

In addition to preserving its own supply, Garrett said the city began hauling in water from outside sources-the city of McPherson first, then from Rural Water District No. 4.

“We had a couple of days’ worth (of treated water) in reserve, but we wanted to keep up with demand in case there’s a fire issue, so we started hauling water,” Garrett said.

As of Monday morning, Hillsboro had shipped in about 700,000 gallons of water, according to Morgan Marler, senior water treatment technician for Hillsboro-which has kept pace with reduced water usage.

She said the city will continue to haul in water-and the city’s emergency water-use plan will remain in effect-until it gets an “all-clear” from KDHE.

“We’re working closely with KDHE on some different treatment methods that we can change at the water plant,” she said. “We’ve got that ball rolling and we’re hoping that we can nail that down in the next couple of days.”

Garrett said that because both Hillsboro and Peabody had adequate reserves of treated water, no restrictions were ever issued on drinking tap water-contrary to some rumors circulating in Hillsboro on Friday.

Limited impact at Marion

Meanwhile, residents of Marion might never have known a potential problem existed at Marion Reservoir had it not been for reports in some area newspapers and on at least one Wichita television station.

City Administrator David Mayfield said that because Marion had enough water on hand, the city did not have to enact its emergency plan-even in the midst of its annual Chingawassa Days celebration this weekend.

“We were full up,” he said of the water supply. “We were probably fortunate that we were in the position we were in at the time.”

Mayfield said Monday morning that Marion was again drawing water from the reservoir into its treatment plant because rain on Thursday night, followed by wind, appears to have dissipated the algae.

“Rain on Thursday night caused the algae to disperse and we have not seen it since,” stated an information release from the Corps of Engineers office at Marion Reservoir.

Mayfield said he and several representatives from the city of Marion, together with Neal Whitaker from the Corps of Engineers office at the reservoir, went out in a boat Saturday to check for the algae and found none.

“We were out on the water a couple of hours at least, and we couldn’t find any more,” he said. “It was gone.”

Mayfield said he went out Sunday in his personal boat and again found no sign of the algae.

“We saw nothing,” he said.

Mayfield said he realizes the problem could reappear with the return of warm temperatures and still waters.

“If we have to enact our emergency water plan if this stuff comes back again, that’s what we’ll do,” Mayfield said.

“We were just fortunate in the fact that it wasn’t necessary for us to have to take the steps that Hillsboro did.”

Ongoing concerns

Marler said even though the algae appears to have dissipated, Hillsboro will wait for confirmation from KDHE before returning to business as usual.

“We have a little different view on that,” she said. “Even though (the algae) is not concentrated in a cove doesn’t mean that it’s not in the reservoir.

“We’re anticipating that once we have some calm, sunny conditions again, that it’s just going to reappear in masses,” she added.

“Then again, if we can continue having windy days and keep the reservoir stirred up, Mother Nature might take care of itself.”

In the meantime, efforts were continuing Monday to find out more about the algae in the reservoir and its potential effect on water consumers.

KDHE is conducting additional sampling and an algae toxin specialist is being contacted for assistance, according to a memo from Jim Harris of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District, operations division.

Pete Navesky, a Kansas area manager for the Corps of Engineers based at John Redmond Reservoir, said one of things the experts need to figure out is exactly what kind of algae Marion Reservoir is dealing with.

“When they mentioned the type of algae it was, apparently what they gave was a name that would be equivalent of saying ‘General Motors,'” Navesky said.

“It was not specific enough to know if this is one of the garden variety, or is this one we actually need to be concerned about.”

As of Monday afternoon, no new information on the algae situation had been released.

Marler said although this situation has inconvenienced some local water users-and challenged city staff-it also has had some positive outcomes.

“We’re not having any problem with keeping up with customer usage,” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve been real happy with.

“The customers in Peabody and Hillsboro voluntarily conserving have done a good job. We’ve noticed a dramatic decrease in usage. That was good to see.

“Peabody was really easy to work with,” she added. “They’ve offered a lot of assistance.

“Basically, in both communities, the governing bodies took the position that this is a great time to test our emergency procedures. We don’t ever have the opportunity to do it, and if we make some mistakes we can correct those and add them to our plan and be more prepared next time.”

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