No quick fix for algae bloom at reservoir, officials say

The cities of Hillsboro and Marion seemingly have met the challenge of producing safe drinking water from Marion Reservoir despite a persistent and potentially toxic blue-green algae bloom at the lake.

But the folks who look to Marion Reservoir as a vital economic, environmental and recreational resource don’t believe the situation at the lake has been “solved” or that routines can return to the way they were.

Representatives from local, county, state and federal agencies met Friday afternoon in Marion to discuss the current status of the lake and to begin untangling a web of interrelated issues so as to develop and implement strategies for the future.

The group dispersed almost two hours later seemingly with more questions than answers, but with some sense of agreement on the current picture:

The blue-green algae situation at Marion Reservoir is a complicated environmental puzzle, its potential as a public health threat is difficult to gauge or predict, and it will not be “fixed” by quick or easy solutions.

On hand were personnel from the cities of Hillsboro and Marion, a biologist from Tabor College, the Marion County Department of Health, Kansas State University and its county extension office, the Kansas departments of Health & Environment and Wildlife & Parks, the Kansas Water Office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the county office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Environmental puzzle

From the start, Marion County public health sanitarian David Brazil, one of the meeting conveners, tried to set a tone conducive to find solutions, not placing blame.

“I don’t want this discussion to turn into finger pointing,” he said.

For the most part, Brazil got his wish. But at the same time, some sources were identified for the high level nutrients that contribute to the bloom.

One likely source is chemical runoff from farming practices near the lake shore as well as along the tributaries that feed the reservoir.

Another source may be the wastewater lagoons operated by the cities of Canton, Durham and Lehigh, as well as confined-livestock lagoons.

The group agreed that monitoring these potential sources needs to continue.

In regard to chemical runoff, the group discussed the need to ensure that proper grass buffers are in place between tilled farm ground and the lake shore and lake tributaries.

Rickey Roberts, county agent, said every producer he talks to is an environmentalist at heart. He said if producer could be guaranteed that adding buffers-or initiating other practices-would make a significant difference, he didn’t know of any who wouldn’t participate.

Most parts acknowledged the values of having more and larger grass buffers, but they also heard that buffers are not full-proof. Gary Schuler of the NRCS office said buffers can be overloaded, much like a baby’s diaper.

Max Terman, professor of biology at Tabor, said buffers can actually increase nutrient levels in surface water under certain circumstances.

Terman said it is ironic that conservation practices already in place have resulted in less sediment entering the lake. But clearer water that resulted from less sediment is one of the contributing factors to this summer’s algae bloom.

“It’s a complex sort of thing,” Terman said.

Gauging future threats

While the two cities that manufacture drinking water apparently have removed the potential for toxicity by adapting their treatment practices, the group discussed the status of the lake water for recreational use.

Neal Whitaker of the reservoir staff said he had heard of no instances where someone suffered a negative health effect from using the lake for recreational purposes.

He said their policy since the bloom emerged has been to recommend that recreational users avoid areas of the lake where blue-green algae is visible. Otherwise, no restrictions on usage are in effect.

Brazil asked if there was a way to know by cell counts when the blue-green algae might pose a threat to health so visitors might be more aware of the risks.

Rick Burnetti of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment said no one has been able to determine such standards, and KDHE does not have the legislative authority to attempt to.

Morgan Marler, water plant supervisor at Hillsboro, said she was aware of some places were area personnel took it upon themselves to determine such levels-without state endorsement. She said such a standard would not be enforceable, but it might be helpful.

Most participants agreed ongoing monitoring of the lake had value, but Steven Garrett, Hillsboro city administrator, noted, “Why collect the data if nobody cares?”

Garrett said the city of Hillsboro has been recording algae levels once a week since the outbreak and would continue to do so in case the data become helpful down the road.

No quick solutions

Participants agreed finding solutions to the algae problem at Marion Reservoir will be a long-term process.

The group briefly discussed “quick fixes” such as treating the lake with chemicals, instituting a “draw down” of the lake level, installing a pump to agitate the water by the intake centers, or even creating wetlands to naturally filter the water.

But those options essentially were dismissed as being not feasible-whether for economic reasons, because of questionable effectiveness, or because of conflicting outcomes among agencies.

“We need simply to start with good, basic management practices that we know we should do,” Terman said.

Peggy Blackman, who is overseeing a federally funded watershed project at the reservoir, suggested at meeting’s end that entities within the county, including the cities and rural water districts, may want to consider creating one regional water treatment and distribution center.

Blackman said such an effort has been launched in Oklahoma with considerable economic benefits.

With the county’s two local plants in the midst of plant upgrades to meet tougher state and national standards, the time may be right for consolidation.

“It’s fine to be independent, but with the costs associated with being independent, it’s not feasible,” she said.

The group plans at least one more meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 12.

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