Algae solutions possible at lake, but funding could take time

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Mechanical, non-chemical, control of the blue-green algae at Marion Reservoir might be the best short-term treatment available. That’s what area leaders were told by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials during a meeting Wednesday at the reservoir office.

Funding even a short-term solution may take time and effort, officials added. And it may be several years before conservation measures on the portion of the Neosho Watershed Basin above the reservoir, including the Marion County Watershed District, result in more acceptable levels of sediment and fertilizer runoff that contribute to algae growth.

Peggy Blackman, with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said a graphed map of Kansas shows Marion County is one of the highest-use counties for phosphorus fertilizer because of soil needs here. Phosphorus seeping into the reservoir enhances algae growth.

In the meantime, cities such as Peabody, Hillsboro and Marion that get their water from the reservoir have to be prepared to increase its water-treatment procedures during peak algae blooms to avoid toxicity-or get water from alternative sources.

Reservoir swimmers, fishermen and boaters will need to heed signs warning them away from the water during algae peaks, and contend with the algae scum that sticks to shorelines.

Those inconveniences are costing tourist dollars, and Steve Garrett, Hillsboro city administrator, said local officials aren’t happy about it.

“You’re going to have a mayor hopping all over if we don’t get a good, short-term solution,” he said.

Terry Holt, lake manager at Marion Reservoir, said his reduced crew after budget cutbacks contributes to labor being stretched thin for putting up warning signs, or for taking part in projects to alleviate the algae problem.

James Harris, environmental biologist with the Corps Operations Division out of Tulsa, said the two main potential treatments favored at Marion Reservoir for the short-term are water aeration or microbial treatment.

The Corps has used other methods elsewhere, such as “induced deep outflow” at Wooster Lake in Oklahoma, he said.

Harris said most vendors for the two treatments have only done lakes as large as 1,000 to 1,200 acres. Even though Marion Reservoir is small for a Corps lake, it still covers 6,000 acres at normal pool and 11,000 acres at flood pool, he said.

Corps personnel are favoring an aeration pilot project in one cove, he said. Harris estimated aerating one cove could cost $125,000 while aeration of the entire lake could cost $4 million.

Release of microbes that would directly attack the blue-green algae would cost from $250,000 to $500,000 over three months, subject to many variables, he said.

Neal Whittaker, with the Corps at Marion, suggested removing algae from the lake surface with a “boom”-a mechanical skimmer, mounted on a boat, similar to devices used in the oil industry to remove petroleum scum from the water surface.

The idea was reviewed with part of the crowd thinking it was the best suggested, and others discounting it. Participants frustrated with the idea of waiting long-term for watershed development seemed impatient with not following up on the suggestion.

Other biological treatments such as release of grass carp or even of the feared water-plant clogging zebra mussels were discounted because these animals prefer grazing green algae, which is a beneficial lake product.

Given more serious consideration were suggestions that vegetation such as cattails and lily pads be planted in coves to use up phosphorus and other nutrients that contribute to algae growth. But officials were concerned that such growth would inhibit sport fishing.

Harris said the environmental impact of any method used would have to be studied in advance.

Marc Masnor, engineer with the Corps planning division, said environmental impact is one requirement among several the Corps needs to consider.

Masnor said the Corps is forbidden from soliciting funds from the U.S. Congress directly for any project. Money for projects is introduced by senators or representatives, sometimes at the urging of their constituents.

Persons at the meeting other than Corps personnel said the office of Sen. Sam Brownback called the first meeting on blue-green algae in July largely as the result of receiving concerns from Marion County public officials.

Masnor said Congress can allocate appropriations directly to the Corps to do a specific job. Small projects can also be entered as line items in a budget bill, he said.

Whichever way money comes, the availability gives the Corps authority to launch a study on the project, and make recommendations to Congress.

Although the process can seem slow, Masnor said the laws and the Corps regulations are “all designed to make federal government spending done in the most economical way.”

The growing importance of environmental impact statements since the 1970s and ’80s have added to the process, but also have proved valuable in preserving and shepherding resources, he said.

The Corps is required to look at all environmental impacts over a watershed and conduct feasibility studies that may take two to three years, he said.

Opportunities exist to help the process along with cost-share grants from other state and public agencies, Masnor said.

Blackman suggested one of these could be the Kansas Water Office, with perhaps 40 percent funding.

Masnor said organizations such as the the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and BASS also frequently become involved. Federal sources can fund 65 percent of a project with the rest coming from local sources.

Masnor said 100 percent local support can speed a project along. He said controversy, and the meetings required to hear all views, can greatly add to the process.

Local groups can also cost-share by doing in-kind services that are technically compatible with Corps efforts. For instance, Masnor said Hillsboro, Marion or the Kansas Department of Health and Environment might take care of the water sampling for a study.

Garrett noted the problem was defined, and got a confirmation from Masnor, that local and state sources of money could enter the process to get the work done.

Blackman said her office seeks a partnership with landowners in the watershed to help clean water.

One immediate project is establishing 100-foot vegetation buffer strips on shoreline between tilled fields squared off, and set back, and the water, she said.

This helps keep wave and wind action from cutting out the banks, she said. Blackman noted that one trip along three miles of reservoir shoreline showed enough hunks of shoreline eroded into the water by wind and ice to fill an estimated 300 dump trucks with 18 tons of earth each.

To illustrate this, officials stated average shoreline loss at 40 feet although Blackman said in some cases the actual loss was closer to 100 feet with even trees uprooted.

Blackman said farmers want to see action on the part of others to stabilize the shoreline, and they don’t want others dumping the entire problem on them in an adversarial relationship.

Some of them still grieve for family lands that were taken to build the reservoir, she said.

Blackman said work remains in the areas of education and relationships as well-building structures such as terraces, she said.

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