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Lake Managers Get New Tool To Combat Algae

Nothing spoils a summer swim in your favorite lake like an algae bloom. These become more common as the weather warms up.  A lake in Federal Way, Washington -- near Seattle -- is serving as a proving ground for a possible new tool to combat toxic blooms.

Almost every summer until last summer, Lake Lorene would turn pea soup green.

"I was really disappointed come July/August when I noticed all the algae – and ultimately the blue-green algae and the stench associated with that. Then the toxicity, the (warning) signs. It was ugly, ” says Gary Darcey, who serves on the Twin Lakes Homeowner's Association board.

Last year, the homeowners group gambled on a new approach to restore water quality at the suburban lake.

“It’s night and day," Darcey says. "No blue-green algae this year. Clarity was amazing. We had people fishing again which we didn’t before and you could actually start enjoying the lake.”

Darcey and his neighbors are the first in the Northwest to hire a company to apply a new algae treatment. The problem here is similar to so many other built up lakes. Stormwater, goose poop, and fertilizer runoff all carry phosphorus into the lake.

That dissolved phosphorus is the key nutrient for algae growth. Left unchecked, blue-green algae can turn toxic. It can make people sick and kill pets and livestock.

Earlier this week, aquatic biologists treated the lake with a new product to prevent toxic blooms. A three man crew in a small work boat crisscrossed the lake and a brownish plume spread out behind the boat's stern.

AquaTechnex aquatic biologist Adam Kleven explained that the crew injected the eight-acre lake with a follow up dose of the new mineral treatment, called Phoslock. The slurry, he said, is a combination of the element lanthanum and powdered clay.

“What this product does is drift through the water column binding with the phosphorus and permanently locking it down in towards the sediment.”

Nigel Traill of Phoslock Water Solutions says the treatment was invented in Australia in the mid-1990s. His company exported it first to Europe, found success there, and now is coming to North America.

"Phoslock is a more natural product with less negative effects on the ecosystem than aluminum sulfate (a current, cheaper way to tie up phosphorus)," says Traill. "So in that respect, the U.S. provides good possibilities I think for Phoslock."

Traill's company points to a list of studies that show their product doesn't hurt fish or contaminate drinking water. But it is expensive, which could limit sales.

Terry McNabb of Bellingham runs the lake management company AquaTechnex. McNabb gave a price range of $1,900 to $4,000 per surface acre treated. The two Phoslock injections at Lake Lorene cost the homeowners association there around $40,000, which includes some ancillary permitting and monitoring fees.

McNabb calls Phoslock an "important expansion" of the tools available to control algae. "I think people are in the learning curve," he says. "They want to see examples. The database is building. So I kind of see this in the next few years as really being a tool that is more widely used and widely understood and maybe even gets to be the 'go to' thing for solving this problem."

McNabb says the new lake treatment is cleared for use in California and Idaho. He's still waiting to hear from Oregon. Washington’s Department of Ecology is keeping Phoslock on an experimental permit. It’s watching for any negative effects. An agency spokesperson says the state would rather people living around lakes take measures to contain sources of phosphorus on land. That way they wouldn't have to put any chemicals in the water in the first place.


Selected Washington lakes that were temporarily closed in recent years due to recurring algae blooms:

Green Lake (in Seattle)
Lake Spokane (Spokane County)
Moses Lake (Grant County)
Cassidy Lake (Snohomish County)
Anderson Lake (state park in Jefferson County)
Vancouver Lake (Clark County)

Selected Oregon lakes temporarily closed due to toxic algae blooms in 2012:

Blue Lake (near Troutdale, east of Portland)
Fern Ridge Reservoir (west of Eugene)
Dexter Reservoir (Lane County, southeast of Eugene)
Lost Creek Lake (Jackson County)

Selected Idaho lakes subject to temporary health advisories due to harmful algal blooms in recent years:

Lake Lowell (near Caldwell)
Fernan Lake (east side of Coeur d'Alene)
Cascade Reservoir (Valley County)
Hayden Lake (north end of lake in Kootenai County)

On the Web:

Algae Control Program: Cyanobacteria - Washington Dept. of Ecology
Blue-Green Algae FAQs - Washington Department of Health
Oregon Toxic Algae program - Oregon Health Authority
Restoration of Water Quality in Lake Lorene - AquaTechnex

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.