What used to be just a naturally occurring phenomenon is now causing major headaches for many Kansans — and their dogs.
All was right in Jeff Alterman’s world when he left his Douglas County home and headed to work one morning last summer. A half-hour later, his veterinarian was on the line with horrific news. Deitz, his German wirehair hunting dog, was dying. The 3-year-old dog had been rushed to the vet by Alterman’s wife, still wet from a short romp in a pond near their house.
“When I got there, the vet just said the dog wouldn’t make it, its system was shutting down and there was nothing they could really do,” Alterman said. “The vet said she’d had eight dogs that had the same thing in the past. None of them had made it.”
The veterinarian continued to flush the dog’s system but offered little hope.
The diagnosis: Exposure to blue-green algae, a naturally occurring microscopic organism that has created huge problems and concerns across Kansas and the rest of the nation over the past 10 years.
Blue-green algae blooms have always been a natural, and safe, part of Kansas lakes. But within the past decade, algal amounts have increased to where it can cause the surface of a lake or pond to look like an ugly, putrid-smelling matte of green paint. And it’s a problem affecting dozens of Kansas lakes.
At high enough levels, the algae can be toxic to humans, pets, wildlife and livestock. Even low levels, which don’t hinder many water sports, can tank lake-related businesses.
It seems every year the algal problem grows — both across the map and the calendar — as new waters are infected at times of the year that were once unheard of. And each year, more money and time are spent trying to find ways to prevent, eradicate or at least live with the problems. After years of trying potential solutions, some progress is being made.
Tiny bacteria, huge problems
Tom Stiles, director of the Bureau of Water at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, says many Kansas cattle have died from drinking the algae-tainted water. It’s also challenged budgets at many Kansas drinking water plants.
Stiles said Kansas water professionals “have been batting 1000 keeping toxins out of drinking water,” though the added treatment has been expensive. Some water has carried a bad odor, even though it’s safe to drink.
And Kansans are far from alone.
“It’s a national concern, and it’s a global concern for our water resources. It can affect human and animal health and have a major impact on our economy,” said Jennifer Graham, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist. “We’ve discovered it in every type of body of water where we’ve looked.”
Graham referenced a Lake Erie bloom that caused more than $60 million in damage, including recreation, tourism, drinking water treatment facilities and property values. She said the problem is large enough in New York that the state budgeted $65 million to help protect the state from harmful algal blooms.
Even the budget-strapped Kansas Legislature has awarded $450,000 annually for three years to Stiles’ agency and other state groups to handle blue-green algae issues.
To date, Stiles isn’t aware of any serious or fatal human illnesses because of Kansas algal blooms. He remains adamant it could easily happen, especially to children.
Man’s best friend, however, hasn’t fared as well. A study conducted by the KDHE found that four dogs died from exposure to toxic algae in 2011.
“It’s almost like dogs are attracted to it,” Stiles said. “They can get it from drinking the water or even just licking their paws when they’ve been in it. It doesn’t take much, and it doesn’t take long, unfortunately, sometimes.”
Alterman estimates his dog was only in and around the infected pond for 15 minutes. A seasoned outdoorsman, Alterman is well-studied on algae and had seen no signs of it in the water that day.
Despite the veterinarian’s prognosis and history with blue-green algae, Deitz began to rally that afternoon and went home that evening. Follow up exams showed no liver damage.
“The vet said probably the only reason he survived was because my wife got him in so quickly,” Alterman said. “We came so close to losing him.”
Agricultural nutrients, climate change add to the problem
Blooms are often fueled by high levels of nutrients, like crop fertilizers and manure from feedlots running into river systems, brought downstream after rains. In suburban settings, the nutrients can come from fertilized lawns, parks or golf courses.
At the time of the big blooms of 2011, experts thought it was just those high nutrients combined with the freakish heat that accelerated record-high, horrific blooms. Milder summer weather in the following years, they hoped, would end the problem.
But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Kansas’ algal blooms have remained strong some summers, even when the heat hasn’t been as severe.
“The patterns are never consistent from one year to the next. It can be challenging,” Stiles said. “On Milford, we went through some of our worst blooms 2014 through 2016 and then no blooms in 2018 and 2019.”
Problematic bloom reports were once confined to midsummer. In recent years, they’ve occurred from April through mid-November.
At first it seemed to be just a problem of a few large reservoirs, like Milford and Marion. Now, KDHE may have up to 38 ponds and lakes on the list, which Stiles said may be an all-time high. But the high numbers may be due to increased testing and public awareness.
Many experts think ongoing climate change, leading to longer periods of warmer water, could play a part in growing problems associated with blue-green algae. Subsequent big blooms may also occur more readily after a lake’s first bloom.
“The evidence is anecdotal, but it certainly seems to be once a water system gets a big bloom, it is more likely to experience another,” Graham said.
Battling the blooms
The war being waged against algal blooms has many fronts.
“Right now, our book is wide open,” Stiles said. “We’re looking at any way we can to deal with it.”
A lot of attention is going to the source of the problem, where nutrients are entering drainages from farm fields. If the fertilizers would stay on the crops, as intended, many of the problems would probably never occur, Stiles said.
“We have a lot of effort going up in the watershed above Cheney Lake, where we are working to keep nutrients in the soil and out of the water,” Stiles said, referencing the partial water supply for Wichita. “We’re having some success, but that’s a lot of real estate. It takes a lot of time.”
Stiles said they’re working with farmers to encourage no-till farming and other ways to manage nutrients.
Biologists are also working to encourage aquatic plant growth at the upper end of lakes, hoping the growing plants will absorb nutrients before they can feed algae. Stiles said they’re also experimenting with chemicals that can control an ongoing bloom.
The method has promise, but it’s only been applied to relatively small areas. Stiles said treating major reservoirs, like Milford or Cheney, would cost millions. Such money isn’t available.
Stiles and others can benefit from similar research efforts coast to coast.
“We’re really entering into a new world of research. We’re doing things now we couldn’t conceive of at the beginning of my career,” said Graham, who has spent much of her 21-year career in the Midwest, including Kansas.
“The lake management community is looking at some promising in-lake strategies, and they range from ways to skim organisms out of the water to chemical control to kill (the algae). We’re also looking at floating wetlands that would basically soak up the nutrients.”
Neither Graham nor Stiles thinks the blue-green algae issue will end soon. But some Kansans are adapting.
Adapting to algae
Alan Stark, a regional supervisor of state parks at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said many campers, hikers, anglers and boaters now handle blooms well. Most have learned algae usually doesn’t impact fishing, and their catch is safe to eat. Algae blooms are often concentrated only in one portion of the lake, leaving plenty of room for water sports in other areas.
“We try to do a good job of keeping people educated and let them know if there’s a potential problem,” Stark said. “I’d say 80% come anyway. If a beach is closed, they might go walk a trail. There’s always plenty to do.”
Algal outbreaks — almost unheard of barely a decade ago — have led to multimillion dollar hits to the local economy.
Mike Harris, owner of Acorns Resort, a popular place to stay at Milford Reservoir in north-central Kansas, said blue-green algae is a serious threat to a business he’s worked long and hard to build. It’s been a multimillion dollar hit to the local economy as many people shy away from the lake when algae is reported, no matter how minor. Alerts of possible algal blooms on Milford Reservoir can swamp his office with requests for cancellations, even though many water sports are still safe.
Harris agrees people have become better educated since the instant hysteria of 10 years ago. He’d like to see even more education on what can still be done during blooms. He’s also modifying Acorns Resort in response.
“We’re in the planning stages of building a pool, hoping to lower the number of cancellations,” Harris said.
“Seems strange because we’re on the shore of the state’s largest swimming pool. It’s going to cost a lot, but I’d say 90% of the cost will be to offset problems caused by blue-green algae.”
Impact on drinking water
Mike Armstrong, general manager of WaterOne, said blue-green algae was one of the considerations that led Kansas’ largest water supplier to invest $35.8 million in an ozone treatment system. Now, he’s “very confident” that the nearly 450,000 users supplied by WaterOne are getting water that is safe.
The utilty’s general manager said they’ve dealt with algal blooms most years since the infamous blooms in 2011 at Milford Reservoir. The Lenexa-based utility company draws water from the Kansas River, into which Milford Reservoir releases water. Perry Reservoir, also prone to algal blooms, does too. WaterOne also draws water from several well fields and the Missouri River. “The Big Muddy,” as the river is known, seldom has blue-green algae problems.
Despite the blue-green algae challenges, Armstrong said the utility company has been able to produce water that passes all drinking water regulations and several times has been rated the best-tasting drinking water in Kansas.
He said WaterOne has budgeted about $2 million annually to treat water with powder-active carbon in addition to its ozone treatment system. Armstrong said both purification systems do more than just handle blue-green algae problems, so he could not put a figure on how much blue-green algae annually costs the company.
“If we can solve the problem in the beginning, we don’t have to worry about treating a problem later on,” Armstrong said. “The problem is excess nitrogen and phosphorus running into Milford Reservoir. We’re one of many stakeholders who are invested in fixing that. The problem isn’t just ours. Farmers don’t want their nitrogen and phosphorus running off, they want it on their fields. We also have towns, like Topeka and Lawrence, relying on that water for drinking water.”
WaterOne is one of about 30 stakeholders in the Milford Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which is using private, state and federal funds to fix the problems in the Republican River drainage that feeds the reservoir.
“I’m confident that if we work together, we can do a lot towards eliminating the problem,” Armstrong said. “If we don’t do anything, it’s only going to get worse.”
Michael Pearce is a freelancer for The Beacon.