Toxic algae increasing in Kiser Lake, state studying solutions

Kiser Lake State Park — a significant contributor to Champaign County’s economy that draws visitors from across the region — has seen toxic algae slicks in recent year and a state study found the blooms have become more common.

The harmful algae often appear as a floating, bright green blob along the water's surface and it can sicken and sometimes even kill animals and people who come in contact with it.

The Springfield News-Sun reviewed state data on Kiser Lake going back to 2011. Concerns about the blooms prompted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to hire contractor Tetra Tech Inc. to study the lake’s water quality last fall.

“Based upon the available data, it is apparent that Kiser Lake has water quality problems that include toxic algal blooms, degraded water quality, and reduced aquatic habitat that place restrictions of the recreational beneficial uses of the lake,” that report says.

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The Ohio Department of Natural Resources representatives said they’re studying the watershed to improve the water quality, and experts said the lake will recover if the proper steps are in place.

Despite the toxic algae, the lake is often packed with visitors from across the region who use it for everything from paddle boarding to fishing to sailing. Several neighbors told the News-Sun the blooms have been a frequent topic of conversation in just the past few years.

Linda Fullerton grew up in Champaign County and often goes paddle boarding in the 393-acre lake. The water looks clean most of the year, including during one of her recent visits last week. But she said it’s been easy to spot the pea-green blooms at various times throughout the summer.

The blooms have been more noticeable this year than in the past, she said.

“It was very green then, greener than what we had noticed in previous years,” Fullerton said.

The lake plays a big part in Champaign County’s economy, said Lydia Hess, executive director of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce. Of the $47.1 million in business activity generated by visitors in 2013, a study conducted for the chamber showed $7.2 million was generated by agriculture and fishing tourism, recreation and lodging, all of which the lake contributes to, Hess said.

She pointed out the lake often hosts educational workshops, including an Earth Day field trip for fourth grade students from the county’s schools.

Michael Deere grew up in Champaign County and lives along the edge of the lake. He frequently takes morning walks around the water but never noticed the blooms until a couple of years ago.

“It literally looks like stringy paint and it moves in a blob,” Deere said.

A recent spike

The Ohio Department of Health tracks public advisories on Ohio’s public beaches at its Beachguard website dating back to 2011 as part of a joint effort with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and local health departments.

For swimming, recreational advisories are posted when testing shows toxin levels exceed six parts per billion. When levels exceed 20 parts per billion, elevated advisories warn visitors to avoid all contact with the water.

Harmful algal blooms are a concern because they can produce toxins that can cause illness, irritation and sometimes death in pets, livestock and humans, according to the Ohio Sea Grant program.

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The first algal bloom advisory at Kiser Lake was posted in June 2015 and lasted 27 days, according to state date reviewed by the News-Sun.

Concentrations of microcystin, a toxin produced by the blooms, was detected well above the no contact advisory levels at that time, according to the Tetra Tech report. State officials issued only a recreational health advisory at that time because there were no reported probable cases of human illness or pet deaths as a result of the bloom, the report says.

A year later, a second recreational health advisory was posted in July that lasted 13 days. This year alone, state officials have posted three warnings at the lake in late June and July, lasting six, 13 and 28 days, respectively.

The second warning, which lasted from June 29 to July 13, was an elevated advisory in which visitors are urged to avoid all contact with the water. Sampling results show toxin levels in the lake on July 5 reached about 35 parts per billion — nearly double the level that triggers the elevated warning.

“Nuisance algal blooms caused by excess nutrient concentrations have started to become more common at Kiser Lake and in some cases have produced toxins,” the Tetra Tech report says.

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The Ohio EPA received assistance from the federal government in 2015 to assess water quality at three Ohio inland lakes, said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the EPA. With recommendations from the ODNR, the agencies identified Lake Alma in Jackson County and Rose Lake in Hocking County because they are drinking water sources for area resident.

“It was suggested by ODNR that Kiser Lake would be a good candidate due to the occurrence in 2015 of a relatively short-lived harmful algal bloom,” Pierce said.

Staff from the Ohio EPA and ODNR are working with the Ohio Department of Agriculture to gather data about the Champaign County lake before moving forward to ensure the lake stays healthy long-term, said Matt Eiselstein, a spokesman for ODNR.

“Once they are able to gather that data and examine it we can find a way forward from there,” Eiselstein said.

Comparing Kiser Lake to others across the state is difficult because each lake has unique characteristics and surroundings, so each is managed on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“Each lake is different,” Eiselstein said. “Kiser is a very shallow lake so when you get that hot weather and you get additional precipitation, the shallowness can contribute to water quality concerns.”

A growing concern statewide

The 2016 Tetra Tech report says more study is needed to identify specific sources that contribute to the recent increase in algal blooms in Champaign County. Without additional data, strategies for managing and improving the water quality can’t be determined, the report says.

The report recommended additional monitoring, such as taking regular water quality samples, including from the lake’s tributaries and during storms to examine runoff conditions. It also recommends conducting an aquatic plant survey and strategies to reduce nutrients in the watershed that can feed the blooms, including encouraging the use of cover crops to reduce run-off from farm fields in the area.

The state should evaluate the operation of on-site sewage systems in nearby Grandview Heights to ensure no systems are discharging directly into the lake, the study also says.

It also recommends increasing the use of buffers and filter strips along critical streams and constructing wetlands. While it notes additional data is necessary, the report indicates it’s likely fertilizers from agricultural land uses are contributing a large portion of the phosphorus that’s feeding the blooms.

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“Long-term water quality and aquatic habitat conditions in Kiser Lake will not be sustainable without a reduction in external load of nutrients, especially phosphorus,” the Tetra Tech report says. “The degree of reduction necessary cannot be effectively determined until more data and a phosphorus mass balance is developed.”

Similar blooms across Ohio have become more common over the past several years but untangling the causes is complicated, said Chris Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program and an expert on algal blooms.

Over time numerous factors have each made it easier for phosphorus to leak out of the soil, he said. That could include everything from the composition of commercial fertilizers to no-till farming practices that leave more nutrients on the soil’s surface and even the acidity of rainwater.

The state has also seen more frequent and larger rains in recent years, he said, which carry nutrients into local waterways. Individually those factors aren’t necessarily a cause for concern, but Winslow together it’s led to more frequent blooms throughout the state.

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“When you add all those up together you have more available phosphorus,” Winslow said. “When you couple that with increased rain events, that’s the mechanism to take these soil nutrients and drive them into receiving water bodies.”

The most prominent examples of problems with algal blooms in Ohio in recent years have included Grand Lake St. Mary’s near Celina and Lake Erie, where public officials warned close to 500,000 residents to avoid drinking tap water in 2014 after a bloom swept near Toledo’s water supply in the lake.

The cyanobacteria that cause the blooms are natural and have existed for hundreds of years, Winslow said. He also noted green water doesn’t necessarily indicate harmful algal blooms.

“This isn’t a new organism,” Winslow said. “It’s just growing at levels that are fairly new because of all these nuanced things that are happening in the watershed.”

Although much of the phosphorus that feeds blooms like those occurring in Kiser Lake stem from changes in agricultural practices, Winslow said it’s important not to point fingers.

“We can’t be playing the blame game on this,” he said. “There are still nutrients that come from urban areas and suburban runoff. Even though the heaviest lift is agriculture, this is not blaming agriculture. Many of them are stepping up to the table to figure out what they can do to be part of the solution.”

Common-sense regulations are always a tool in the toolbox, Winslow said.

“But we need to put a lot of other things in place to see how well we can address the problem without having to put regulations in place,” he said.

In-depth coverage

The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of energy and the environment in Clark and Champaign counties. For the story, News-Sun Reporter Matt Sanctis reviewed five years of state data, reviewed an EPA study of Kiser Lake, and talked to several experts as well as neighbors and visitors to the state park.

By the numbers:

394 acres — Surface area of lake

12 feet — Maximum depth

5,332 acres — Size of Kiser Lake watershed

$7.2 million — Estimated revenue from fishing and tourism in Champaign County in 2013

Sources: Ohio EPA, Champaign County Chamber of Commerce

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