By Tom McClellan, Lakewood
In a September 2, 2013 letter published in The Suburban Times, Herb Dayton criticized the State as well as local officials who are preventing a solution to the toxic algae problem in Lake Steilacoom by denying permission to use copper sulfate to treat the algae.
And in a response to that letter, “Harry” blames the lakefront property owners for using lawn fertilizer, telling them, “You people made your own bed; now lay (sic) in it.”
Both “Harry” and Mr. Dayton are guilty of taking an enormously complex biological system and oversimplifying it. Toxic algae does indeed exist to varying degrees in all area lakes, and it is exacerbated by high nutrient loads, like what is present in Lake Steilacoom and Waughop Lake. But the biological response is highly variable. 2012 was a great year for water quality on Lake Steilacoom. 2013 is a horrible one. Very little has changed in a year, other than the atmospheric conditions which are also a contributing factor.
It is ridiculous and uninformed for “Harry” to say that the nutrients are coming solely from the lawns of 300 homes. Lake Steilacoom sits in the drainage of about 70 square miles of land, and is downstream from Spanaway Lake. So if Spanaway Lake has an algae bloom, it should not be much of a surprise that Lake Steilacoom gets an algae bloom. The phosphorous compounds which are the primary nutrients facilitating large algae blooms exist at high levels in both of the streams flowing into Lake Steilacoom (Ponce de Leon, and Clover Creek). Some of those compounds are from human causes, and some from natural sources. So algae blooms would still be present in Lake Steilacoom irrespective of the lakeside homeowners’ fertilizer use, prior septic system use, failing sewer systems, unfiltered street runoff, and other contributions to the total nutrient load.
When you put up a dam across a river that bears high nutrient loads, and then allow those nutrients to settle into a shallow lake bed, it should not be a surprise that those nutrients are then available to repeatedly fuel toxic algae blooms.
It is also a ridiculous oversimplification for Mr. Dayton to assume that such a complex problem can be solved by adding one magic chemical to make the problem all better. Problems which result from the presence of too many chemicals are not usually resolved by the addition of more chemicals.
Green Lake in Seattle and Wapato Lake in Tacoma are great examples of the failure of this approach. Green Lake did an expensive application of “alum”, which is supposed to bind up the nutrients and keep them unavailable to fuel algae bloom, but it is failing after just 7 years. And Wapato Lake saw a huge fish die-off one day after a similar treatment back in 2008. www.thenewstribune.com/
Want to solve the problem? Get rid of the nutrients. You can do that in either of two ways. First, we could remove the dam, and convert Lake Steilacoom back into a stream, which would allow all of those nutrients to wash down to Chambers Creek and into the south Puget Sound. But that would just relocate the toxic algae bloom problem from one water body to another. Creating a Gulf of Mexico style “dead zone” from a toxic algae bloom in the Puget Sound is probably not a winning idea.
The second way to solve the problem is to dredge the nutrient-laden bottom sediments out of Lake Steilacoom. Removing the built-up nutrients would solve the toxic algae problem, until more nutrients arrive over the succeeding years. This is actually not too bad of an idea, because the nutrient-rich bottom sediments make great fertilizer for farms and other uses, although the value of the sediments will just be a small fraction of the cost of sucking them out.
One problem: Does anyone have a spare $30-50 million to cover the cost of dredging?
Ed. Note: Tom McClellan is a past president of the Lake Louise Improvement Club, and for 14 years has served as a volunteer water quality monitor working with the Pierce Conservation District’s “Stream Team”. In 2012, he coauthored a plan for cleaning up the toxic algae problem in Waughop Lake.