Submitted by Tom McClellan.
I feel bad for Lakewood’s Communications Manager Jim Kopriva. He has not been on the job very long, and he is compelled by his duty position to be the voice of the City’s staff, even on topics where he does not have any firsthand knowledge. He has been led by the staff to some really bad conclusions about the history of Waughop Lake, and of what needs to be done about it. And in his April 22 article, he conveyed some outright mistruths, probably without knowing it. Let’s go through them.
Kopriva started by attempting to refute the claim of Don Russell that the sewage discharges from nearby Pierce College had a lot to do with the algae blooms. Kopriva stated incorrectly that “Sewage overflow from Pierce College reached Waughop Lake twice in 20 years and in small amounts.” I know that this is untrue because I have seen it happen more times than that. I have photographed it, and I had tried without success to get the City’s staff’s attention to it years before the City finally realized it.
The City finally decided to believe that there was a problem when the contractor doing the repaving of the asphalt trail around the lake in 2017 alerted staff to fecal matter and toilet paper floating in the lake near the stormwater discharge tube near the college. Even then, the discharges were not halted right away, because the college needed to wait on the State legislature passing a new capital budget to have the money to do the replacement of the 40-year old sewage lift station, which previously had its plumbing arranged to send any overflows of sewage into the lake.
What Don Russell had tried to point out was that in the months after that plumbing defect was fixed, Waughop Lake did not see any algae blooms. Cutting off those “nutrients” from the raw sewage evidently had a big effect on the ecology of the lake, indicating that doing an interim aluminum sulfate treatment while waiting for State funds to dredge the lake might not be necessary. Russell communicated that pretty well, but some in the City staff have hardened their hearts so much to him that they evidently cannot read what he was actually telling them.
Kopriva took issue with Don Russell’s assertion that an aluminum sulfate treatment is a “toxic brew”. To refute that, Kopriva stated that “It is the unanimous opinion of experts… that [this claim is] without merit.”
Even though Kopriva is not a scientist, he should know that “opinions” are not facts and it takes facts to refute something. He did not offer such facts. So here are some useful ones.
When aluminum sulfate is applied to a waterbody, it has a pH of around 2.0, meaning that it is incredibly acidic. Vinegar and lemon juice are at a pH of around 3, for comparison, and you would not want your fish swimming around in those chemicals. The aluminum sulfate solution is so potentially harmful that it has to be stored in special tanks that the public was kept away from.
The aluminum sulfate is so toxic that a companion chemical, sodium aluminate, is applied at the same time as a “buffering” agent. Sodium aluminate has a pH of around 11, meaning that it is highly alkaline or basic, and it counteracts the acidity of the aluminum sulfate shortly after application. That is if the application is done right. A poorly executed application of aluminum sulfate in Lake Wapato in 2008 led to a big fish kill. So yes, it is very appropriate to categorize it as a “toxic brew”.
It is furthermore a toxic bunch of chemicals when we understand what happens during the process of the application. The aluminum ion in the aluminum sulfate molecule, Al2(SO4)3, gets easily torn away as it binds to the phosphorous in the water, which leaves the 3 SO4 ions to go looking for new dance partners. This leads initially to sulfuric acid, which the sodium aluminate helps to counteract, and then to the formation of various sulfate and sulfide molecules which collect in the lake bottom sediment.
A little bit of sulfur in soil is normal, but a lot of it is harmful to plant growth, including aquatic plants. That is why no aquatic plants have returned to the treated areas of the lake. And the waterfowl like coots, grebes, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, northern shovelers, and others that used to frequent the lake to feed on those aquatic plants are all now gone. So are the eagles that would hunt for those waterfowl. Even the fish-eating cormorants do not come around any more.
Kopriva is apparently unaware of this change in the waterfowl populations, because he asserted that, “There has been no evidence of systemic harm to avian, aquatic, or amphibious life.” The problem is that the City actually does have evidence of that harm, with the monthly water quality monitoring reports that I have been submitting as a volunteer through a City-funded program operated by the Pierce Conservation District. Those monthly reports have detailed not just water turbidity and oxygen levels, but also observations of waterfowl which are now largely absent from the lake, whereas they used to be plentiful. Evidently there is nothing in the lake that these birds are interested in, except for a few Canada geese who nest there each spring but who feed on grass instead of aquatic plants (adding more “nutrients” to the lake), and so those other waterfowl have all moved onto better sites. Even the 12 red-eared slider turtles that used to inhabit the lake have apparently moved on, not finding its new chemistry to their liking.
Kopriva states that, “The City conducted an exhaustive study on Waughop Lake and evaluated treatment methods. Alum treatment was selected after a careful process.”
Actually, there have been 3 studies, and all 3 of them recommended dredging. The first was performed for Pierce County by the consulting firm Entranco back in 1978. The second was done in 2012 with Don Russell and me as lead authors, but pulling in research from the State of Washington, the University of Puget Sound, the UW of Tacoma, and other consulting experts. This study was presented at no cost to the City of Lakewood, and its findings were correct.
Those findings were validated by the third study, done by the consulting firm Brown and Caldwell, for which the City paid $250,000. It took until February 2017 to get that study done, time which could have been spent securing the funding and getting on with a plan to dredge the lake as the first two studies had already advised. Brown and Caldwell’s study recommended that the phosphorous-rich top layer of lake sediments be dredged and removed. Here is the exact quote from their recommendations:
It turned out that they were wrong about increasing macrophyte (aquatic plant) growth after an alum treatment, as the sulfide levels in the sediments have not been amenable to that plant growth. Part of that is undoubtedly a function of the unusually massive doses of aluminum sulfate that the City’s consultants recommended be applied, resulting in massive quantities of sulfate and sulfide compounds left in the lake sediments.
In spite of having 3 studies, all recommending dredging of the phosphorous-laden sediments, the City’s then-new public works engineering director Paul Bucich steered the City away from pursuing that course of action, advocating instead for doing the aluminum sulfate treatment. To bolster that advocacy, Bucich turned to a consulting firm he had worked with at a prior job, TetraTech. That firm is the source of a lot of the erroneous assertions that Kopriva repeated about what a lake dredging would entail.
The curious part of the City of Lakewood taking the advice of this TetraTech firm about choosing alum treatment over dredging involves contracting that the City later did with that firm. This is where the story gets interesting.
When an alum treatment is contemplated, the agency in charge of it (in this case the City of Lakewood) typically hires a consulting firm to draft the specifications for the treatment, so that it can be put out for bid. TetraTech got the contract for doing that consulting work in a non-competitive bid, and wrote the specifications in such a narrow way that only one firm in the country, HAB Solutions, could possibly meet the terms required, and sure enough that was the company which got the treatment contract.
Then the City of Lakewood undertook a separate no-bid contract with TetraTech to monitor the performance of the contractor doing the treatment. In other words, the consulting firm that recommended doing an alum treatment is the one that got a whole lot of taxpayer money in connection with doing an alum treatment. It is like asking your barber whether you need a haircut.
In advising the alum treatment, TetraTech asserted that dredging Waughop Lake would have cost as much as $33 million. It did not provide details about how it arrived at that figure, instead citing “professional experience” for their made-up numbers. My cost estimate at the time of the 2012 study was that it would entail about $1.5 million in pumping costs (based on publicly available figures then; it would cost more than that now, due to inflation, of course). Some more would have been needed for preparatory work, fencing, signage, permitting, and other ancillary functions. Even if those extras amounted to doubling the cost of just the pumping, it would have still been an order of magnitude less than TetraTech’s wild estimate.
Kopriva’s April 22 article repeated several more of the incorrect assertions from TetraTech upon which the City relied:
“Dredging would extinguish all present life, cost tens of millions of dollars, repulse the neighborhood, and restrict access to the area for years. Soil would be dried in containment cells in Fort Steilacoom Park and a stench would waft for miles. Once dry, the soil must be excavated and hauled away. The ensuing park cleanup and lake restoration would cost many millions more. Algae would likely return – phosphorus is a naturally occurring material in soils and groundwater.”
As for extinguishing all present life, the alum treatment has now pretty well done that. The aquatic plants are not growing in the treated areas. The big water lilies known as spatterdock along the southern and western shores are in water too shallow for the barge to have reached, so their bottom sediment was not as greatly affected by the addition of all the sulfide compounds.
Regarding the bad odors that Kopriva referred to, this assertion was just not true. I have pulled up lake bottom sediments before the aluminum sulfate treatment, and they did not stink. If they had, then everyone would have noticed a bad smell when the lake level got down really low in recent years, exposing those sediments.
This is because before the aluminum sulfate treatment, there was very low concentrations of sulfide compounds in the sediments, and so it would not produce the rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulfide that is often associated with aquatic muck. Unfortunately, this has changed now because of the City’s decision to do the aluminum sulfate treatment. Now there is plenty of sulfide to make the stinky hydrogen sulfide gas, and it bubbles up out of the lake bottom.
The bad smell of hydrogen sulfide during an hydraulic dredging can be mitigated at the dewatering site through mechanical aeration, so Kopriva’s assertion about how it “would waft for miles” is a pretty enormous exaggeration.
He is correct that the dredging spoils would have to be hauled away, but this is not the problem that the City thinks it is. Coring studies by the University of Puget Sound showed that the top meter of sediments in Waughop Lake have high nutrient levels, roughly equivalent to TAGRO, a garden supplement sold by the City of Tacoma. It is not quite as high as SoundGRO, which is produced by Pierce County’s sewer utility.
When I first researched the dredging option in 2015 for presentation to the City staff, TAGRO was $10 per ton (roughly one cubic yard). It is now up to $30/ton.
Dredging the 33-acre Waughop Lake to a sediment depth of 1 meter (where most of the phosphorous is concentrated) would produce about 150,000 cubic yards of dredging spoils. But these sediments are about 90% water, so that would reduce down to roughly 15,000 yards after drying. At $30/yard, those 15,000 yards of resulting sediments would be worth an estimated $450,000.
By 2017, I had found a fertilizer contractor who was willing to purchase the sediments from the City of Lakewood at the same price as TAGRO, assuming that the core sampling data on nutrient levels was borne out. That would defray a bunch of the cost of the dredging, but not all of it, and would eliminate the cost of hauling it away. I brought this to Paul Bucich, and to City Manager John Caulfield and then-Mayor Don Anderson. Caulfield and Anderson instructed Bucich to check it out, which Bucich later admitted that he never did investigate, although I watched Bucich lie to the entire City Council in an open forum saying that he had checked it out.
I later pointed out that lie to then-Mayor Anderson, and to then-Deputy Mayor Jason Whalen, and they never responded. I could only conclude that they just don’t mind being lied to by their City staff.
Whether any fertilizer contractor would still be willing to make that purchase now, after the City decided to contaminate the sediments with a bunch of sulfide compounds, is something that I have not ascertained yet.
Kopriva finished his criticism of dredging by asserting that even after a dredging, “Algae would likely return – phosphorus is a naturally occurring material in soils and groundwater.”
The problem with that assertion is that it is contradicted by the 2017 Brown and Caldwell study (which the City paid a lot of money for). Researchers from UW Tacoma, who were hired to provide data to support that study, dug 5 research wells around Waughop Lake to conduct long term monitoring of groundwater, and found that groundwater inflow was not a significant source of phosphorous fueling the toxic algae blooms. Most of the phosphorous that was available as nutrients for algae was already present in the lake bottom sediments, including from the disposal of farming wastes by the State when the park was being operated as a farm by Western State Hospital. New sources from bird poop and groundwater were tiny compared to what is already there.
Kopriva then went on to tell another whopper of a mistruth, when he stated the following:
“Alum treatment does *briefly* increase bloom potential of a different natural algae. Filamentous algae is blooming in response to clearer water, reduced competition, and nitrogen stored in its seed bank. This type of algae is non-toxic and non-threatening. Continued treatment will reduce phosphorus and restore a proper balance.”
The algae bloom currently happening in Waughop Lake is not “filamentous” algae. Rather it is a monocellular algae called Chlorella vulgaris. While it is true that this algae does not produce toxins like microcystin, it is not true that it is non-threatening.
Chlorella is less dependent on phosphorous levels than the toxic microcystin algae, which is why chlorella is able to thrive now in the reduced soluble phosphorous levels of Waughop Lake. It is instead more dependent on nitrogen compounds, of which there are plenty in the lake sediments, and those nitrogen compounds are not affected by an alum treatment. The severity of the current bloom has these algae producing a lot of oxygen via photosynthesis, which raises the pH of the water.
pH is measured on a scale from 0 to 14. A neutral pH reading would be 7.0. Recent readings showed the lake water at pH levels higher than 9.0, and one sample’s reading was 9.8. For reference, a swimming pool’s pH is artificially raised with chlorine, but for safety reasons should never be allowed to go above 8.0. Given the logarithmic scaling of the pH scale, that 9.8 reading means that the alkalinity was almost 100 times higher than the upper level for a swimming pool. So it really is a threatening pH level to any aquatic life, and definitely to any humans, dogs, or other animals which might come into contact with the water.
Doing more aluminum sulfate treatment(s) would not change this, because such treatments bind up just the phosphorous that is a problem for toxic algae. They don’t affect the nitrates that are feeding the chlorella. Dredging the sediments would help though.
Where Kopriva was correct was in his statement that dredging Waughop Lake would cost a lot of money, which the City does not have. That is true. But it is not the City’s responsibility. As the original polluter, it is the State of Washington that bears responsibility for the condition of the lake, and for restoring it to beneficial public use. It is time for the City of Lakewood to abandon the idea of doing more alum treatments, which we have already seen fail (just like I and others told the City would happen). It is time instead to start leaning on the State government to fund the real cleanup that is decades overdue.
If that means hiring a new public works engineering director who can understand the science and the costs, and who won’t be swayed toward bad ideas by consultants with a conflict of interest, then let’s get started on that change too.
And if Communications Manager Kopriva or any of the other City staff ever need help with a fact check about the conditions of Waughop Lake, and what needs to be done, give me a call. I’m happy to help my City.