By Tom McClellan and Don Russell
The City of Lakewood’s 2023-2024 Proposed Biennial Budget* includes funding of another $250,000 to treat Waughop Lake with aluminum sulfate. The City has not otherwise made any announcement about this, but apparently the City staff and City Council are gearing up to throw away more of our money on a treatment that does not work, and that has already harmed Waughop Lake more than it has helped.
*(See https://cityoflakewood.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/TK-2023-2024PROPOSEDBUDGETDOC.pdf, page 133, item 401.0018, Waughop Lake Treatment)
For many years, Waughop Lake was plagued with toxic algae blooms, a result of the lake being used for decades as a dumping ground for the Western State Hospital’s farm operation. The State of Washington ended that farm operation in 1965, but the legacy of the State’s actions persists to this day. The farm staff would dump animal and human waste into the lake, and once even had a slaughterhouse built on brick pilings over the lake, so that the offal could be easily disposed of into the lake during the butchering process. A pigsty built on the shoreline, where the south dock is now located, made for convenient disposal of the pigs’ manure into the lake. The now-demolished Hill Ward had a sewage line running straight downhill into the lake (problem solved!)
All of those nutrients are still there, and for years they fueled those summertime algae blooms, turning the lake pea soup green, and sometimes appearing even in the cold of winter because the nutrient load was so high.
There have been several studies done on what to do about that algae problem. The first was done in 1978 for Pierce County by the environmental consulting firm Entranco. The second was done by volunteers (including the authors) in 2012, at no cost to the City. The third was completed in 2016, by the consulting firm Brown and Caldwell, at a cost of $250,000. All 3 of these studies recommended that the nutrient-rich lake bottom sediments should be removed, to restore better health to the lake.
The City ignored the results of all of these studies, and went out and spent more money to get yet another consulting firm TetraTech to give them a different answer, recommending the application of aluminum sulfate. A contractor was hired and in 2020 applied two separate treatments to Waughop Lake, at a cost of $420,000. Part of that cost was for hiring TetraTech (which had recommended the treatment) to serve as a monitor of the treatment. This was an obvious conflict of interest, as TetraTech got the chance to earn even more money by recommending this treatment option. It is no wonder TetraTech thought it was a good option.
How It Works
Aluminum sulfate (or alum) is used in lake treatments in order to bind up the phosphorous in the water and in the bottom sediments, making it “bio-unavailable” to the algae which need the phosphorous to survive and multiply. The algae also need other nutrients, but for the algae species which produce the dangerous toxins, phosphorous is considered the “limiting nutrient”.
When the aluminum sulfate chemical is applied to a lake, the aluminum ion easily separates, and can bind with the phosphorous in the water.
That leaves the sulfate ion looking for a new dance partner, and it can get into some mischief this way by turning into sulfuric acid. So a buffering agent known as sodium aluminate is applied at the same time to quickly neutralize that acid, assuming that everything happens right, and that the application gets done correctly. Things can sometimes go badly, and in 2008 an application to Lake Wapato was done poorly, resulting in a fish kill. See https://www.heraldnet.com/news/chemicals-kill-lakes-algae-and-its-fish/
Even when an application of aluminum sulfate goes as planned, the water body is still afflicted with a major side effect, which is the creation of sulfate and sulfide compounds in the lake bottom sediments. For the two 2020 applications into Waughop Lake, the City decided on a massive dose of 80 mg Al/L (in the two separate applications), an amount which had never been done in a Washington lake. Here is a listing of treatments of WA lakes prepared by Herrera, et al in 2018, showing that 15 mg Al/L is a more typical dosage rate per treatment.
How It Turned Out
The initial result of this overdose treatment was super-clear water. During monthly monitoring outings done in conjunction with the Pierce Conservation District, we could see all the way to the bottom 3.5 meters down.
The other result was that almost all aquatic plant life died because of those sulfur compounds, and it has not come back to this day. The sulfate component of the application was reduced in the bottom sediments to form toxic hydrogen sulfide, which bubbles up out of the bottom sediments even to this day. Hydrogen sulfide is what makes that rotten egg smell that you may sometimes detect in a swamp.
You may still see the enormous water lilies growing by the shoreline, a plant known as spatterdock, as well as some rushes. But those are in areas that were too shallow for the application barge to reach during the low water levels of 2020 when treatment was done. The once-prolific coontail and other aquatic plants which fed the large flocks of waterfowl died immediately, and have not come back.
We used to regularly see bird species like northern shovelers, buffleheads, coots, grebes, ruddy ducks, and other species that would visit Waughop Lake to feed on those plants.
And we also used to regularly see bald eagles, which would come to hunt the smaller types of those diving birds. All of those waterfowl are now mostly gone, except for occasional wanderers who come to visit but then do not stick around. And the eagles are still in the general area, and are regularly seen on Lake Louise and Lake Steilacoom, but not at Waughop Lake.
There used to be red-eared slider turtles in Waughop Lake, but they too have moved elsewhere with their food source taken away.
Another unintended side effect of the aluminum sulfate treatment is that other species of algae have now taken over to dominate the lake biology, algae types which are not as dependent on phosphorous. The lake water which had been crystal clear right after the treatment is now back to pea soup green, and we can only see down about 1 meter.
These new algae include chlorella vulgaris and coelastrum, which are often found in sewage retention ponds because they are highly dependent on availability of nitrogen as a nutrient. The aluminum sulfate bound up a bunch of the phosphorous, but it did not do anything about all of the nitrogen compounds in the farm waste that now makes up the bottom sediments. Identification of these species of algae was done via private sampling, and microscopic analysis. While these types of algae do not produce toxins like anabaena and microcystis do, they can be dangerous in other ways.
During photosynthesis, these algae significantly raise the dissolved oxygen levels in the lake water. While the higher oxygen levels are good for the fish and other animal species in the water, it has a side effect of also raising the pH, and making the lake water much more alkaline (the opposite of acidic, like chlorine bleach).
Starting during a big algae bloom event in April 2022, the authors decided to perform a full season’s worth of more frequent monitoring of the dissolved oxygen levels, in addition to the monthly monitoring done for the Pierce Conservation District. The chart below shows that the super-high oxygen levels occurred in three separate bloom events, the first one in April 2022, then in late May with a different dominant species of algae, and the third one in August at the peak of summer heat.
When an algae bloom occurs and then crashes, it can create more problems, because all of the dead algae cells become food for bacteria, who then multiply in their own bloom. Bacteria consume the oxygen in the water, and can even kill fish by driving the oxygen level too low.
The observations in this chart were taken each morning for consistency of the timing of sampling. Oxygen levels would then spike higher in the afternoons (not shown here), as the algae had a day’s worth of sunshine to do their photosynthesis. pH readings in the afternoons were regularly recorded above 9.0, and one reading was at 9.8.
For reference, a pH of 7.0 means neutral conditions, and a properly treated swimming pool should have a pH of 8.0. Each full point increase in pH means a 10-fold increase in alkalinity. Getting the pH above 9.0 is dangerous to mammals and other animals, and can be harmful to things like humans and dogs who might come into contact with the water.
The aluminum sulfate treatments done in 2020 were intended to control the harmful algae, and restore Waughop Lake to beneficial recreational use. Those treatments succeeded in one sense, getting rid of the toxic types of algae for a while, but introducing other problems that still make the lake unsafe for humans, and unwelcoming to birds. And then in September 2022, a test of some green film lining the shoreline showed that the toxic microcystis algae are back. The aluminum sulfate treatment was supposed to last 10 years before wearing off, but toxic algae are back again after just 2 years.
Now the City of Lakewood wants to spend more money on yet another aluminum sulfate treatment in 2023, a plan that did not work before despite unprecedentedly high dosages, and that brought other problems. They are proposing to do this instead of proceeding with a plan to dredge out those nutrient-laden lake bottom sediments, as 3 separate studies have recommended.
The City has already spent $670,000 on Waughop Lake, and has not made it better. Spending even more on the same failed non-solution would be a waste of time, and would do further harm to the lake, although the contractor doing the treatment will probably be happy.
A Better Way
The Lakewood City Council should step in and change the City’s course. The Council should rein in the City staff members who keep proposing to do harmful things to Waughop Lake, and who are not getting us to the solutions that would work. The reason we have a City Council is to make sure that the City staff act in the best interests of the citizens, and serve as good stewards of the City’s assets including Waughop Lake.
It is time for the Council to do its job, and direct the staff to operate in a smarter way, both environmentally and fiscally. Waughop Lake needs a solution that works, a solution that 3 separate studies have said is what should happen. Remove the nutrient-laden sediments, instead of just dumping more toxic chemicals into them.
About the authors: Tom McClellan and Don Russell have served as volunteer water quality monitors for 23 years, gathering data for the City of Lakewood for the Pierce Conservation District’s “Stream Team” on Lake Louise and American Lake. Don added monitoring of Waughop Lake Starting in 2014, and Tom took over that task from Don in 2018. Along the way, they have learned a lot about lake health, and what helps it as well as what does not.