What started last year as one University of Kansas professor’s project to probe the causes of toxic algae in lakes and ponds expanded into a two-monthlong collaborative project among four organizations — KU, the EPA, the University of Missouri and EPA Region 7.
Ted Harris, assistant research professor for the Kansas Biological Survey, transported water from central Kansas' Milford Reservoir to KU’s Field Station in Lawrence. He then filled large tubs with the water and added varying levels of phosphorus, ammonia and nitrate. The goal was to determine whether different forms of nitrogen affected the toxicity of algae.
Doing this project at the field station allowed Harris to replicate the conditions found naturally in Kansas lakes and ponds.
“There’s millions of algal species that don’t produce any toxins and we don’t understand why sometimes they’re the nontoxic stuff and sometimes they’re the blue-green algae,” Harris said.
Harris said he was also looking to learn under what conditions the blue-green algae is and isn’t toxic. Currently, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment closes lakes based on the cell count of blue-green algae because there is no way to tell whether the species will become toxic.
In the process of seeking funding for the project, Harris was contacted by the EPA's office of research and development and EPA region seven, which were testing for other toxins and microbial species in the water. Harris also partnered with the University of Missouri, where a doctoral student was looking to test methods for killing blue-green algae, using the same tubs Harris grew them in for the experiment.
Jacob Gaskill, at Missouri, is attempting to use glacial rock flour to kill the algae. Glacial rock flour is found in lakes near mountains. The flour stays on the surface of the water and absorbs the light before it can reach the algae.
“The reason that those glacial lakes, even though they have a lot of nutrients, don’t look like this gross stuff ... is that this absorbs the light,” Harris said.
Each day, Gaskill and a research assistant add the rock flour in an attempt to kill the algae.
“Every day, so much falls out, but maybe with a little persistence we can kill it, at least in small-scale systems,” Harris said.
Currently, Harris said, most methods of killing algae on small scales includes the use of harmful chemicals.
Results of the project won't be finalized for about a year. Once those results come in, Harris said, it will allow agencies to act on toxic algae before it comes.
“Right now, we’re always reactive,” Harris said. “It’s about going from reactive — seeing it and going, 'Oh, that doesn’t look good' — to being proactive."
Thirty-one lakes were closed in Kansas this year as a result of toxic blooms. Three of those lakes were in Shawnee County, according to Trevor Flynn, section chief for watershed planning, monitoring and assessment at KDHE.
Rock Garden Pond and Central Park Lake in Topeka remain closed as a result of the blooms.
Toxic blooms can cause animal deaths and illness, as well as odors in the lakes and loss of property value.
“Most of the time they are not toxic, but still we have to close reservoirs,” Harris said.
These closures alter the economics surrounding the lake by affecting fishing, recreation and tourism.
People who ingest the blooms often see an allergic reaction or gastrointestinal distress, Flynn said.
Until research allows for prevention of the blooms, Flynn said, people need to be aware and protect themselves.
“When in doubt, stay out,” he said. “If the water quality doesn’t look right, something is probably not right.”
Katie Bernard is a freelance writer in northeast Kansas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.//