Project aims to ID source of algae bloom catalyst in lake

Broken down septic tanks, non-constipated geese or farming activities, or possibly a combination of factors, have amassed nutrients in Lone Lake on South Whidbey for years and fed a proliferation of a type of ancient algae that produces neurotoxins deadly enough to kill an Australian cattle dog or possibly even a full-grown man.

Lone Lake has long been troubled by photosynthetic organisms. Three years ago, the level of toxic blue-green algae was nearly 50 times the safe limit set by the state. Before this, an invasive water weed overran the lake.

Island County Public Health officials hope to finally get to the bottom of the problem, and hopefully fix it, with money from the state Department of Ecology and cooperation from the county’s Conservation District.

At an Island County commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, Public Works Director Keith Higman got the chance to talk about something besides COVID-19. Under the project, he explained, the state would contribute $25,000 and the county would kick in another $8,333 from the county’s clean water utility.

“This is a great piece of work,” Higman said. “It is bringing money to Island County for work that we have already been doing in terms of responding to blue-green algae blooms in lakes.”

He explained a “lake plan” was created by a community group, scientists from Oregon State University and the Conservation District. The county already tests water in Lone Lake, as well as water flowing into and out of the lake. The project and the source of the county matching funds are logical extensions of the effort, he said.

The program has three parts, he said. There’s administration, site visits with property owners and community outreach events. The purpose is to identify for sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus and find ways to mitigate their flow into the lake.

Most of the funding is earmarked for county site visits with the Conservation District, which Higman said he hopes will result in “a-ha moments” in which the sources of the contamination become clear.

The Conservation District will be able to recommend strategies for the landowners that will limit the flow of nutrients, Higman said.

The agency also has matching funds that can be used for physical improvements on the properties to help control the problem.

In response to a commissioner’s question, Higman explained that the county monitors algae blooms and tests to see if the toxic type of algae is present in dangerous levels in bodies of water in the county. If so, the county posts the area to keep people away.

The commissioners approved the project unanimously.

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