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Originally published Sept. 14, 2011 at 5:44 p.m., updated Sept. 14, 2011 at 6:12 p.m.
Photo courtesy Kansas Department of Health and Environment
LAWRENCE Lawrence officials since Friday have stopped drawing water from the Kansas River after finding potentially toxic, blue-green algae in water that would feed to one of the city's two water treatment plants.
Officials said they would resume normal plant operations once test results are complete and they are certain that there is no threat to public health. That could happen as soon as Thursday.
The shutdown followed a similar decision by Johnson County Water District No. 1 to switch its water intake from the Kansas River to the Missouri River.
The actions were the first known instances of cities in the Kansas River basin being forced to deal with the algae, which has been a persistent problem recently in lakes across the state. The Kansas River and reservoirs that feed into it provide drinking water for much of the population in northeast Kansas, the state's most heavily populated quadrant.
"The plant didn't get shut down necessarily because we had to. It was a precaution," said Jeanette Klamm, a spokesperson for the City of Lawrence utilities department. "We're running some tests on the cyanobacteria that may be coming down the river from the reservoirs upstream. We don't have enough information at this time so we determined that since we didn't need the Kaw plant to meet our water needs at this time, we would just shut it down until we get the data."
The city's other treatment facility draws water from Clinton Lake. Klamm said current water demand can be met with the Clinton facility alone.
"Everything we've seen from data across the country is showing that the treatment process — between the chlorine and the carbon that we use — probably takes care of any problems with cyanobacteria. But we just decided to shut it down," until the city's testing has shown that, Klamm said.
The city's decision to halt plant operations on Friday followed preliminary tests by the U.S. Geological Survey, which indicated that the Kansas River could have elevated levels of the toxic cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. Several state lakes have been closed this summer due to algae blooms, including Milford Lake, which feeds into the Kansas River.
Andrew Ziegler — director of the USGS Kansas Water Science Center — said samples were analyzed for a number of algae-related chemicals, toxins, taste and odor compounds.
"Preliminary qualitative results of samples collected on Sept. 2 indicated that the algal toxins and taste and odor compounds were being transported downstream in the Kansas River," Ziegler wrote in an email. "USGS is in the process of confirming the results."
Beginning Aug. 31, the Army Corps of Engineers at Milford began releasing water into the Kansas River to bring down the volume in the reservoir, where levels currently are 13 feet too high. Water is being released at 3,000 cubic feet per second, a rate that will inevitably release some cyanobacteria into the river, said Tom Langer, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
"The cells are there, but not in the bloom amounts we were seeing in the lakes," said Langer, calling from Atlanta where he was giving a presentation on cyanobacteria at a conference held by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The samples that are pulled, there's nothing there. You're going to run a greater risk of...drowning than being exposed to blue green algae or microsystems right now. It's not an issue in that respect and we want people to understand that. We're watching it really closely."
Water officials in Johnson County said they suspended drawing from the Kansas River starting Sept. 7, also pending final test results from USGS.
"It was mostly a taste and odor issue. We didn't think it was a health issue at the time," said Darci Meese, legal counsel for the Johnson County water district.
Image courtesy Oregon State Drinking Water Program
Margaret Fast, manager of public water supply planning at the Kansas Water Office, said this was the first year that algae in drinking water supplies had become a potential public health concern.
As a consequence, there are no standards yet for dealing with the cyanobacteria in public water.
"We're really at the front end of this discussion," said Fast, whose office is charged with coordinating the half dozen state agencies involved with water issues.
"Certainly, the Corps (of Engineers) recognizes that there are downstream impacts in terms of water supply," she said. "It could be that one of the things we learn from ongoing sampling (is) operational modifications that we could work with the Corps on. Even recognizing the fact that flood control is their overwhelming priority."
Oregon has been dealing with algae blooms for a decade or more, said Casey Lyon, a scientist with the Oregon State Drinking Water Program. For the last three years, the state has been monitoring public water treatment plants with weekly tests.
Just last week, a cyanobacteria toxin was detected in the treated water supply for the first time. However just 1/10 of a part per billion was detected; 1 to 3 parts per billion is the threshold for concern in Oregon, Lyon said.
"It's basically an unregulated threat at this point. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) hasn't regulated these toxins, so each state is kind of left to doing whatever they can do. With budgets what they are, some states may not be able to do anything. I'd like to think Oregon is taking a progressive approach. We're trying to get the research data out there and come up with our own procedures and policies for how to treat these blooms," Lyon said.
For now, the state is focused on monitoring treatment facilities and algae levels in recreational waters and issues warnings accordingly.
Fast said that USGS officials in Kansas have proposed developing an advanced warning system for city water systems when algae and other toxins are detected upstream. She said the proposal was introduced in January. If water officials in Topeka, Lawrence and Johnson County agree to help finance the plan, it can move forward. Together, the cities would need to provide $250,000 to help pay for it. USGS would match that sum and the Kansas Water Authority would provide another $40,000. That would allow water samples to be collected along the river for the next five years and tested.
Municipal officials are still considering the plan.
Langer of KDHE said reservoirs like Milford were not originally designed to be sources of drinking water.
"Those lakes, managed by the Corps, are for flood control number one and navigation on the Mississippi number two. That's why they were built and those reasons haven't changed," Langer said. "The other aspects — drinking water, recreation — those are really secondary concerns."
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