Officials, residents must tackle water problems at Ward Lake

The persistent algae bloom that has plagued Ward Lake in Olympia all summer is definitely a curse, thwarting the ability of lake residents and the public to safely swim in the lake.

But it’s also possible the water quality problem will trigger some sort of partnership between the city and neighbors around the lake to dig deeper into the sources of pollution, and possible solutions, to the problem.

The City of Olympia is about to roll out for public review a draft master plan for development of Ward Lake Park. The city bought 9 acres of lake property in 2007 and is working on a long-range plan to develop the property at the southeast end of the lake.

Those plans include a swimming beach, something lacking in the city since Capitol Lake was closed to swimming in 1985. Ironically, a water clarity problem in Capitol Lake was one of the reasons behind the closure.

Creating the Ward Lake public swimming beach would happen in the later stages of park development, and could be 10 years away.

But if Ward Lake water quality continues to decline, the swimming beach becomes a much riskier proposition.

The time is right for lake residents and city officials to start working together, perhaps in the formation of lake management district. Such a district could assess fees on lake area properties to pay for studies to pinpoint the pollution sources and identify corrective measures.

Blue-green algae blooms are not unusual in many of the aging lakes in Thurston County. Often, nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen overload these lakes, triggering algae blooms. Lawn and plant fertilizers and on-site septic system effluent reaching lakes through stormwater runoff or groundwater infiltration are some of the potential sources.

At the very least, the blooms are a visual nightmare, turning otherwise clear lakes into murky water bodies. In the case of Ward Lake, which resembles split pea soup, the typical lake visibility ranges from 14 feet to 20 feet in the summer. This summer it’s 2 feet or less.

The explosion of single-cell organisms closely related to bacteria has reduced water clarity to the point that the algae poses a safety threat for swimmers. If someone were submerged and needed help, rescuers would have trouble finding the person.

In a worst case scenario – and it does happen occasionally here in South Sound – the blue-green algae blooms can contain strains of toxic algae that can make people, pets and livestock sick. Health officials report that there have been confirmed pet and wildlife deaths from exposure to toxic blue-green algae in Washington waters. But there are no known deaths of humans from toxic algae worldwide.

So far this summer, none of the blue-green algae blooms in Thurston County lakes have shown concentrations of toxic algae that exceed the state standard for recreational water use.

But that doesn’t mean the infected waters are safe for the public. A case in point, county health officials can conduct tests to verify the presence of the algae, but it takes more detailed laboratory tests to check for the toxic algae strains.

This time of year, the county is testing suspect lakes weekly. So it’s possible the algae could turn toxic in between test results. People and pets could be unwittingly exposed, if they assume the algae is nontoxic and are later proved wrong.

That’s why health officials recommend against swimming, wading, wind-surging and water-skiing in water bodies where any algae bloom is present.

It’s not too late to combat algae blooms in Ward Lake. Lake residents and city officials should explore what options have worked for other South Sound lakes, then roll up their sleeves and get to work.