Corps opts out of blue-green algae advisories at Lost Creek Lake

TRAIL — Federal officials will no longer participate in volunteer advisories against water contact during blue-green algae blooms at Lost Creek Lake and 10 other Oregon reservoirs, opting instead for a year-round education program about identifying potentially unhealthful waters.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will no longer test the reservoir's water to determine whether cyanobacteria levels exceed Oregon Health Authority standards triggering recommendations against water contact when the annual green scum blooms in Lost Creek Lake, Jackson County's largest water body.

Corps officials, likewise, will not test for toxin levels after the algae blooms die off. These tests were the precursors for lifting the volunteer advisories, which typically have hit Lost Creek Lake twice a year since the cyanobacteria levels were first tested for and discovered in 2006.

Despite the regular testing, no one has been confirmed to have become sick from blue-green algae contact at Lost Creek Lake or any other water body in Oregon, though four confirmed dog deaths have been attributed to algae toxins in the Umpqua and South Umpqua rivers.

The change, Corps officials said, comes largelyfrom an over-reliance by the general public on the volunteer postings as the be-all, end-all evidence that the water is safe or not.

The testing procedure also doesn't take into account that blooms are uneven throughout the lake, so water testing safe in one cove could give a false sense of security to those recreating in another cove where the algae is present at levels deemed unsafe for public contact, Corps officials said.

"The (public) approach has been, if it's posted, it's not OK," said Jim Buck, the Corps' Rogue Basin operations manager. "If it's posted, it's OK. It's this idea that, if there's no advisory, the coast is clear. That's not a good place to be. I'm not comfortable with that."

The agency has placed posters at several access points around the lake showing what potentially unhealthful water looks like so visitors can judge for themselves whether to enter whatever portion of the lake they wish to use.

"It's up-front, apparent and perpetual and can reach visitors in a more timely and meaningful manner," said Amy Echols, assistant chief of the public affairs office for the Corps' Portland District. "It better focuses our resources on education and providing the best possible information for risk-based decisions."

Because the advisories are voluntary, there is no public-health requirement that the Corps or any water-management agency test for potentially toxic algae blooms.

"We always recommend they sample, but it's up to them to decide when and where they do it," said Rebecca Hillwig, an OHA environmental health specialist. "If their policy changes, we have to live with it."

The other Corps reservoirs that fall under the new program in Oregon are Dexter, Dorena, Fall Creek, Fern Ridge, Lookout Point, Hills Creek, Detroit, Cougar and Blue River reservoirs in the Willamette River Basin, as well as Willow Creek Reservoir in Eastern Oregon.

At some time in the past seven years, they all joined Lost Creek Lake in receiving past public-health advisories against water contact.

Hillwig said she hopes people will take heed of the warnings and inspect the water at places like Lost Creek Lake before recreating there.

"It'll be interesting to see how this all shakes out," Hillwig said. "We don't know and, obviously, neither does the Corps. This summer will be a learning experience."

The other Oregon reservoirs where the Corps previously has conducted algae testing for voluntary advisories include Dexter.

Algae blooms have been a fall and winter bane at Lost Creek Lake, and sometimes the blooms can stretch over several months. The longest lasted 134 days in 2008-09.

During advisories, people and pets are warned to avoid water contact, but compliance is voluntary. Anglers are encouraged to practice catch-and-release fishing during advisories.

Exposure to toxins can produce numbness, tingling and dizziness that can lead to difficulty breathing or heart problems that require immediate medical attention. Symptoms of skin irritation, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, cramps and fainting also should receive medical attention if they persist or worsen.

Children and pets are at increased risk for exposure because of their size and level of activity.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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