Over the past few decades, they’ve become regular patrons of Lake Waughop at Fort Steilacoom Park in Lakewood.
Blooms of phosphoric blue-green algae regularly surface at the popular recreation spot. It’s the same 30-acre lake where animals drink, ducks swim, people fish and hobbyists run their model boats.
The blooms contain the liver toxin microcystin, which can poison plants, animals and humans.
At the prompting of state Sen. Mike Carroll, R-Lakewood, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department plans to post signs over the next two weeks that will tell people who fish in Lake Waughop to release their catch, as the toxin could get in the muscle tissue of the fish.
It also plans to study what, if any, type of treatment can be added to the non-circulating lake to prevent blue-green algae from blooming without damaging fish and plants.
The effort coincides with a $750,000 grant that the state received from the Centers for Disease Control to study toxins in Puget Sound lakes.
The study focuses on 30 lakes in Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties that are affected by surface- and groundwater that contains toxins.
According to a May 25 letter that Carrol wrote to the health department and obtained by The News Tribune: “After two years of monitoring Lake Waughop, the problem and health concerns continue to worsen. Lake Waughop consistently tested at over 100 times the allowable level for toxins through the spring and summer of last year and throughout the spring this year.”
Carroll — who said the algae outbreaks can emit a distinctive odor from Waughop — met with officials from the health department and the City of Lakewood, as well as Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, to discuss the lake this week.
“I wasn’t intending for it to be a big deal,” he said, referring to his letter to the health department. “But there are a lot of people in this area who think it’s a big deal and wanted to work with me.”
Don Russell is one of the people who lobbied Carroll. For years, he has studied the prevalence of toxins in Waughop, American, Steilacoom and other local lakes, and has tried to get officials to do something about it.
“It’s not enough to post signs,” the retired Lakewood man said this week. “Something has to be done about it.”
Russell wants the lake closed until officials can control Waughop’s high levels of microcystin.
But a solution, health and city leaders say, will likely be costly.
Dredging or even treating Waughop could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It comes down to how do we pay for it?” said Mary Dodsworth, Lakewood’s parks and recreation director.
The lake — located toward the center of Fort Steilacoom Park and surrounded by a walking trail — is old, yet isn’t fed by a river or creek. Water in this “kettle lake” doesn’t circulate naturally.
It existed around the early 1900s, when patients in Western State Hospital’s Hill Ward maintained a nearby farm.
Since the 1970s, the community has reported algae blooms in Waughop on occasion, although alerts about the toxic algae have increased in the last decade. Almost every summer, the health department issues warnings for people not to swim or let their pets drink the water.
“The algae blooms that occur in Waughop can literally vary from day to day,” said Frank DiBiase, assistant division director for the health department’s Environmental Health Division.
It already has warning signs, but Russell argues that the lake is a hazard that’s not suitable for public use.
He and Carroll referenced Anderson Lake in Jefferson County, which its public health department has opened and closed over the years because of high algae blooms. That includes 2006, when two dogs died after drinking the water.
“There’s no question Waughop is worse,” says Russell, who graduated from the University of Washington’s school of fisheries in 1953.
Kathy Hamel, aquatic plant specialist with the state Department of Ecology, said both lakes produce toxins, although Anderson Lake had high levels of anatoxin, which is different than what’s in Waughop.
“I think we are all trying to develop an understanding about this bloom,” she said.
Officials didn’t specify when their study of the lake would begin.