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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Toxic algae in Long Lake

Ecology Department warns residents to stay out and keep animals away

The discovery of toxic algae blooms in Long Lake has prompted authorities to warn residents to stay out of the water and keep their pets and livestock away, too.

A water sample taken about a mile north of Suncrest in Stevens County had concentrations of a neurotoxin called microcystin at levels of 18,700 micrograms per liter, according to lab results released Tuesday. The threshold for concern is 6 micrograms per liter, said Jani Gilbert, a spokeswoman at the Washington Department of Ecology.

“It’s probably all over the lake,” Gilbert said. “We’d like people to stay away from the water.”

No illnesses have been reported from the current bloom in Long Lake, aka Lake Spokane. However, blue-green algae blooms pose health risks to people, pets and wildlife. Human health effects can include stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes and nerve and liver damage. Pets and livestock have died from exposure.

“That stuff is really nasty,” said Scott Chaney, a Nine Mile Falls resident who took the sample on Sept. 23, which was sent to King County Environmental Labs for analysis.

Chaney said he started noticing a powdery algae bloom in the lake around mid-August. He became concerned when it started forming thick mats. Since neither the Ecology Department nor the Spokane Regional Health District tests for algae blooms, Chaney requested a kit from the state and paid the postage to send it into the lab.

“These come every year, so I just assumed that the government would be monitoring it. … We play in the lake all the time,” said Chaney, who has three children. “It could have been toxic for a month and nobody would have known because there’s not a monitoring program set up to keep on eye on it.”

Gilbert said that her department monitors other facets of water quality in the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam, but doesn’t have the budget to test for toxic algae. Julie Graham, a health district spokeswoman, could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Blue-green algae blooms are common in Long Lake. “We get them in varying severity almost every year,” Gilbert said.

Toxicity is hard to predict, according to Ecology officials. While many blue-green blooms are not toxic, some blue-green algae produce nervous system or liver toxins. A bloom that tests nontoxic one day can become toxic the next. The algae looks like green paint floating on the water.

“Most of the toxin is in the scum that people can see on top of the water,” Kathy Hamel, an aquatic plant specialist, said in a prepared statement. People should avoid the scum and keep pets and livestock from drinking scummy water, she said.

Last year, Newman Lake experienced a toxic blue-green algae outbreak, with microcystin levels at 191 micrograms per liter. Some residents blamed the outbreak for sickening their dogs.

Jim Bellatty, a water quality manager with the Ecology Department in Spokane, said long-term plans to reduce phosphorus flowing into the Spokane River should lessen blue-green outbreaks over time.

Chaney, the Nine Mile Falls resident, said he hopes to see a volunteer network created for blue-green algae testing, because government agencies don’t have the budget for it. He’d be interested in participating.

“I’m vested in the quality of the water in the lake,” he said.

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