Something needs to be done

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In mid-July the Grant County Health District (GCHD) issued an advisory with regard to Moses Lake’s water quality, stating a water sample taken at Connelly Park – managed by the Moses Lake Irrigation and Rehabilitation District (MLIRD) – showed 26 parts per billion (ppb) of microcystin, which was significantly higher than state guidelines of 6 ppb. As a result, the health district posted warning signs around the lake, urging people to avoid physical contact with the water, not to allow their pets in the water, to clean all fish caught in Moses Lake and not to drink the lake water. The GCHD states the algae blooms grow exponentially in fresh water when sunlight, high temperatures and nutrients in the water are at ideal conditions. Microcystin poisoning can lead to skin rash, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, physical weakness, and dehydration.

From a practical standpoint, one of the bigger issues with the lake is the makeup of the lake itself. According to Harold Crose, a resource conservationist with the Grant County Conservation District (GCCD), Moses Lake is shallow – with an average depth of about 18.5 feet – and was created as sand dunes dammed a segment of Crab Creek. As a result of the lake being so shallow, it gets warmed quickly by the sun and stirred by winds, which in turn brings sediments that are rich in phosphorus to the surface. Coupling that with carp, which are bottom feeder fish that agitate sediments, and our hot summers in the Basin, what you have is a lake that has the year-after-year potential of playing host to blue-green algae.

The GCHD takes samples of the lake water at various locations: the Blue Heron Park boat launch, the Sand Dunes, the Connelly Park swim beach, the Montlake Park boat launch and the Cascade Park boat launch. The GCHD’s website says the 26 ppb was taken on July 9, with additional tests registering 6 ppb at Blue Heron and Cascade Park on July 15. On July 22 Montlake registered a 0.3 ppb, while Connelly came in at 9 ppb and Blue Heron was at 187 ppb, a very high number. Tests were taken on July 30 at Blue Heron and the Sand Dunes, but the results are pending.

The GCHD says it does not have enough funding for the testing program and that they rely heavily on a volunteer group. Volunteers collect the lake water, which is then sent out to a laboratory for analysis. The GCHD also partners with the King County Environmental Laboratory to conduct toxin testing, but that organization is hindered by limited funding as well. The GCHD says last year’s lake water sampling indicates toxins can be found in one part of the lake and move to another part in days and when toxins are identified in one part of the lake “it means there could be toxins” at other locations as well. A Columbia Basin Herald reporter will be getting a first-hand look at how the water sampling is done, the process and the rationale behind it, in terms of the testing locations, on Monday.

There have been several efforts over the years to curb the blue-green algae, like converting farmers to sprinkler irrigation to reduce runoff, the city ceasing the dumping of sewage into the lake in the early 1980s, and using Columbia River water to dilute the water. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) stance is that their responsibility to Moses Lake, which is a natural lake and not a BOR reservoir, is to ensure that the water quality needs of the Columbia Basin Project’s irrigation districts are met. The MLIRD is the local organization that bears the responsibility for managing the lake.

This issue of algae blooms isn’t a new one. Locals who have been in the Basin for more than a couple of decades will tell you that algae levels, even if only confirmed by the naked eye, are lower than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago. The reason why this issue is at the forefront of public discussion today, however, is the immediate and direct impacts the algae blooms can have on the region. Aside from the obvious potential health-related risks to residents associated with the lake, the impact in terms of tourism dollars alone is eye raising. Moses Lake has touted itself as a tourist destination, especially over the summer months, with the lake as a crown jewel for recreation. With a lake that is deemed unsafe, that means less heads in hotel beds and less money spent at local businesses. Moreover, with a housing market that is on the rise, an unsafe lake can thwart growth.

Something needs to be done. The Moses Lake Watershed Council (MLWC), which was formed in late 2018 and consists of representatives from the GCCD, GCHD, MLIRD, City of Moses Lake and Department of Ecology, is studying historical approaches such as dilution, dredging, alum (aluminum sulfate) treatment, carp eradication and nutrient loading in the watershed, to address the problem. They are also analyzing new technologies to address the issue and improve the quality of the lake over time.

Since the MLWC’s first public meeting in mid-May, a strategic plan based on input from the various agencies, stakeholder groups and citizens, has been developed. That plan has not yet been released to the public, but the MLWC says it is seeking partnerships and funding to assist in its efforts. There has been a lot of finger-pointing going on as of late as to who is responsible for the issue at hand. What is clear about the issue is that finger-pointing and placing blame doesn’t get us closer to seeing a solution come about. Action needs to happen and the finger-pointing that has been going on is counterproductive.

Whatever the solution may be, we hope that what is decided upon by the powers at be as the proper corrective course of action will not simply be a short-term, Band-Aid solution that addresses the problem as it is today. What is needed is a plan that will serve our community’s needs for generations to come. We cannot risk jeopardizing the current and potential value that Moses Lake offers to our community that will still be effective decades down the line. The Columbia Basin Herald is actively asking tough questions in an attempt to get at the heart of the problem and to inform community members about what is being done to rectify this persistent problem.

— Editorial board

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