Water impacts: Algae blooms, economic repercussions expand discussions

July, 2018 Posted in Community, Nature, Your Health

By Mary Owen

Recent water advisories may have lifted for Salem, but some repercussions have been felt, especially at Detroit Lake.

“This constant on-and-off recreation advisory has businesses scrambling to keep up,” said Allison McKenzie, executive director of GROW-EDC. “Many visitors remain leery about getting in the water, even in areas that are not impacted by the algal bloom.”

Samples of water tested in late May showed levels of cyanotoxins from algal blooms in Detroit Lake to be above the Environmental Protection Agency’s notification threshold. An emergency alert went out to stop drinking tap water.

“Despite high-drinking quality in Idanha, Detroit and Mill City, visitors are spooked about what bad news they might hear next, where they can trust drinking water, and whether their food preparation will be done properly,” McKenzie said.

“All of this has a negative impact on tourism-related businesses and our regional economy.”

From Detroit Lake to Salem, McKenzie said businesses are trying to balance staffing needs with customer traffic.

“We are already hearing about businesses that have had to shorten hours for employees or are considering temporary layoffs during this confusing time, even though they are not directly impacted by the toxic algal bloom,” she said. “Those jobs are important for many of our local families, and even a small reduction in hours can hurt.”

The recent water advisory got some cities to work closely with staff to explore alternative water treatment and source options that Mayor Chuck Bennett of Salem said “are safe and affordable for the community.” 

Meanwhile, neighbors stepped up to help neighbors. City Councilor Brian Czarnik with the city of Aumsville, which has its own well system, helped supply drinking water to Turner residents. The effort was coordinated by Aumsville, Turner and Marion County Emergency Management. The city of Sublimity also set up a public fill station to help Stayton residents, and many businesses not affected by the water advisory provided clean water. 

Some Detroit Lake businesses saw a dip in customers, but those above the lake were not hit as hard.

Brinton Foy Reed, director of marketing, events and hospitality for Breitenbush said, “We’ve had a few guests ask questions and bring water bottles, but we are upstream so the impact has been minimal.”

Speaking for Oregon Parks and Recreation, Chris Havel said people tend to keep their kids and pets out of the water during algae blooms, as recommended by health authorities.

“We do sometimes see dips in visits when the main recreational feature of the park is a lake, but over the whole summer, and when looking at 10 years or so of data, the trend in visits is still up,” Havel said. “It’s key for lake-dependent parks to work with their neighboring communities to offer a wider range of recreation – hikes, interpretive programs, and so on.”

Havel said wildfires and resulting smoke generally have a more dramatic effect on visits than the usually briefer water alerts.

“We implore visitors to do their part and manage their campfires sensibly and respect fire restrictions when they start,” Havel said.

McKenzie said the recent algal bloom and downstream water quality issues, particularly in Salem, have raised questions about long-term water health in general.

“It’s not just a public health and quality of life issue,” she said. “This has raised additional concerns about the viability of the proposed fish tower project.”

The Downstream Detroit Lake Fish Passage Project is under study for potential economic and long-term downstream impacts, she said.

“The discussion right now isn’t about the merits of the fish tower itself, but about making sure this valuable resource – water – is protected regardless of how the tower might be built,” McKenzie said.

Detroit Lake Mayor Jim Trett said protecting water sources will be paramount, if the project goes forward. When the lake has problems, cities downstream feel the impact as well, he said.

“We get our water from Breitenbush River and Mackey Creek, so we have no problems there,” he said. “But the number of boats on the lake are way down.”

Driving into town recently, Trett noticed only seven boat trailers in an area of parking for water access that usually is full.

“We have way less boats on the lake,” he said. “Lake rentals are down as well. The stores seem to be doing OK. We have algae blooms every year that last about a week. This year, it seems to stay.”

Trett assures visitors that the algae is confined to one section of the lake and that most of Detroit Lake is safe for people.

“Come up and have a great time!” he said.

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