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What’s that green stuff floating on the lake?

By Capt. William E. Simpson, USMM
12/01/14 -- If you have been around the lakes formed by the dams on the upper Klamath River in the summer, you may have heard someone asking about the ‘green stuff’ on the lakes.

Recently I read an email discussion between some local folks in Siskiyou County about the toxic algae blooms in the Klamath Basin. That discussion got me thinking about the algae from a different perspective, as well as the ‘positioning’ that some of the lobbyists and activists have forwarded in regard to the algae in order to justify their argument for the removal of the dams on the Klamath River below the Klamath Basin. One of their mantras has been the dams are the problem because they create warm water conditions that cause the algae blooms that are seen in late summer on the lakes; specifically, Iron Gate and Copco (1&2) lakes. Still other theories proffer ‘natural agents’ for causation.

First of all, dams and/or warm-water don’t cause algae. And the specific algae that is observed in recent history on the lakes is a blue-green algae (Microcystis aeruginosa) that is naturally occurring in many places around the world and is endemic in the Klamath Basin and the lakes on the Klamath River. Most of the time under normal circumstances, these naturally occurring algae are unseen because when they are in-balance within a natural system of available nutrients where their growth is limited due to the availability of nutrients (and sunlight), which are also competitively used by many other plants and organisms that utilize many of the same nutrients. Additionally, because these algae have the ability to migrate vertically within a column of water, they spend much of their time below the surface of the water and out of sight.

These unique algae control their buoyancy using a microscopic gas-filled vesicle.
Based upon two independent un-biased scientific studies that I recently discovered during my research for this article; the amount of gas (volume) in this tiny vesicle is what controls the amount of buoyancy and dictates where the algae is located within the vertical water column. According to the study; when there is more nitrogen and sunlight available, there is more gas in the gas-vesicle (the float), and therefore more buoyancy is generated. Therefore, the algae can suspend themselves and range in depth from the bottom of the lake to the surface depending on the amount of sunlight available combined with the amount of nutrients present (nitrogen and phosphorus), where available nitrogen has the greatest effect on positive buoyancy.

Basically, all things being equal, when there is a lot of sunlight and nitrogen available, the algae will be floated to the surface of the water column in a lake. And when the algae is floated to the top it is no longer ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Click here to see the scientific study by Justin D. Brookes and George G. Ganf, titled; ‘Variations in the buoyancy response of Microcystis aeruginosa to nitrogen, phosphorus and light’, that supports the foregoing observations.

The level of nitrogen based compounds that are required and which in my estimation stimulates the excessively large blooms of algae floating on the surfaces of the lakes is not naturally occurring.

Based upon another study conducted (2005) by OSU scientist Damion C. Ciotti, titled; ‘Water Quality of Runoff from Flood Irrigated Pasture in the Klamath Basin, Oregon’, I believe that the excess nitrogen condition is a function of intensified agricultural operations in this geographical region (Klamath Basin) over the past 30-40 years.

Nature’s response to man’s activities (agriculture on steroids) is certainly a ‘natural’ one: And that response is the intensification of the blue-green algae (Microcystis aeruginosa) that normally exists in the lakes and is selectively able to capitalize on the abundant nitrogen-rich nutrient levels that are resulting from the anthropogenic nitrates stemming from the intensive agricultural operations.

The real question on the table is: Are the dams and/or warm-water the cause of these large algae blooms?
Based upon the unbiased studies that I have cited, the answer is clearly ‘no’.

In order for an un-biased scientific study of such a problem to evolve, the financial motivations and/or the incentives to ‘lean’ towards any particular conclusion (such as dam removal) must be absolutely removed from the process. In the case of the algae blooms, the loudest voices seem to be motivated by beneficiaries of the money and various concessions that would ostensibly stem from the removal of the dams. So how is it possible to conduct an agnostic study when it seems that some of the scientists (and universities) and activists conducting many of the studies are funded or incentivized directly or indirectly by the agricultural-industrial behemoth, which may include companies who are manufacturing and selling the multitude of soil enhancers that are being utilized by farmers and ranchers, in concert with various industries producing products for animal production. Of course there are other ‘stakeholders’ who could receive concessions and/or monetary incentives should the dams be removed; and ‘dam removal’ is being touted as a ‘solution’ to the algae blooms by some of these lobbyists and environmental groups; talk about ‘throwing-out the baby with the bath water’!

In the course of my own due diligence, I focused on going outside and beyond the scope of influence of interested parties to the greatest extent possible, and located studies that are arguably ‘independent’, since they were not conducted at the behest of any of the parties (stakeholders, etc.) around the dam controversy.

Please don’t misunderstand my position; if the cattlemen and farmers want to make money doing what they do best, and produce what the markets want, this is America and they are certainly free do so, and that’s totally fine by me. In fact, I would also argue in support of their right to engage in their respective businesses.

But when a few people try to deceive others by making something else the scapegoat (in this case, blaming the dams) for the adverse results of some other unrelated situation (anthropogenic nitrates), and thereby threaten to adversely affect the lives of thousands of other people who benefit from having the dams in place, I have to take exception. Besides the fact that it's just not neighborly; it's not good business, nor is it good science.
In review: Siskiyou County (the dams are within their jurisdiction) voted on whether it was in the best interests of the entire county (about 40,000 taxpayers) to remove the dams. A vast majority (78%) voted to keep the dams. Nonetheless, even in light of what a vast majority of people want in a democracy, there are a tiny fraction of people who still want to undermine the will of the People, and through the utilization of almost any means, including the use of questionable studies and assertions, have the dams removed anyway.
So let’s look at the real culprit for the algae blooms that have become a talking point for the dam-removal advocacy:

Klamath Basin Animal Production and Feces
The total nitrogen that is contained in the feces from animal production is not insignificant – Feces is deposited on the Klamath basin grazing lands through high animal density per acre (cattle, sheep, etc.), where feces is highly concentrated on irrigated pasture lands that are already in many cases enhanced with nitrogen-rich fertilizers. And along with the soil additives, the tons of animal feces is an important source of excessive nitrogen runoff into the tributaries of the upper lakes and the Klamath River feeding into the Copco and Iron Gate reservoirs.

When the density of grazing animals gets to the levels we now observe in and around the upper lakes (we are even seeing animals being trucked into the area to graze from well outside the local region), the amount of available nitrogen rich organic compounds (feces) exceeds the fixation capacity of the plants and organisms (related to the bio-stoichiometry), and a very significant amount of nitrogen-rich compounds are washed-off the land and into the Klamath basin drainage during irrigation, storms and the heavy spring runoff.

Industrial Agriculture
Crop farmers are continually enhancing their lands through the extensive use of fertilizers and soil conditioners. A significant amount of these plant supporting (algae too!) nutrients are transported into the upper lakes and into the upper Klamath River via irrigation run-off, storm water run-off and spring run-off, thereby supporting the uncontrolled growth of algae, resulting in the blooms that are observed in the late summer. This statement is supported by the OSU study titled ‘Water Quality of Runoff from Flood Irrigated Pasture in the Klamath Basin, Oregon.’

Historically, if you go back about 30-40 years and beyond, there were no algae blooms of the size and scope we are now seeing floating in the Copco and Iron Gate lakes. The algae was present in the past, but the conditions (nutrients) to support incredible growth (and buoyancy) were not present. As we begin to understand, these algae do very well when there is an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus (‘fertilizer’) and sunlight; they need both to grow at accelerated rates that results in a visible ‘bloom’ floating on the surface of the lakes. However, in the absence of added nitrogen to the lakes, even with the naturally occurring phosphorus, it’s doubtful that we would be seeing the expansive algae blooms that have been occurring in recent history. And the notion that high levels of naturally occurring phosphorus are instrument in these blooms is inconsistent with the observations of the cited scientific study in the Oxford Journals (The Journal of Plankton Research).

That study (above) makes it clear that between the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, nitrogen is the agent that has the greatest overall impact on the positive buoyancy of the algae.

Through this mechanism, the algae have the ability to control their vertical positioning in a column of water via a buoyancy system related to nitrogen (nutrient) uptake, where all other things being equal, the more available nitrogen, the more buoyancy is attained. And when the algae is floating at or near the surface of the water, the bloom is most dramatic and visible.

Any warm-water fisherman who has fished confined fresh-water lakes and ponds that are not subject to runoff from agriculture or sewage knows that these blooms are not normally seen in such extremes in unpolluted ‘warm water’, even though colonies of the same blue-green algae may also exist in many of those unaffected waters. Now there’s a clue!

As the cited OSU study infers, agricultural activities are culpable when it comes to excess nitrogen in the Klamath Basin.
The nitrogen-rich runoff from agricultural lands (compounds in solution as well as insoluble particulate matter suspended due to turbidity) is combined with other organic and inorganic matter in the turbid runoff waters that flow into the Klamath basin watershed. As these turbid run-off waters reach the calmer less agitated waters of the lakes that are formed behind the dams, much of the suspended matter, including some of the nitrogen compounds (from a super-saturated solution), will begin to settle-out into the sediment layers of the lakes (potential nitrogen sink). These nutrient and nitrogen-rich deposits into the lake beds could, under the right conditions (I.E. as water temp increases, currents agitate the bottom sediments, etc.), also go into solution (dissolve back into the lake water), while some of the more soluble nitrogen compounds (dissolved solids and gases) may remain in solution.

In the cited OSU study, the ‘conclusion’ that is found on page 115 of the document and contents within the study, supports the thesis herein regarding nitrogen transport into the watershed. This study also confirms the presence of an abundance of phosphorus, which is another important element (in the right ratio) for the growth of plants as well as the algae in question.

The chemistry of the lakes is not as straight-forward as it may seem at first glance, even to experienced chemists, and testing the lakes for nitrogen loading is not by any means a straightforward process. For one, the rates of solution of various nitrogen-based compounds changes as a function of many factors, including but not limited to; water temp, PH, rate of solution of other compounds present, solar insulation, rain, wind and wind direction, currents, etc. And in the case of nitrogen based compounds that are contained in the lake sediments, there is more complexity as to when and how it may become bio-available. Therefore the amount of total dissolved nitrogen (as a function of all nitrogen compounds in solution) can vary greatly over time. To add to the complexity, some forms of nitrogen (compounds) are more 'bio-available' than others, and may provide a selective advantage to certain organisms that favor the use of certain analogs of nitrogen compounds; thus resulting in the rapid fluctuation of the availability and ratios of certain nitrogen analogs and/or reactants. Additionally, all along the way, there are intermediate chemical reactions taking place whereby scores of other organisms (bacteria, etc.) are continually modifying the profile of the available nitrogen analogs in solution (in the water), as well as other needed reactants via their own metabolic actions, thereby modifying the availability over time of various nitrogen-compound analogs.

Of course when summer begins there are many changes, starting with increased solar energy and increased water temperature, which changes the rate of solution, as well as the biological tempo related to photosynthesis. Even with the increased photosynthesis, oxygen uptake by the water can be inhibited by the totality of compounds that are already in solution in combination with the temp of the water. An example of this is evidenced when we have a super-saturated solution that is cooling (day-night cycle in a large body of water), in which case, the solubility rate for any additional compounds is inhibited. I think many readers have experience with using a super-saturated solution to make rock-candy; where a super-saturated solution of sugar-water is used to precipitate sugar crystals onto a piece of string… but I digress.

Further, in lakes where we have a thermocline to consider (such as in Iron Gate Lake), the water temperature above this boundary-layer is considerably higher than below (deeper in the lake), in which case, the total load of dissolved solids and gasses is significantly different above the thermocline as compared to below the thermocline.

As we consider this very complex and changing model, it's easy to understand that making any blanket statement in regard to the algae blooms while incorrectly considering the lakes as a ‘closed-system environment’ make no sense. Some scientific studies and reports on this subject go on and on into complexities that are quite interesting, but seem to miss the obvious reason for causation.

By looking at history (before there was a problem) and then asking a simple question; what ‘has changed since the 1960’s; it is crystal clear what has happened. Over time, farmers began increasing the amounts of fertilizers being used over larger areas of land. While concurrently cattlemen are grazing more animals per acre than at any time in the past, as a result of enriched (fertilized) pastures.

An example of the same basic phenomenon (nitrates from feces and commercial fertilizer stimulating an algae bloom) was studied by the University of Hawaii.

One of the scientists from the university (1987) hired my charter dive boat to collect algae and water samples from around the shoreline waters that were down-slope from the agricultural and sewage runoff, where a local algae bloom was occurring near-shore in Maui, Hawaii. This trend (algae blooms) coincided and accelerated with the advent of the increased use of modern soil additives (fertilizers) by the pineapple and sugar cane growers, coupled with more sewage from a growing population (more nitrogen). Like here in the lakes, the bloom was invasive and the impact was readily observed and was adversely impacting the coral reefs.

Even boat owners suffered because the algae was so hearty and grew so fast that even the metal toxins (tin, copper, iron oxides, and organic compounds) used in anti-fouling bottom paint were rendered ineffective in preventing the growth on boat bottoms. This in turn required more intensive bottom (underwater) maintenance by boat owners (divers scrubbing the algae off the props, sacrificial zincs anodes, water intakes, and off the bottom, which affected hull speed and fuel efficiency). In fact, in addition to the monetary costs associated with the extra boat maintenance, the extra frequency of hull-scrubbing of the underwater anti-fouling paint on hundreds of boats released so much excess toxins (enhanced rate of solution of the tin, copper and iron oxides from anti-fouling boat bottom paint into the waters) that the anti-fouling paints suddenly were seen as a problem as well. A similar problem was occurring near many large cities that had harbors near sewage-plants and/or agricultural discharges. In this case, it was a chain reaction, where one problem created another problem. Subsequently, the manufacturers of anti-fouling paints were required to stop using tin and copper compounds in the anti-fouling paints, which rendered these mission critical paints far less effective in the reduction of the growth of marine organisms on vessel hulls. The result being that the hull speeds on thousands of vessels have been adversely effected (increased drag), costing operators as a whole millions of dollars in added fuel and operational costs.

In summary, the message is simple. If we truly want to deal with the algae in the Klamath Basin and in the lakes, then we need the Klamath Basin agricultural industry to reduce the food (agricultural runoff) for the algae.

One could make the argument that the proponents of dam-removal just want to have all the agricultural runoff and repercussions of that runoff (the algae bloom itself) disappear down the river into the sea, out of sight, and out of mind. But that merely defers dealing with the same problem, only then it will be a coastal problem at the mouth of the Klamath River, where the river’s nitrogen loading will undoubtedly affect the ecosystem down-river in some manner, possibly producing a more serious situation.

The algae may in fact be a blessing in disguise: since blue-green algae are uniquely able to ‘fix’ tremendous quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus through their robust nitrogen-cycle during photosynthesis. If not for this natural response to the anthropogenic nitrates and other soil conditioners, who knows what effects the nitrogen and phosphorus levels would have on other plants and animals further down the Klamath River.
The dams are suddenly a problem only because the algae bloom on the lakes is highly visible to the public, and is a tell-tale sign of the pollution problems up river, and not in the lake. Quite frankly, I think the ‘algae activists’ are walking a dangerously fine line, especially if their rhetoric attracts some real scientists into the fray, who may find and report (without pulling any punches) that the anthropogenic nitrates from the agricultural enterprises up-river from the dams are the real culprits, which might then trigger the EPA to enact regulations that could require that nitrate usage be significantly reduced and/or more intensively monitored as a start.

There is a maxim pursuant to Occam’s Razor that seems relevant here; it implies: ‘The simplest explanation is usually the right one’.

Cheers! Bill

Simpson is a resident of Siskiyou county


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