Lakewood council approves plan to temporarily kill toxic Waughop algae

Acknowledging that treating polluted Waughop Lake with alum is only a Band-Aid solution, the Lakewood City Council on Monday nonetheless accepted a plan that recommended the treatment as a first step in killing toxic algae in the Fort Steilacoom Park lake.

Council members said the city now can’t afford the preferred solution to the lake’s problems, dredging. That solution could cost up to $15 million. Treating the lake with alum to temporarily eliminate phosphorus in the water that feeds toxic blue-green algae would cost roughly $250,000.

Adopting the plan drafted by a Seattle environmental engineering firm, Brown and Caldwell, doesn’t trigger an immediate alum treatment. The council would have to separately approve that step.

Waughop Lake advocates Tom McClellan and Don Russell have told the council the alum treatment will only buy a few years’ time. They say alum will trigger explosive growth of aquatic weeds in the lake, a problem that itself will require an extensive treatment regimen to control.

The two men have monitored the lake for years. They wrote a report that recommended dredging as the only permanent solution to the lake’s issues.

Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said adoption of the plan doesn’t commit the city to dredge the lake. Lakewood doesn’t have the financial resources to afford that cure, he said, without draconian measures, such as laying off the police department or halting road repairs.

“If we promised to dredge the lake, we would be like the man who promises his family a European vacation when he only has the money to go to Ocean Shores,” he said. The city, he said, will be looking to outside sources, such as state appropriations or grants to fund a dredging program.

The city is negotiating with the state to acquire the park before the end of the year. Lakewood is now leasing the property. Persuading the state to pay for the lake’s cleanup as part of the acquisition could be difficult because Pierce County, which originally leased the land from the state, gave up vital rights when it signed that lease. Lakewood inherited that lease from the county when it incorporated as a city.

The lake needs dredging, the consultants and the citizen activists agree, to remove a nutrient-rich layer of sludge on the lake’s bottom that fertilizes the algae and aquatic plants. The sludge was deposited in the lake by years of farming activity on the site when it was part of Western State Hospital. The hospital’s patients raised crops and livestock on what now is the park site. They used the lake to dispose of organic wastes, including entrails from a slaughterhouse built over the 33-acre lake.

Councilman Mike Brandstetter, the only member to vote against accepting the engineering firm’s plan, said the city needs to decide its goal for the lake. Is the objective returning the lake to a pristine state, or to a condition where it doesn’t pose a health hazard to people and animals, he asked.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has posted the lake as dangerous because of the possibility of the water sickening those who contact it.

Waughop Lake in recent months was contaminated with a sewage overflow from nearby Pierce College. That sewage flowed into the lake when a campus sewage lift station was overwhelmed with waste water, and the excess spilled into the lake through a connected storm sewer drain.

The college has sealed that overflow connection, has begun purging the line of waste, and has started planning construction of a larger lift station to handle larger flows.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663