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Sutton Lake algae bloom makes rumor mill blossom

Chip Ellis
Bill Hunt, co-owner of Sutton Lake Marina, said rumors spread by social media created a false notion that Sutton Lake had been closed by a dangerous algae bloom.
Chip Ellis Biologists Robert Row (left) and Steve Foster of the Huntington District of the U.S. Army Corps of engineers take water samples near the Bee Run swimming beach and Sutton Lake Marina.
Chip Ellis The presence of milky swirls containing high concentrations of blue-green algae prompted U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials last week to temporarily close the small South Abutment swimming area at Sutton Lake.
Chip Ellis By Friday, the algae bloom was not visible, concentrations of the substance were at safe levels and the swimming area was reopened.

SUTTON, W.Va. -- Social media reports to the contrary, Sutton Lake is neither closed to boaters and swimmers nor the host medium for a strain of flesh-eating bacteria that has claimed two lives.

False rumors that followed the appearance of a blue-green algae bloom on June 21 have cost Sutton Lake Marina owner Bill Hunt at least $40,000 in cancelled boat reservation fees alone.

"I don't know how you ever get that back," Hunt said, standing outside the entrance to his marina's store and restaurant. "Here it is, a beautiful Friday morning, and every one of our rental boats is here at the dock, not being used."

"I'll bet we've answered 100 calls a day from people asking if it's true the lake is closed," said Melinda Frank, the marina's general manager. "It's never closed. People have been swimming and boating, and everyone's fine. But people have been reading on Facebook that we're closed, that there's flesh-eating bacteria here, and that two people have died from it."

As a result, many potential Sutton Lake users have chosen to go elsewhere.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see a social media report that it's all caused by alien space poop landing in Sutton Lake," Hunt said.

To be clear, there are no flesh-eating bacteria at Sutton Lake, there have been no deaths here, and no one has been sickened by coming in contact with blooms of blue-green algae that have, in fact, been spotted here during the past week. The lake has not been closed.

Business at the lake began turning from usual to unusual on June 21, when a member of the public spotted what was initially thought to be a gasoline slick coating the surface of the small, roped-off swimming area at South Abutment Beach, located in the shadow of the Sutton Dam. After initially reporting the anomaly to Frank, the caller was referred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' resource manager's office at the dam.

When corps personnel investigated the report, they compared what they saw at South Abutment Beach to photos that had been forwarded to them earlier in the year, depicting blue-green algae blooms that had been raising health concerns at corps-managed reservoirs in Ohio.

"They seemed to match," said Sutton Lake Resource Manager Keith Ann Nuckles, "so we took some water samples and called Steve Foster," a limnologist, or freshwater biologist, at the corps' district headquarters in Huntington.

In strong-enough concentrations, blue-green algae blooms are capable of producing toxins that can be harmful to humans, particularly small children. Adverse effects of exposure to the toxins range from rashes and hay fever-like symptoms to vomiting and diarrhea

"Steve was concerned enough to meet us in Charleston that night to take the samples back to Huntington for processing and analysis," Nuckles said.

Foster was able to quickly identify the scummy algae from South Abutment Beach as being from the Anabaena, or potentially toxin-producing blue-green strain.

"I could tell right away it exceeded our thresholds, and could pose a hazard to people and pets," Foster said.

While the World Health Organization considers 100,000 cells per milliliter concentrations of blue-green algae to be potentially dangerous to humans, the concentration found at South Abutment Beach was determined to be 1.2 million cells per milliliter.

Nuckles and her staff closed the swimming area at South Abutment Beach the night of June 21 and began posting caution posters at all entrances to the lake, warning visitors to avoid drinking from the lake and discouraging them from swimming and water skiing while the blooms were present.

Corps of Engineers personnel sampled the lake water again Monday and Tuesday, and searched for additional blue-green algae blooms.

"There was a large bloom in mid-lake on Monday," Foster said. "It smelled like decaying grass and onion."

Blooms were not found in the vicinity of a much larger swimming area at Bee Run Beach, adjacent to Hunt's marina, but corps officials said blooms were found at sites upstream and downstream from there.

Toxins might or might not be present within the blooms, and blooms can be moved by wind and waves, leaving toxins behind in clear water.

By Tuesday, however, water samples taken at the lake showed that concentrations of Anabaena had dropped below 20,000 cells per milliliter, well below the corps' safety threshold. By Friday, no blooms were visible on the lake.

South Abutment Beach was reopened to swimmers Friday afternoon. Warning signs across the lake were replaced with advisory posters, cautioning lake users not to drink lake water, to avoid swallowing water while swimming and water skiing, and to avoid areas with visible algae accumulations.

If the concentration stays below 20,000 cells per milliliter for two weeks, advisory posters regarding the algae blooms will be removed.

"That should be on July 9," Foster said.

Foster said it is not known what triggered the blue-green algae blooms at Sutton Lake, the first West Virginia reservoir to produce noteworthy concentrations of the substance. What caused concentrations of the algae to dissipate back to safe levels also remains a mystery.

"It's a relatively new phenomenon in this region, showing up in Ohio in the past five or six years," Foster said. Nutrient loads, temperature and exposure to sunlight are all believed to affect the growth of the algae.

There are too many variables at play to know what makes the algae strain come and go, he said.

Hunt said the Corps of Engineers was right to inform the public of a potential health hazard, but he thought the agency could have taken more care in how news of the algae bloom was presented to the public.

"The corps put out a news release that was accurate, when it announced that the swimming beach at South Abutment was being closed," he said. "What they didn't say was that beach represented less than one tenth of a percent of the lake's shoreline. That night, TV stations reported that the lake was closed, and two minutes after the warning posters went up, they were on Facebook, and the rumors began to start."

Hunt said he hopes boaters and other lake users will receive enough correct information on the lake's status to enjoy spending the Fourth of July weekend at the cool, clear reservoir.

"We're open and we're looking forward to people coming here for what is usually one of our biggest weekends," he said. "Up until last Friday, this has been a super season for us."

Blue-green algae cell counts will be posted on the Huntington District's website, here.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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