Harmful algae found in Shelby County's Guist Creek Lake

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Officials: Drinking water, fish are safe

By Todd Martin

Fishermen and animal owners need to take special care around Guist Creek Lake after state scientists discovered excessive levels of harmful blue-green algae blooms in the lake’s water.


The Kentucky Division of Water last week announced that Guist Creek is one of four in Kentucky – along with Beaver Lake, Reba Lake and Willisburg Lake – to have tested positive for “Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs).” Taylorsville Lake tested positive during the summer.

The World Health Organization established a cautionary level of 100,000 cells per milliliter, and Guist Creek was measured on Oct. 10 to have exactly 100,000. That number was down from 135,000 in August, a state report said.

Known scientifically as cyanobacteria, HABs produce toxins that can be hazardous to animals and humans. Symptoms include gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; skin and eye irritation and throat irritation or breathing difficulties.

But officials say that Guist Creek – and the other lakes – does not pose a serious threat, including to the drinking water for customers of the Shelbyville Water & Sewer Commission.

“The lake [Guist Creek] remains open for recreation, and people can continue to use it and fish in it,” said Clark Dorman, water quality branch manager with Kentucky Division of Water. “This is similar to the fishing and swimming advisories that we issue.

“But if you do come down with an issue – a skin rash or an stomach issue – then you should make sure to tell your doctor that you were at the lake.”

Fish do not absorb the toxins and are safe to eat, he said.

Libby Adams, executive director of the Shelby County Industrial Foundation, which owns and operates the marina and campground at the lake, said her staff has not been instructed to change anything.

“They [the division of water] are going to get us some flyers and things to post to make people aware, but they haven’t told us to change anything,” she said. “They’ve just told us to make fisherman and animals mindful of the situation.”

Dorman said that young children, the elderly and those who may be sick or have immune deficiency issues should try to steer clear of the lake. No signs have been posted about the potential dangers.

“If you do come in contact with the water by swimming, falling in or fishing, just make sure to wash with warm very soapy water,” he said.

And animals – specifically dogs – could be the most susceptible.

“It can be important to the health of livestock, so you may not want to let animals drink from the lake,” Dorman said. “Dogs are probably the most susceptible because they like to swim in it [the algae]. They like the taste of it so they’ll lap it up and then try to clean themselves so they get like a triple dose of it.”


No issue for drinking water

Guist Creek is the primary reservoir for the city of Shelbyville, but Dorman said the HABs cause no concern for the local drinking water. Tom Doyle, the manager of Shelbyville Municipal Water and Sewer Commission, echoed that.

“It is not affecting our treated water,” he said. “We were contacted and told a few steps that we should include to protect against the algae, and our conventional treatment already included those steps.”

Guist Creek Lake and Willisburg Lake are the only lakes where drinking water is drawn that have tested positive for the HABs.

Dorman said it’s not likely that you will see the blue-green algae blooms on the lake, although they have been seen in more intense cases like on Lake Eerie.

“We’ve just noted that the conditions are ripe for the blooms to occur anywhere on the lake,” he said.

However, as the weather continues to cool, Dorman said the number of blooms would dwindle.

“We expect that as we continue to move into the winter, those blooms will decrease,” he said. “But logic tells us that if we’re experiencing blooms this late in the year after the mild summer we had, that we will likely see them again in the spring.”


Still learning

Dorman said the potential problems of HABs are difficult to anticipate because they do not always produce toxins.

“It’s really hard to predict because the toxin isn’t always present,” he said. “Just because you have the blooms doesn’t mean the toxin is produced. It’s very frustrating from research point of view because it [the toxin level] can change from hour to hour.”

HABs at high levels are a fairly new occurrence in Kentucky. and Dorman said the Division of Water is still working on protocol for notifying the public and identifying cautions.

“We haven’t experienced any [of the very high levels] in Kentucky, and we’re hoping that, by recognizing it at the early stages, we can start to reduce these instances,” he said. “Blue-green algae has been naturally occurring in ecosystems for thousands of years, but what we don’t know is why it’s so much more prolific right now. But we do know that it’s tied to the nutrients.”

And that’s how he said it could be contained.

“It’s a shared responsibility [to fix the issue] between homeowners, waste-water treatment facilities, farmers and everyone,” he said. “Basically, we believe the increase is the product of more nitrogen into the watershed. One big thing people can do is plant a vegetation buffer between the creek, ditch or wherever the property drains. Then they can let Mother Nature filter some of that stuff out before it gets to the watershed.”

But there are other issues, he said.

“In the Bluegrass region of the state there is a naturally occurring high level of phosphorus, so it doesn’t take much to cause these problems,” he said.

But while the state wants lake users to take precautions, they also want to remind everyone that the lake remains safe.

“It’s important to remember, there is no reason to close the lakes, and the water is safe to drink when it’s cleaned through a treatment process,” Dorman said.