Lake Anna

Boaters enjoy the water behind The Boardwalk on Lake Anna, an area where algae blooms are a concern.

Lake Anna is drawing crowds this summer, even while the 13,000-acre man-made lake seems to be a hot spot for algae blooms.

According to a map maintained by the Virginia Department of Health, there are 19 algae blooms reported in state waterways. All but three of them are in Lake Anna, which spans Spotsylvania, Orange and Louisa counties. The lake cools the Dominion Virginia Energy North Anna nuclear power plant, and is surrounded by homes and used by boaters and swimmers.

“It’s hard to say how many blooms we have,” said Doug Smith, who until recently was the longtime Lake Anna Civic Association president.

He said the Department of Environmental Quality took samples at the lake on Tuesday and results should be available in a few days.

Smith is worried that the algae will get worse this summer.

After testing samples collected in early July, a department of health task force that tracks water quality issued a warning for harmful cyanobacteria in four areas on the lake’s upper branches: upper Pamunkey; Terry’s Run; middle Pamunkey; and part of the middle North Anna branch.

The warning advised people to “avoid contact with the lake in these areas until algae concentrations return to acceptable levels.” The warning also advises keeping pets out of the affected spots in the lake.

Smith said he hasn’t heard of any health problems, even though use of the lake is normal and some people are ignoring the algae warning.

Ryan Wheeler seemed busy Monday afternoon at Wake Edger’s Gear & Gifts, which sells surfboards, skis and other water-recreation gear in one of the areas with the harmful algae bloom.

“I’ve seen it; it’s disgusting,” Wheeler, a competitive wakeboarder who grew up on the lake, said of the algae.

He hasn’t noticed a change in lake visitors, but said people call him and the shop wondering if the water is safe.

“I always tell them, of course, just be safe,” he said.

The lake areas with the algae blooms are primarily in coves where the water can be stagnant, not the spots most people use for recreation.

Algae blooms typically happen in hot weather, which mixes warm water with nutrients that allow the algae to grow, according to the health department. Some blame excessive phosphorus from manure and fertilizer runoff.

Lake Anna also had an algae bloom warning last year, along with high counts of E. coli. Tests this June found no E. coli problems.

According to the Environmental Working Group, algae blooms are on the rise nationwide.

No one has pinpointed a cause for the algae blooms at the lake, but Smith pointed to the hot weather and too many nutrients, primarily from fertilizers from farms upstream and private properties around the lake.

He doubts the nuclear plant is a cause, even though it makes the water warmer. He said the power plant actually helps by creating a current in the lake.

Lake Anna is not alone as far as algae bloom problems.

In June, the nonprofit environmental group said its analysis found that 550 algae blooms were reported in waterways in 47 states between 2010 and May of this year. Last year’s 256 algae “outbreaks in 39 states were more than twice the number reported in 2017, and a staggering increase from 2010, with three outbreaks reported in three states.”

Many of the blooms are concentrated in the Northeast states, Florida, Michigan, California and the state of Washington.

Algae outbreaks typically happen during the warm months, between May and October, according to the group, which pinpointed man-made causes as a culprit. The environmental group noted that algae “outbreaks occur when bacteria-laden fertilizer and manure from farms run off into waterways, triggering the growth of a thick, blue–green goop on the water’s surface.”

“No federal agency publicly tracks algae blooms, so we are trying to fill the gap,” Environmental Working Group senior economist Anne Weir Schechinger said in the report.

EWG reported that while algae blooms aren’t always toxic, there have been reports of people falling ill and animals dying from exposure to toxic algae, including a dog this year at Anderson Lake in Washington state.

Schechinger didn’t sound hopeful when it comes to algae blooms.

“Algae blooms are spreading at an alarming rate,” she said, “and we expect 2019 to be no exception to this trend.”

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Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436 sshenk@freelancestar.com