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Lake Anna faces another summer of hazardous algae blooms

Citizen-scientist Harry Looney tests the waters of Lake Anna.
Sandy Hausman
Citizen-scientist Harry Looney tests the waters of Lake Anna.

Lake Anna is one of the largest inland reservoirs in Virginia – 17 miles long -- 13,000 acres in parts of Louisa, Orange and Spotsylvania Counties. It was created by Dominion Energy to help cool its nuclear power plants and opened in 1973 after streams, rivers and Hurricane Agnes helped fill it.

Sue Biondi and her husband lived 72 miles north in Fairfax County, but they bought land and built a house at the lake, spending almost every weekend there. When they retired, they faced a question.

Are we going to live at the lake or are we going to live in Northern Virginia? So that was a no brainer.”

The Biondis now host their two adult children and five grandkids who loved to swim, boat, water ski and hang out at Lake Anna, but eight years ago something changed.

The Biondi's beach and boathouse are sometimes covered in green goo.
Sue Biondi
The Biondi's beach and boathouse are sometimes covered in green goo.

“We had an algae bloom in front of our house. It looked like a green carpet, and it was like nothing we had ever seen before. “

It smelled bad – like rotten eggs – and it produced a toxin that could cause skin irritation and stomach trouble, so public health officials began warning people to stay away from certain areas on days when the algae was toxic.

“This is going on the fifth summer that my family did not want to come down and be in the water, which just breaks my heart. It’s something that we basically are living with now.”

It also alarmed residents of more than 200 neighborhoods around the lake and the businesses that serve them.

“The whole community centers around the lake – restaurants and grocery stores and all the other businesses around the lake would just fold.”

People pay millions of dollars to live on the shores of Lake Anna, but on some days they can't go into the water.
Sandy Hausman
People pay millions of dollars to live on the shores of Lake Anna, but on some days they can't go into the water.

So they mobilized to get money from the state to begin testing.

“I lower it all the way into the lake, and the line is graduated. I’m down at a meter now. I can still see it.”

Harry Looney is a volunteer with the Lake Anna Civic Association – a retired army officer who takes regular samples of lake water to help scientists understand what’s going on and what can be done to fix it. And at UVA, Professor Michael Pace says fertilizer in the water is feeding the blue green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

“Fertilizers either used on agricultural fields or domestic lawns or both.”

At Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies, Professor Paul Bukaveckas has also analyzed decades of information from the state and concluded the water is warming.

“The warmer the water gets, the more that favors cyanobacteria, and it’s cyanobacteria in fresh waters that are the main producers of algal toxins.”

Cyanobacteria is one of the oldest living things on the planet with fossils dating back 3.5 billion years. Some kinds are actually beneficial to humans – like spirulina, which is used as a nutritional supplement. But other kinds can be deadly. Again, citizen scientist Harry Looney.

“I saw a picture of a lake in Africa. I think there were 13 elephants around the lake, all dead. They were killed by cyanobacteria toxins – neurotoxin.”

Of course the situation at Lake Anna is nothing like that. Toxins have never been strong enough to threaten human life, although they have killed fish and endangered dogs.

“Because the dogs will drink the water while they’re in there. Then they’ll lick their fur, and if they do that day in and day out, that liver toxin is going to cause them problems.”

In our next report, we’ll look at other factors promoting hazardous algae blooms in lakes around Virginia, and what’s being done to stop them.


Lake Anna Algae Two REV.mp3

When it opened in 1983, Lake Anna was clean enough for swimming and boating, water skiing and fishing. Thousands of people bought homes on its shores, and thousands more would make day trips or camp nearby. Harry Looney is with the Lake Anna Civic Association.

“Lake Anna State Park entertains more than 50,000 visitors a month. On holidays especially and on weekends there will be a line down the road several miles, and the park will have to go out and say, ‘You might as well turn around, because you’re not going to get in today.”

And on some days, in some places, people are warned not to swim or boat, because toxic algae blooms, caused by cyanobacteria, make it unsafe.

“It can cause dermatitis, gastrointestinal distress – vomiting. You’re not going to die from it, but (crash) you’re not going to feel very good.”

The problem is especially bad near Sue Biondi’s home. She blames waste from farm animals and wildlife along with fertilizer from lawns and fields.

“We get the runoff from the York River shed, and between the cattle that are coming into the water upstream and the biosolids that are placed on the farms, that contributes to our algae problem.”

Harry Looney and other volunteers are now working with scientists from Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and the University of Virginia to manage hazardous algae blooms or HABS -- using herbicides to kill the plant-like bacteria.

“Once you’ve got a bloom, you can kill it back, but they’re still in the water, and they’re going to come back in about a week. You have to start in May and then you have to continually do it every 2-3 weeks throughout the summer, so it gets very expensive.”

They’ve also used sound waves which, at certain frequencies, killed cyanobacteria in the southern part of the 17-mile-long lake but that didn’t work up north.

“The dominant species up here is a species called Raphidiopsis raciborskii, and low and behold the research that I found says Raphidiopsis raciborskii doesn’t care about ultrasound.”

Looney adds that this bacteria is new to the area.

“Raphidiopsis raciborskii, wasn’t seen in these northern latitudes until about 2018. It’s a tropical species predominantly.”

The water temperatures in Lake Anna can actually reach into the 90’s – not because it’s used to cool nuclear reactors on the shore. That water goes through a cooling process, but because of climate change, which also produces stronger storms according to UVA Professor Michael Pace.

“When you get a gully washer as we sometimes say, that will really flood a lot of soil particles and provide runoff to a much greater extent to the landscape.”

Then there’s growing boat traffic here – stirring up fertilizers like phosphorous from the bottom of the lake and its tributaries.

So this summer – with a million dollar grant from the state – the Lake Anna Civic Association is trying new ways to remove phosphorous and stop bacteria from blooming. They’re putting ceramic rocks, loaded with what they say are helpful bacteria, on buoys and in rivers and creeks that flow into the lake:

“These species of bacteria, again they’re the safe, beneficial bacteria, are voracious consumers of nutrients, and they have been shown to out-consume nutrients –even over cyanobacteria.”

And they’re adding natural substances like lanthanum or calcium silicate to the water where they bond with phosphorous and sink to the bottom.

“The elements that are produced are inert, so they’re safe to the environment.”

And if these technique work here, they could also be tried in the bay and in lakes around the state. It will, however, be a race against time as climate change pushes water temperatures higher. At VCU, Professor Paul Bukaveckas says we’ll need to remove more and more nutrients like phosphorous from the watershed just to stay in place.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief