By Eileen Abbott
In the serenity of an early June morning, while mountain mist embraces the treetops, pilot Mandy Baskin’s hot air balloon gently floats above Chris Greene Lake Park, off U.S. 29 North, her favorite scenic launch site.
“The water looks so clean and inviting lately. It’s absolutely beautiful,” observes Baskin, owner of Monticello Country Ballooning. “We’ve seen a big difference from the air. It looks much cleaner, with less algae growth and less murkiness.”
On the ground at the beach, Michelle Oehmke ventures into the water with her paddleboard. “I didn’t come here last year due to the closing,” she says. She’s delighted she can enjoy the lake again. “It’s gorgeous and a good way to get away from it all.”
Nearby, teenagers Landon Shackleford, Cole Shackleford, and Bri Smiley splash in their favorite swimming spot, while others, like Bill Robbins and his 10-year-old daughter Melody, fish on the pier.
Things were not so bucolic last summer, when the lake was closed for almost two weeks due to harmful algae levels, nor in 2017, when an algal spike shut it down for three months.
“It’s super important for the water to be clean and healthy for swimming, fishing, and dog playing” says Baskin, who grew up going to Chris Greene. “When the bloom was going on, I wouldn’t even want my dogs in that water. Ick!”
The harmful algal blooms that lurked in the lake are not expected to be a problem this summer, according to SOLitude Lake Management, the company recently contracted by Albemarle County to proactively treat and monitor Chris Greene Lake.
Shannon Junior, SOLitude ecologist, says the company will be taking regular samples to test oxygen levels, temperature, and algae species to make sure there are “no water quality problems or dangerous cyanobacteria in the lake.”
Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, have the potential to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans and wildlife, says Junior. Its toxicity has been associated with diseases like ALS and Parkinson’s.
“Some algae are actually helpful for the aquatic community, but cyanobacteria, in particular, can be a sign of water quality issues and undesirable nutrient loading,” says Junior.
There are thousands of cyanobacteria species. Some are distinct in appearance—depending on the water body—and may manifest in parallel streaks or clumped dots. “Other blooms may look like spilled blue, green, or white paint, or turn the water a bright pea-soup green,” she says.
Tim Hughes with Albemarle Parks & Rec says the blooms are a concern, not only because they interrupt recreation operations, but because they pose a health risk. Symptoms can include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash, tingling or burning, and coughing.
“Children and pets are most vulnerable because they are more likely to swallow the water,” he says. “Even a small amount can cause illness.”
Why the blooms appeared is still a bit of a mystery. The county is requesting bids for a complete lake profile and watershed study, says Hughes.
“Nutrients flow into water bodies from stormwater runoff, fertilizer, agricultural runoff, and from regulated facilities like sewage treatment plants,” he says. “Sunlight, nutrients, and warm temperatures are perfect conditions for an algae bloom. Blooms are more likely to occur during hot, dry weather from June to September. Unfortunately there is no way to predict when a bloom will occur.”
SOLitude uses an EPA-registered “water-quality enhancer” and algaecide called SeClear that Junior says is effective and safe for use in recreational waters and even in drinking water.
The product helps improve water quality by reducing the concentration of phosphorus, which is the primary fuel for cyanobacteria, she says.
John Murphy, Albemarle’s watershed stewardship manager, says it’s not just Chris Greene Lake that’s dealt with harmful algal blooms.
“We know these blooms are increasing around the country and the world, he says. “This is a complicated problem made even more complicated by the potential additional factor of a warming trend. Higher temperatures must be considered as one of the culprits.”
In the meantime, Baskin and guests on her hot air balloon are savoring Chris Greene Lake’s renewed, clear water. “Usually we launch at the waterside and drift feet, sometimes inches, above the water and mist,” says Baskin. “It’s magical.”