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Water board posts warning signs around Copco, Iron Gate
CDC, Karuk to study water, blood samples

By Phil Hayworth, Pioneer Press  August 1, 2007

You might want to stop and read the signs before cooling off in Copco Lake and Iron Gate Reservoir this summer.

That's because the North Regional Water Quality Control Board -- who make and enforce water quality laws for most of Northern California -- posted signs around Copco and Iron Gate warning that "pollution" has resulted in illegal levels of a blue-green algae called Microcystin Aeruginosa that produce a bacterial toxin.

"Do not use this water for drinking or cooking" and "do not consume fish livers or digestive organs," the water board's sign reads.

While Microcystin is native to the Klamath River Basin and can even be seen in the eddies of the river down stream from the dam, it mostly flourishes in the warm, still waters of Copco and Iron Gate in the summer, producing huge, teal-colored blooms that stretch for yards into the lakes. Some studies suggest that swimmers, animals and others who ingest or are exposed to large amounts of Microcystin Aeruginosa can get sick. In Humbolt County , there are reports of pets dying from it.

But Siskiyou County Public Health Director Terry Barber said no studies conclusively prove that the algae in Copco and Iron Gate produce enough toxin to sicken people and animals who recreate there. She said the board should rewrite the signs explaining that, or take them down.

"If you're going to leave the signs up, then you should make them clearer," Barber told the board, whose seven members met at the Community Center in Yreka on Wednesday.

But water board executive director Catherine Kuhlman threatened that, if the signs were any clearer, the wording would be "worse."

Newly appointed board member, long-time Siskiyou County resident and former practicing dentist Sam Wakim asked Kuhlman if similar signs would be put up at all county water bodies that tested positive for Microcystin Aeruginosa.

No, Kulhman said. Only those water bodies that show significant blooms. Lake Shastina , for example, has Microcystin-producing algae, but the board hasn't put up signs there, she said. The board will study Lake Shastina and could, if levels exceed state standards, put up signs.

Pioneer Press Photo by Phil Hayworth Above, a bloom of Microcystin Aeruginosa algae on Iron Gate Reservoir. The blooms happen in the warm, still waters of Iron Gate and Copco. Scientists will study the algae this summer. They it suspect can be dangerous to humans and animals in large amounts. Right, a warning sign put up by the Northern Regional Water Quality Control Board at Iron Gate . The signs suggest that the algae blooms are dangerous and should be avoided. Even the fish in the lake should be avoided, the sign reads. "Children and pets are at greatest risk," it reads. A study this summer should shed light on the toxicity of the algae.

More will be known by this time next year when the U.S. National Center for Environmental Health - a division of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta -- releases the results of an upcoming analysis of Copco and Iron Gate water and an analysis of the blood of people who frequent the area.

The Karuk Indian tribe has been charged with collecting water samples, and health workers will take blood samples from area swimmers, fisherman and boaters from August 17 through 19. The CDC has granted the Karuk nearly $85,000 to conduct the sampling, and the tribe will pay $40 to every lake user who volunteers to help with the two-day sampling effort.

Karuk Water Resources Coordinator Susan Corum said during an open-house informational event last Tuesday at the Best Western in Yreka that recent samples taken from area waters frequented by recreational users contained 100-times what the World Health Organization considers a moderate health risk.

Corum's concern was echoed by representatives from the county and state departments of public health, who were on hand for the event Tuesday. But any talk of the harmful effects of the algae in the lakes -- and the Microcystin that they can produce -- was extremely measured.

For example, Barber said that the algae in the lakes should not be confused with the species of blue-green algae that comes from Klamath Lake and is marketed as a health food supplement. They are different, she said. She was quick to add that, to her knowledge, no one has been reported sick from the algae in Copco or Iron Gate .

Indeed, no one -- not the federal government, the state nor the county --are exactly sure how much Microcystin can make people and animals sick or kill them, Barber told the crowd of nearly 150 who had gathered at the Community Center. Meanwhile, the studies contributors said that the study, in the end, will not be able to conclusively determine the affects of blue-green algae on humans and animals.

Many presented the board with stories about how they've swam in the waters of Lake Shastina , Iron Gate and the Klamath for years without negative affect.

"I've been skiing on this lake for 14 years and never had ill affects," said Vern Roberts of Eagle's Point, Oregon about Iron Gate . His son, Nick, agreed and said he'd be willing to allow his family to swim in its waters.

Pioneer Press photo by Phil Hayworth Left, "Rick" and "Ryan," a father and son team up from Southern California on Friday to fish for Perch in Iron Gate Reservoir. The two said they've been coming up for at least four years now and eat the fish all the time, without any ill effects. But signs just nearby posted by the water board warn that the fish could be dangerous for humans to eat. The toxin Microcystin builds up in the livers and internal organs of fish. Some members of the water board toured the lake on Friday, courtesy of the Karuk tribe, who will be collecting samples this summer. "Rick" and "Ryan," a father and son team up from Southern California to do some fishing on Iron Gate Reservoir on Friday, said they like the isolated nature of the lake and love the Perch.

"It's pretty-good eating," Ryan said. But Rick added that the water board sign posted nearby confirmed his gut instinct to "stay away from the algal blooms."

Even insiders with health science backgrounds agree that the blooms should be avoided.

"I was up there the other day and I didn't want to touch it," water board member Wakim said. "There are many ways to fix the problem without having to take out the dams." (For a closer look at the dam-removal issue and more on the water board's visit, read

"Counterspin" in the opinion section).

Wakim spent most of Friday touring the lake with water board chairman John Corbett and vice-chairman Robert Anderson, along with a board staff attorney. Wakim said the group did not constitute a quorum. If four of the seven members had been there, a public notice would have had to be filed and the public invited.

Friday's tour was hosted by the Karuk Indian Tribe, whose representatives escorted county health director Barber, Klamath Riverkeeper director Regina Chichizola and the board to some of the nastiest, algae-clogged spots around Iron Gate and Copco. A representative from PacifiCorps was there, too. She was originally not invited, but because the land is owned by PacifiCorps, she was allowed to stay. But Corum and the water board's staff attorney asked The Pioneer Press to leave.

According to Wakim, the parties were cordial. The intention of the meeting, Corum said, was to give the parties a chance to experience for themselves the nature of the algal situation and to discuss it among themselves.

In other water board business Wednesday, the board denied Klamath Forest Alliance and Etna resident Felice Pace's petition that the board order the Montague Irrigation District, operator of Dwinnell Reservoir near Lake Shastina , to report levels of waste discharged or to issue waste discharge requirements.

Later, Pace asked the board to enforce the requirement that cattle be fenced off from the Scott River and Kidder Creek. He said some 40 cattle can be seen on the West side of Highway 3 on any given day right up on the creek and river, and that "cow pies" dot the landscape. The board said they would look into it and enforce the fencing requirement.

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