Federal Way residents frustrated by inaction as toxic algae bloom looms over Lake Jeane

Bob Woolley walked past the City Council's dais on Tuesday with two cups of water.

Bob Woolley walked past the City Council’s dais on Tuesday with two cups of water.

One was from Lake Lorene, the other from Lake Jeane – collectively known as Twin Lakes.

Lake Lorene’s was noticeably clearer. After significant time and money throughout the years, it’s finally getting the treatment it needs to prevent the presence of algae.

Lake Jeane? Not so much.

“One is clean, one is not,” said Councilman Mark Koppang, noting the differences between the proactive and reactive approaches to the lakes’ algae. “As a councilmember, I would really like to see us be part of the solution that creates a preventative solution so the lake does not have to reach a level of toxicity in future years.”

But it’s not clear what can be done. Woolley, a resident who lives near Lake Jeane, has been appealing to the city, various state agencies, and the owner of Lake Jeane to find a way to prevent toxic algae from infecting the lake for over six months.

He’s not the only one.

Nine of the 40 houses that surround Lake Jeane’s 10 acres of water filed a lawsuit on March 30 against Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, the owners of the lake property. Since then, residents have been asking the city for help, since the lawsuit is expected to end sometime in 2017.

On July 19, the King County Tax Assessor’s office determined a decrease in land value of homes near the lake because of the algae, and it has yet to reach toxicity levels this year.

The hope is that it doesn’t.

Plea to the city

Woolley and Lake Jeane resident Don Everly Smith have been working to gain Council support for a code revision to the city’s nuisance ordinance for months. The revision would add toxic health hazards on a residential lake to what’s considered a public nuisance, and the code would then deem lake owners responsible for treating lakes found to have toxic levels of algal bloom.

“Mr. Mayor, allow a vote by the City Council concerning our nuisance ordinance,” Woolley said at the Tuesday Council meeting. “We are prepared to accept the City Council’s wherewithal to hear our plea, beginning in February, and we are prepared to accept whatever that decision is, but give us a vote. If not, please give us a written response as to why the City Council can’t take any action, and be specific as to what the rationale is. No action is a status quo.”

It was Woolley’s third time in July asking the city to take action. He first stood before the council at a July 5 meeting and did so again at a Council committee meeting.

“Tonight marks the 20th week Lake Jeane has been before the City Council without any real action taken,” Woolley said on July 5. “I have my Federal Way hat on. I had it on yesterday, I had it on two weeks ago – the residents on Lake Jeane still have positive expectations from the City Council.”

Smith said homeowners on the lake have asked “every governmental agency in the state of Washington to help us in our plight to find a better way to manage Lake Jeane,” but “everybody keeps pointing to the city.”

“We’ve even offered to pay for it, but we’re not allowed to do that because we don’t have a permit – we do not own the lake,” Smith said.

After the July 5 testimony, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell re-committed to sitting down with the city’s legal counsel to “take a fresh look” at the issue. City staff had been involved in trying to find solutions for the last 18 months, but they stopped when residents of Lake Jeane filed the lawsuit against Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club.

“The filing of this legal action changes the role staff play in attempts at settling this matter between the parties,” Chief of Staff Brian Wilson said in an email. “Attempts to settle this matter have been halted, and the city will not participate in this legal action.”

The city took a second look at the ordinance amendment request after Woolley and Smith spoke at the meeting anyway. Nothing came of it.

“The Mayor’s Office reaffirmed its recommendation that no action should be taken by council to include algae blooms as a public nuisance in our city code at this time,” Wilson said. “The proposed change to our city code involves significant substantive issues that would lead to interpretation questions and could carry with it unintended consequences.”

The code change would require the city to address all lakes and bodies of water within city limits, Wilson pointed out.

“This could apply to drainage and water quality pond areas, natural and constructed wetland areas, etc.,” Wilson said. “What bodies of water this ordinance would apply to is not clear.”

The impact to property owners could be substantial, and lake toxicity may not necessarily impact overall human health, he added.

“We are unable to predict when a blue-green algae bloom will have cyanotoxins as there are many factors that influence their growth; light, pH, nutrient concentrations, turbidity [i.e., cloudiness], temperature, and multiple other bio-physical properties,” Wilson said. “Only testing can determine the presence of cyanotoxins and whether their concentrations are above recreational health guidelines.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cyanotoxins are toxins produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, and can give humans a mild skin rash or kill them, depending on the exposure. Microcystin is one of the cyanotoxins, and the Washington Department of Ecology has determined thresholds, or “recreational health guidelines,” for each cyanotoxin. The guideline levels determine whether or not it’s safe to be in a lake that holds these toxins.

Lake Jeane tested above the recreational threshold for Microcystin last year, in 2014 and in 2011.

But treatment for blue-green algae, the harmful kind, could bring with it environmental impacts, as many include chemicals, Wilson noted.

Ultimately, Wilson said “the city isn’t sure how to respond to a nuisance complaint that would take up to a week to determine the presence of cyanotoxins above the recreational threshold and then another period of time to determine appropriate treatment and request a permit for Department of Ecology for the requested treatment.”

Because algae is a seasonal occurrence, the bloom may no longer contain toxins by the time the city works through the treatment strategy, he said.

Woolley said Wilson “is echoing the lingo the club promotes,” referring to the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club.

“If you pile garbage in your driveway and it attracts rodents or whatever and it begins to stink, that is a public nuisance and the city can come in and say clean up the garbage,” Woolley said. “It’s your piling on your driveway. It’s a public nuisance.”

Woolley likened that code to their premise for the revision.

“Toxic conditions on Lake Jeane, because it’s a health hazard, is a public nuisance, and therefore merits being included in the public nuisance [ordinance],” he said. “As long as the owner or management authority is doing something, you don’t have an enforcement process. But, in our case, the owner isn’t doing anything and has stated they’re not going to do anything because they don’t have to, because there’s no enforcement procedure that can be enacted.”

Us vs. them

There’s been significant contention between some residents who live near Lake Jeane and the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. In fact, the club’s board of trustees unanimously voted to turn down an in-person meeting with Woolley to discuss the issue.

In a March 18 letter provided by Woolley, the trustees told Woolley they wouldn’t meet with him because of his “past and present methodical and calculating effort to undermine the well-being and financial stability of the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club.”

“You have consciously made contact with various news agencies, the city of Federal Way, the Department of Health, the Department of Ecology and State Representatives Mark Miloscia, Linda Kochmar and Teri Hickel in an attempt to convince these entities Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club maintains a toxic lake that is a health risk to the general public, wildlife, fish and shellfish,” the letter reads. “You have also made numerous written and verbal threats to take legal action against our club if we don’t meet your demands of our club providing a chemical treatment to Lake Jeane.”

While Woolley didn’t take the legal action, others did. The March 30 lawsuit was filed by Patti and Mel Ward, Casey and Jana Richardson, Elmer and Rose Reed, David and Laine Kokosz, Anthony and Vera Diloreto, Tony and Bonnie Armstrong, Stephen Mandle, Jennifer Cade and John Read.

The plaintiffs, who own homes on the lake, allege the club was eligible to apply for funding that would have paid for treatment of the lake but “refused.”

“[The] defendant acknowledges that the other lake in the development, Lake Lorene, is being successfully re-mediated,” the lawsuit documents state. “Defendant refuses to utilize the same treatment as the one used on Lake Lorene because defendant alleges that treatment will make the lake water less than ideal for the defendant’s irrigation purposes.”

The club, meanwhile, says it was eligible to apply for funding, but officials deny they “refused” to do so and say they weren’t even eligible for the funding.

Because of the club’s alleged inaction, the plaintiffs state they’ve been deprived of their right to use their lake easement and deprived of their right to use and enjoy their homes.

“The lake gives off a noxious odor for a number of months every year,” the documents continue. “The lake is unsightly for a number of months every year. People and animals must stay clear of the lake for a number of months every year. The lake raises fear and anxiety in the community and the plaintiffs because of the risk it poses to the community, human beings, and animals for a number of months every year.”

Lori O’Tool, an attorney with Preg, O’Donnell and Gillett, who represents the club, said there hasn’t been any toxic algae levels on the lake in 2016. If there is, the club has a permit to treat it.

“It’s dependent on certain conditions before that application is applied,” she said, noting there must be a thick layer of blue-green algae and a strong odor emanating from the water. “As I’m sure you’ve observed, we’ve had a cooler, wetter summer. Those conditions haven’t been present.”

O’Tool said the preventative treatments are a “Band-Aid approach” that don’t seem to have long-lasting effects and can be very expensive.

“The club has been actively observing what’s been happening with Lake Lorene and what the homeowners association has been doing and have been taking their actions into consideration,” O’Tool said. “Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a preventative measure that really works, that they’ve provided evidence that works.”

O’Tool denies the allegation that the club doesn’t want to use the preventive treatment because it would harm the golf course’s green way.

“Any accusations that the club is not cooperating with the various governmental agencies is not true,” O’Tool said. “No governmental body has ever requested the club treat Lake Jeane. Any accusations that we are not cooperating with these agencies simply are not true.”

Algae’s impact

Although the algae hasn’t reached toxic levels this summer, independent lab results, public alerts recommending limited use of the lake and information from the residents caused the King County Assessor to lower the property value of homes on Lake Jeane by $24,000.

John Wilson, the King County Assessor, wrote a letter to homeowners stating that “considerable algae and phosphorus content on Lake Jeane” were the reasons he was lowering the values.

“I met with Federal Way residents at a town hall meeting and they brought this issue to my attention. I firmly believe that all taxpayers should pay what they owe, but not a penny more,” Wilson said in a news release. “It doesn’t make sense that they are charged a lakefront premium when the lake they are living on is posted for being a potential public health risk.”

Each home of the 40 on the lake are affected by $24,000 decrease.

According to Wilson, blue-green algae has affected six lakes in Federal Way since the Washington State Department of Ecology started tracking outbreaks in 2007: Easter Lake, North Lake, Steel Lake, French Lake, Lake Jeane and Lake Lorene.

Steel Lake, Lake Lorene and Lake Jeane are the only lakes that have reached toxic levels.

There’s currently a Department of Ecology grant that has allowed the city to study upper Joe’s Creek to check for sources of phosphorous and other factors that could lead to the algae, which is concentrated at Twin Lakes, but the study won’t end until September of this year.

Until then, residents invite the community to see the bright green Lake Jeane during the annual National Night Out event on Aug. 2 with the hope that it’s treated before it turns toxic.