Federal Way’s upper Joe’s Creek study suffers backlash from Twin Lakes community

Those invested in making sure Lake Lorene and Lake Jeane – collectively known as Twin Lakes – don’t end up a toxic mess this summer believe a recent $66,500 study to find the cause of recurring algae should have done more.

Approved in 2015 by the Department of Ecology, the city of Federal Way applied for a $50,000 Freshwater Alage Control Program grant with a $16,500 match in 2014 to fund a study of the Upper Joe’s Creek Watershed.

The study collected data to “identify, control and reduce external surface and stormwater sources of nutrients” that go into the lakes and feed algae blooms, which can turn toxic if left untreated.

But two residents and a water quality expert believe more sites should have been studied with the limited dollars available.

“Those are very precious dollars,” Bob Woolley, a Lake Jeane resident, said. “They should have been used to find all the sources and influence on Lake Jeane.”

Need for the study

Since 2010, Gary Darcey, a former president of the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, has been battling blue-green algae on Lake Lorene. The last time it was toxic was October 2016, according to Darcey, but as recently as July 9 filamentous algae (non-toxic) has crept onto the surface of Lake Lorene.

The Twin Lakes Homeowners Association owns the lake bed of Lake Lorene and have spent thousands of dollars and hours include preventing and treating toxic algae bloom.

Lake Jeane is still in the clear, for now.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that “can cause illness in humans, pets, waterfowl and other animals that come in contact” with it. The toxic algae blooms can kill livestock and pets if they drink the water it lives in.

“What occurs in Lake Jeane does not stay in Lake Jeane,” Don Russell, the water quality expert, said, adding that the toxins are blown all over the neighborhood, sprayed all over the neighborhood through an irrigation system, and is discharged into lower Joe’s Creek, which affects the environment of salmon and shellfish.

After an expensive treatment failed in 2014, which was supposed to last five years, Darcey met Russell and began sampling the water to see if there were nutrients that feed the algae, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, coming from Upper Joe’s Creek. He said the 15-20 homes with septic tanks near the creek made him think there was.

“I called the city and said, ‘Hey, I found some things in Joe’s Creek,’ ” Darcey said, adding that he saw a travel trailer with a hose hooked into it going into the lake, some old tires and an overloaded dumpster nearby. “I thought, ‘Something there is probably providing a source of phosphorous’.”

Darcey contacted the city and learned there was a $50,000 Freshwater Algae Control Program grant from the Department of Ecology, but someone would have to put up a $16,500 match. Darcey said he thought about helping with the match but never confirmed the Twin Lakes Homeowners Association would do so. He later decided the money would be better spent treating Lake Lorene for the algae.

The Federal Way City Council approved the funds for the match from Surface Water Management funds and staff began the planning phases.

But instead of sampling the lake, they would sample upper Joe’s Creek, which runs into Lake Lorene and Lake Jeane.

The project’s team comprised of the city’s Surface Water Management department, Department of Ecology and Herrera Environmental Consultants, Inc.

Herrera developed a Quality Assurance Project Plan and budget for the study, which was approved by the Department of Ecology in 2015. The city’s Surface Water Management team implemented the sampling and monitoring plan for nine sites along the Upper Joe’s Creek watershed in 2016 and tested each site for nutrients that feed algae in local laboratories. The results were then sent to Herrera for data analysis.

The city delivered Herrera’s findings to the City Council on June 20 and the Twin Lakes community the following week.

This month, Surface Water Management staff will submit the final grant documentation to the Department of Ecology and close the project.

Study results

The study measured three nutrients and one bacteria, fecal coliform bacteria. The three nutrients that feed algae include total phosphorous, soluble reactive phosphorous, nitrate-nitrogen. They tested the creek’s base flow, and surface and stormwater along the nine sampling sites in the upper Joe’s Creek watershed for one a year.

According to Hererra, the study found that all of the nutrients, which feed algae, were within the range of similar urban streams in King County except soluble reactive phosphorous. That nutrient was higher in Joe’s Creek than other King County streams during storm flow.

“Sources of phosphorous are many,” the city’s Public Works Director Marwan Salloum said. “I mean it could be as simple as somebody washing their car, pressure washing their roof, pressure washing their driveway and geese allowed on Lake Lorene or the golf course – all of those, the droppings from the geese have phosphorous in them and all of them feed into the system.”

Surface Water Management staff also engaged in the city of Tacoma’s water quality staff, the Department of Ecology for leaking on-site sewage systems, they sought technical support for surface water issues and continue to watch for illicit discharges.

Salloum said the city hopes to use the data to figure out where they’re going to focus on public education in an effort to reduce the concentration of phosphorous within the upper Joe’s Creek watershed.

However, the study concluded that in order for the lakes to truly “reduce the frequency of toxic algae blooms,” the phosphorous, which feeds toxic algae, would need to be reduced. In order to accomplish that, a $15,000 lake restoration analysis is needed to develop a “long-term and cost effective reduction approach” to figure out where other sources of phosphorous are coming from.

“Over 10-15 years those lakes have been in existence, there’s a lot of organic [material] deposited into the bottom of the lake,” Salloum said. “So, the lake itself generates some of the nutrients that are getting discharged.”

Sampling sites

Woolley, the Lake Jeane resident, believes the study should have looked at two more sites that he believes are full of toxic-algae-causing nutrients. But they weren’t tested.

“I believe it could have searched for all sources of phosphorous that’s contributing to the loading of Joe’s Creek and ultimately to Twin Lakes,” Woolley said. “I believe, and there’s good data, that it’s from the A3 aquifer, which is the headwaters of Joe’s Creek – it is also the source of the club’s well water that is injected into Lake Jeane.”

That “club” Woolley is referring to is Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club. The golf course owns Lake Jeane and irrigates its fairways using water from an aquifer. That water is then pumped through a well and circulated back into Lake Jeane.

“There were about four to five different samplings of that well and it was discovered that the soluble reactive phosphorous concentration was quite high, about 30-60 parts per billion,” Russell said.

Russell has Bachelor of Science degree form the University of Washington as a fish biologist and aquatic chemist and has voluntarily been monitoring water quality for 18 years. He said the higher the soluble reactive phosphorous in the water, the more likely a lake is to experience toxic algae.

Phil Matonti, the chair of the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, said the club hired an expert freshwater toxicologist in 2016 to sample and analyze Lake Jeane and the replacement well water, which is pumped from the A3 aquifer, for phosphorous among other parameters.

The expert, Tamara Lunsman, Ph.D., concluded that in August 2016, total phosphorous concentrations in the well water samples were two times lower than concentrations in Lake Jeane. Because of that, she said the club was taking lake water for irrigation and replacing with with the same amount of well water, it would reduce the total amount of nutrients that feed toxic algae. Matonti said it would even “increase the overall water quality in Lake Jeane” by getting rid of fecal coliform and cloudiness of the water.

However, Woolley, Russell and Darcey point out that total phosphorous is different than soluble reactive phosphorous.

Russell said it is only soluble reactive that makes algae toxic, not total phosphorous.

Salloum said the study did not take samplings from the aquifer or the well because, “the study was to take a look at the upper Joe’s Creek and analyze water coming in through Joe’s Creek into the lake.”

“It was not to analyze ground water or any nutrients being generated within the lake itself,” Salloum said. “That is the reason we did not analyze the ground water.”

Salloum said the city does not have control over the well, but they do have control over everything they analyzed.

“What happened is we had to tweak the scope of the work for that grant a little bit because we cannot spend public funds on private lake, so the scope was modified to have the study done for upper Joe’s Creek,” he said.


Whether the Ecology grant funded a study that did or did not test a specific site, Russell believes the intent for the grant was to “prevent and control toxic algae blooms” in the lakes but said the study didn’t do that.

Russell, who lobbied the Legislature in the early 2000s for the implementation of the Freshwater Algae Control Grant Program, thinks the upper Joe’s Creek Watershed study was a misallocation of money. It all started after he went to the Legislature with the intent of “actually getting some money to deal with these issues” after there was a dog death at Lake Steilacoom.

The program was adopted in 2005 but not before it was “whittled down” to $1 per year for all boats who are registered in the state of Washington for total of about $250,000 a year, he said. Half of the money is earmarked to provide toxic algae sampling testing for citizens and health departments while the other half is used for small grants – what the city received for their study, Russell added.

“So, it’s a pretty small pot to deal with a statewide problem and when they took $50,000 – Federal Way – and applied it to merely verify their … stormwater system wasn’t contributing anymore phosphorous than any of the other four main streams in the study, they sort of washed their hands of the whole study and said, well, we don’t have a problem here,” Russell said.

Department of Ecology spokesman Larry Altose said Ecology approved the funding based on the city’s application, which described a surface water study of Joe’s Creek.

Altose said Ecology reviewed the project and decided to provide the maximum grant award because they believe it does fall within the Freshwater Algae Control Program grant and proposed grant scope of work.

“The study’s purpose was to collect data on nutrient conditions in the creek and to aid the city’s effort in identifying nutrient sources that could contribute to algae blooms in the Twin Lakes,” Altose said. “It is not out of scope if the data also more broadly supports the city’s stormwater pollution control programs.”

Many times a single study will not conclusively solve the targeted problem, Altose added.

“Often studies help pinpoint further research needs,” he said.

Salloum, the city’s Public Works director, said the city’s position is that the grant met the scope of the study and that if Ecology, the one who approved the scope, determined it didn’t meet the intent of the program, then they wouldn’t have funded the study.

Instead, Russell believes the city should have funded the study with Surface Water Management funds.

Whose responsibility?

It’s Darcey’s opinion the state should be responsible for treating the lakes, even though they’re private, because the state owns the water column.

“We’re not putting this stuff in here,” Darcey said. “We, the homeowners, I mean, we’re putting a little bit in – we can’t help it – but it’s my opinion the state should be helping funding this but then it always gets down to this private versus public.”

Altose said controlling algae or aquatic weeds in a privately owned lake is the responsibility of the lake’s owners.

“While it’s true that Washington law considers water to be publicly owned, a lake bed and shoreline can be under private ownership,” Altose said. “In such cases, the owner is responsible for the lake’s maintenance and for conducting any needed treatment.”

And while the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club owns Lake Jeane, residents are currently in litigation with them to determine who has the right to treat it. Based on public record, the city’s senior policy adviser, Yarden Weidenfeld, said it appeared the two parties may settle the dispute this month.

The March 2016 lawsuit was filed by Patti and Mel Ward, Casey and Jana Richardson, Elmer and Rose Reed, David and Laine Kolosz, Anthony and Vera Diloreto and Tony and Bonnie Armstrong, Stephen Mandle, Jennifer Cade and John Read.

Last summer, Woolley requested the city revise the city’s public nuisance ordinance to include toxic health hazards on a residential lake. But, the city said that would have unintended consequences for all of the other lakes in Federal Way.

Weidenfeld is also working on a 60-70 page report that will deliver a recommendation to Mayor Jim Ferrell on what the city can do, if anything, to help. He said it is in draft form and hopes it to be complete this month as well.

“The city, we’re really interested in trying to help people to make sure they have the full use of enjoyment – whatever property rights they have – on the limited extent that we have any ability to do that,” Weidenfeld said.

For more information on the upper Joe’s Creek watershed study, read the city’s report here.