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Testing Nebraska's lakes for toxic algae means swim or no-swim
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Testing Nebraska's lakes for toxic algae means swim or no-swim

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The weekly process that results in Nebraska lakes passing or flunking toxic algae tests began last Monday on a morning so hectic that a pan of homemade bread pudding went mostly untouched as Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality staffers prepped to leave the lab and head into the field.

The dry-erase board inside the lab near Eighth and Hill streets listed all of the June 13 assignments for the eight college students and recent graduates who spend the summer months visiting a decent swath of the state to test lakes, streams, basins and more.

On this day, Rachel Neisius and Kyle Copple were bound for Wahoo, Grant Beckman and Jehnsen Lebsock for Omaha and Morgan Ransiear and Annalyssa Fountain for Fremont. The Hartington run went to Heaven Hulshizer and Nolan Watkins. 

From the beginning of May to the end of September, DEQ tests water samples from 51 Nebraska lakes for the presence of E. coli bacteria and microcystin, also known as toxic blue-green algae.

Microcystin is a bacteria released from algae blooms that can cause liver damage, said Dave Schumacher, supervisor of the department's surface water unit. It can cause hives and rashes to exposed skin and nausea or worse when swallowed. And research is looking into whether the toxins could be tied to ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer's, he said.

Blue-green algae production, researchers believe, is driven by a combination of warm temperatures in low levels of water and can be affected by agricultural runoff that contains nitrogen and phosphorus.

The process of determining whether it's safe to swim begins anew each Monday when the sample takers head out to, as Schumacher calls it, grab lakes.

Chilled samples are shipped to the Lincoln lab from satellite offices and partnering agencies in the more far-flung reaches of the state.

A sample container is about the size of an aspirin bottle. For the microcystin tests, a fraction of the water is frozen, then thawed, three times before a fraction of that is tested for the presence of toxic algae. The fate of a massive lake can be determined from a sample that wouldn’t fill a coffee straw.

On Monday, Schumacher took the Lincoln-area sample run, which includes Holmes, Wagon Train, Bluestem, Branched Oak and Pawnee lakes. Even though Holmes is a no-swimming lake, Schumacher said, DEQ tests it because it’s nearby, heavily used and hosts a triathlon.)

With a swing by Conestoga, which is being deepened in part to reduce the threat of toxic algae blooms, the drive around the county totaled 125 miles -- a short trip by DEQ standards.

The public beach-testing programs started soon after a sheepdog and then a yellow lab died after drinking water from Buccaneer Bay Lake in Sarpy County in May 2004.

At the first stop on Monday, Schumacher put on a pair of hip waders and took one brown bottle (for the microcystin test sample) and one clear bottle (for the E. coli sample) from the back of his truck and walked knee-deep off the Holmes Lake shore.

Often, people on the beaches ignore them as they walk into lakes fully clothed, said Fountain, a recent Nebraska Wesleyan grad. Sometimes, people spot her dunking bottles into the water and ask if it’s OK to swim there.

“Yeah, we just don’t want to get wet,” is her go-to response.

The DEQ summer staffers do, however, have a policy for falling in during a sample run: You get water in your waders, you owe the office doughnuts.

By midweek, they trade the hip waders for lab coats and turn up the official song of the spectrophotometry testing process: Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”

It takes about the length of that tune for the machine’s photometers to beam light through the trays of water samples, which include droplets from control solutions as well as samples from the 51 monitored beaches.

The results show up on a Dell desktop.

On Thursday, Beckman’s eyes were trained to the fifth column of numbers scrolling by. That was the final microcystin measurement, the one that results in a health advisory being issued -- or not.

Many began with a decimal point. Often, only six asterisks -- the mark of a complete absence of the stuff in the tested sample -- appeared. Then, a comparably giant number rolled past.

“And that’s Harlan Lake,” Grant correctly guessed. (A DEQ staffer had sent pictures of blue-green algae on the surface back to the lab earlier this week.)

Along came Pawnee Lake’s samples. Both the east and west side samples were promisingly low.

But so were some of the control samples. In fact, the readings were lower than the range step-by-step procedures for testing allowed.

Time for a second run.

“We realize the importance of what it means when a lake is closed,” Schumacher said.

So there's no ballparking it in the DEQ lab, and Beckman and Fountain began the four-hour-long process again.

“One more time,” Beckman said, reaching for the pipettes.

Four hours later, the control sample measurements weren’t wonky.

The Harlan sample, with a measurement of 28.98 ppb, was still high enough to close the lake to swimming for the next two weeks -- at least. And Pawnee’s two samples -- 0.6 ppb on the east side and nothing at all in the west side sample -- meant the no-swimming signs have been plucked from along the shores.

And on Monday, they’ll start the process all over again.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSMatteson.

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Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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