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Kitsap Lakers told to clean up their own mess

Environmental health specialist with the Health District, Mindy Fohn, examines an aerial photo of Kitsap Lake. She emceed a public meeting on the latest planned study of the lake and Chico Bay, beginning this month. - Photo by Kelly Everett
Environmental health specialist with the Health District, Mindy Fohn, examines an aerial photo of Kitsap Lake. She emceed a public meeting on the latest planned study of the lake and Chico Bay, beginning this month.
— image credit: Photo by Kelly Everett

In the most helpful and polite terms possible, the health department told two dozen Kitsap Lake residents at a public meeting Thursday night they would need to clean up the lake themselves.

The Health District is launching yet another study of the lake — listed by both the feds and state as “polluted” and “an impaired body of water.” The lake is subject to toxic blue-green algae blooms, “swimmers’ itch,” and “hot spots” of fecal bacteria.

The blooms come from phosphorous — food for the algae. The itch and hot spots also come from toxic microbes. Both the phosphorous and fecal coliform bacteria come from leaks from aging septic systems; pet waste; duck, geese and other wild bird waste; livestock; fertilizers and soil erosion runoff; construction runoff; and leaky wastewater conveyance systems.

“An algae bloom in the fall of 2001 was so heavy it spilled into Kitsap and Chico creeks,” said Mindy Fohn, environmental health specialist with the Kitsap County Health District. The pollution can affect salmon.

Two other studies, in 1983 and 1998, gave similar results — the lake has been polluted since anyone can remember, agree experts and residents.

Residents complain they can’t afford to fix their septic systems, much less replace them. They also say they can’t afford to pay the fees to plug into Bremerton’s wastewater system, which does serve some of the lake. The lake is partly in the city and partly in the county.

Aside from dangerous fecal bacteria and toxic algae blooms, another consequence is “swimmers’ itch” The itch is caused by microscopic snail larvae that pass through the guts of wild birds who eat the snails in the lake. The larvae get into the lake in the birds’ feces. The microbes remain alive and burrow into the skin of swimmers.

The itch is basically harmless to humans, and the larvae eventually die in place. Health Department officials gave tips on avoiding the itch: don’t go in the water; if you do, shower and towel off immediately; and applying sun tan lotion before going in since it sometimes acts as a barrier to the larvae.

More bad news: As rains increase, more pollution is washed into the lake from impervious surfaces as well as residents’ yards.

The wild birds find the residents’ lawns and yards ideal habitat, said health officials. Three places around the lake open to the public are often posted, warning of all the hazards.

“There’s been lots of studies done,” said Preston Greer, another environmental health specialist with the Health District. “This is by no means going to cure the problem. This is just to teach homeowners the best way” to lessen pollution.

Estimates run as high as $12,000 to $20,000 to install new septic tanks, said one resident. 30-year Lake resident Dick Thompson was curious if grants could be found to help limited-income homeowners. Others asked about home-equity loans. Jack Lefcoski, Kitsap Lake’s Neighborhood Association president, suggested building catch basins at strategic points to catch stormwater. He wondered why nearby lakes had tested with so little pollution.

“In more shallow lakes, like Kitsap, weeds grow and gather the phosphorous. In the spring, the weeds die and release the pollutant,” said Fohn. Most of the weeds are in a swampy area at the lake’s south end.

Bremerton City Councilman Mike Short said the problem “Is the lay of the land ... many properties require pump stations to get rid of waste” by pumping it uphill to septic tanks.

In other words, the lake is a big, shallow, natural collector. “We need to complete the sewer line (for the lake) and for the planned community of Port Blakely,” next door, he said.

Again, it was pointed out landowners and/or taxpayers will have to pay for this. All the city and county can do is track the problem. Officials said the county and city are still working on their new Comprehensive Plans, which will offer guidelines for where sewer lines can run, how they should be constructed, and what they may cost.

“We used to have a small-loans program” for septic-tank repairs, said Fohn. “But there were so many defaults” among landowners around the lake, “we dropped it.”

One woman resident of the lake, a senior citizen, pointed out “It’s our generation” that caused the problem, but it’s been “hard for me to convince others my age we need to fix the problem.”

Greer said the USDA can help a little with the ducks and geese. In the past, the animals have been relocated or gassed and killed.

Fohn said there are ways to keep the birds off lawns with low fences. If all else fails, “Go out and shoot them yourselves.”

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