West Point Lake algae levels rising concern, lake still healthy

Published 10:20 am Friday, February 2, 2024

According to Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK), levels of chlorophyll in tests indicate excess algae in West Point Lake.

West Point Lake saw its highest recorded levels of chlorophyll-a, an indicator of the amount of algae in the water, for the first time in more than a decade.

Chlorophyll is a pigment that allows plants to photosynthesize sunlight into energy. Chlorophyll-a is the predominant type of chlorophyll found in green plants and algae. Its levels are an important measure of the lake’s overall environmental health. 

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“Excess algae in the water can negatively affect lake water quality, impact the taste and smell of drinking water after treatment, and cause decreases in the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Some algae species may even threaten the health of humans and animals who come in contact with the contaminated water,” Chattahoochee Riverkeeper said in a press release.

Before anyone goes off and sounds alarm bells, CKR Deputy Director Henry Jacobs said the lake is still healthy.

“We’re concerned, but West Point Lake is still healthy,” Jacobs said. “I want people to know that they can go out to the lake this year and enjoy it. Go swimming, fishing or boating.”

He said the increased algae levels are an early warning sign of potential issues to come that may need to be addressed in the next few years.

Last year, 2023, is the first year that algae levels in West Point Lake have exceeded standards set by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) in 2013.

If annual chlorophyll-a levels in the lake exceed standard levels within five years, it will trigger a state-required cleanup plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load.

CRK began collecting water samples to monitor chlorophyll-a levels in West Point Lake in 2014. With the support of the City of LaGrange and other donors, the riverkeepers collect monthly samples at three stations on West Point Lake between April and October every year in accordance with a Sampling and Quality Assurance Plan approved by EPD. 

The results from the sampling indicate that the amount of algae in the lake has trended up since 2014, but algae levels made a significant jump this past year, jumping from 18 ug/L in 2022 to almost 30 ug/L in 2023. EPD standards are set at 24 ug/L for the station where the results were collected.

Jacobs explained that there is no violation unless the chlorophyll is found to be above standard limits again within 5 years. If it does, that will trigger an EPD Total Maximum Daily Load plan to be implemented similar to one that was issued for Lake Lanier in 2018.

CRK believes the increased algae is due to better conditions for algae to grow, which come from a variety of factors including increased nutrients and warmer water.

Increased development along the Chattahoochee River downstream of Metro Atlanta has introduced increased nutrients to the water downstream, which has helped algae thrive. Unfortunately, that’s not so good for other wildlife in the lake.

West Point Lake inadvertently acts as a net for sediment from development, nutrients from lawns, polluted runoff from industrial facilities and leaking wastewater pipes provide a nutrient-rich environment for algae.

CRK says the situation is much better than it was – water quality data collected on the Chattahoochee River upstream of West Point Lake indicates an 80 percent reduction in bacteria levels compared to results from two decades ago. But more work is needed to protect the lake.

“While the levels have been on the rise for the past several years, they are significantly lower than the minimal data we have that shows West Point Lake was a dying lake in the 80s and 90s,” Jacobs said.

Efforts to reduce climate change and warming trends would also help the lake, Jacobs said.

“The combined effects of nutrients and warmer temperatures pose a significant challenge to keeping West Point Lake healthy and safe,” notes Jason Ulseth, CRK Executive Director and Riverkeeper.

“The data is telling us that while water quality has been improved dramatically in WPL over the past 20 years, we still have work to do,” Jacobs said. “If West Point Lake does need a Total Maximum Daily Load, that plan will target nutrient pollution sources not only from Troup County but from all counties upstream and within the Chattahoochee Basin. That will involve a long process and lots of stakeholder interactions and comment periods.”

We are still happy to report that Atlanta’s sewer spills have decreased by 95 percent since 2000. But of course, as the Chattahoochee watershed continues to be built out, we have more and more problems with stormwater runoff (and still occasional sewer overflows),” Jacobs said.