Toxins in Pierce College’s Backyard

Jesus Contreras / Staff Photographer
Waterfowl release nitrogen and phosphorus into the lake after eating, contributing to the algae. (Feeding the ducks is against the rules.

Waughop Lake and the toxic algae residing within

Down the hill from Pierce College Fort Steilacoom is Waughop Lake, a small body of water on the edge of the forest in Fort Steilacoom Park. The lake is surrounded by a trail where people can walk their dogs, ride a bike, or go for a quick jog. However, while the trail itself is peaceful, the lake says otherwise, as it’s home to numerous toxic algae blooms.

A neurotoxin in the lake causes a potentially lethal nerve disease in mammals; if ingested, it can cause paralysis. According to the Suburban Times, no humans have died from exposure to the toxic algae blooms, but several dogs have died after swimming in the lake.

In 2019, the City of Lakewood implemented a clean-up strategy that would remove phosphorus from the lake using Aluminum Sulfate (“alum”). However, Earth and Ocean Sciences professor, Michele LaFontaine, who did her Master’s Thesis on Lake Waughop, is against this plan. 

“It’s kind of like a Band-Aid solution,” LaFontaine said. “It fixes the condition right now, but the problem is that a lot of the chemicals are in the sediments in the lake. So what the alum treatment does is clean up the toxins that are in the water. So then the water’s clean, but then more of the toxins come out of the sediment. So you’re treating the symptoms, not the actual cause.”

Due to the potential threat of paralysis, people should avoid going into the lake. According to LaFontaine, the toxins do not affect the fish, turtles, or birds who live in and around the lake, such as the yellow perch or the largemouth bass. However, if a human or other mammal eats the fish, the toxin will affect them.

LaFontaine said a major contributor to the algae bloom was a farm previously owned by Western State Hospital. “They used to dump all kinds of garbage and debris into the lake,” LaFontaine said.

The pollution in the lake caused Waughop to go from 30 to 12 feet deep. It is also blocking a natural spring that used to feed water into the lake. Since the lake does not connect to any other body of water, the algae stay in the lake, continuing to grow.

Elysia Mbuja, Fort Steilacoom’s Biology Department Coordinator, said that the lake has an overload of nitrogen and phosphorus, which feeds the algae. “That is partly because of the waterfowl that are being fed, but mainly because there’s no inlet or outlet of the lake, so it’s dependent entirely on the water cycle,” Mbuja said. “So, when the water evaporates, the nutrients become concentrated, and that feeds the algae that grow in the lake.”

While Lakewood’s solution for the lake involves using alum, LaFontaine would rather the city go for a different method. “I think the only real solution is to dredge the sediments out of the lake and get that mucky stuff with all the excess nutrients and toxins out.” LaFontaine adds that while this is expensive, it would be a more long-term solution.

The area around Waughop Lake has since faced problems created by these toxins. Partly due to the pollution and algae altering the ecosystem, native species aren’t able to thrive. Meanwhile, the current environment is favoring invasive, non-native species, such as Scotch Broom and Himalayan Blackberries.

Pierce College, along with Fort Steilacoom Park, is working on the Garry Oak Restoration Project. The project works in the land behind Pierce College to remove the invasive species and replant native species like Garry Oaks. 

Garry Oaks, known as Oregon White Oaks, are the only oak tree native to the Pacific Northwest. It is an acorn-bearing tree with brownish-gray bark and dark green leaves. Garry Oak woodlands in Washington and British Columbia provide food and habitat for numerous species that are rare in these areas.

“We’re really fortunate to have the park and the lake right next to the college that we can study and be part of the cleanup efforts. Because it’s our neighborhood, and we need to take care of it,” says LaFontaine

For more information on the Garry Oak Restoration Project, or about the lake itself, Mbuja and LaFontaine can be contacted on Pierce College Fort Steilacoom’s campus, or via email.