Recent water tests at Isabella Lake suggests toxicity from blue-green algae poses much less of a public health threat than it did in early summer. But for local residents and business owners, the issue remains a point of contention.
County public health officials reported this week that water samples taken Aug. 24 show the neurotoxin known as anatoxin-a was present at a low but cautionary level in the areas of French Gulch Marina, Kissack Cove, Old Isabella Road Recreational Site, Paradise Cove and, in the Kern River, at Keysville Slippery Rock.
The results represent strong improvement from late June, when testing found record-high levels of blue-green algae toxicity at Kissack Cove and Paradise Cove.
"We've come out of the danger zone," said the county's director of environmental health, Donna Fenton. She hypothesized that continued draining of the lake in preparation for dam repair work has had a positive effect, saying, "We think that caused it to flush out some of the algae."
Blue-green algae can cause a variety of illnesses, including rashes and even death in humans. It has been known to kill dogs and livestock. Anatoxin-a, in particular, can cause loss of coordination, muscle convulsions and respiratory paralysis. It also bears noting that not all algae is toxic.
Since the algae scare in early summer, county public health officials have instituted two operational changes at the lake: a new system of monthly water testing and permanent signage to replace the temporary warning signs that disappeared shortly after they were put up at various spots around the lake.
Fenton said county officials had no knowledge of who may have taken down the signs or why, but noted that some Lake Isabella residents were opposed to posting notices that could reflect poorly on a business community that relies heavily on tourism.
Residents and business owners remain divided over what to do about the threat of blue-green algae, which has escalated worldwide, some believe because of changing weather patterns.
Debra Chase, owner of Isabella Lake's French Gulch and North Fork marinas, said she is not convinced algae is as dangerous as it has been portrayed in the news media. She proposed putting up warning signs only in areas with the highest concentrations of toxic algae.
"It's a natural occurrence," Chase said, adding that she lets her dogs drink from the lake at French Gulch. She said her workers are in the water off and on throughout the day and none have reported health problems.
"It's really frustrating as a business owner to have an issue that doesn't seem to be an issue blown out of proportion,” she said.
Others contend the algae problem deserves serious attention.
Vanessa, a local lodging worker who asked that her last name not be published because she was not authorized to speak to the news media, said she keeps her dogs away from the lake because of the toxic risk. Having seen mass bird die-offs at Isabella Lake, she thinks there should be more algae warning signs, not fewer.
She said visitors look stunned when she warns them to stay away from water with visibly high levels of algae. At the same time, she recognizes the need to promote business in an area with high rates of business closures.
“People are probably frightened, because this is our economy,” she said.