Stillwater, Minn., residents using barley to fight algae

STILLWATER, Minn. -- Stillwater residents who live around McKusick Lake are using a novel -- and natural -- way to get rid of the algae that's clouding their lake: a bale of barley.

STILLWATER, Minn. -- Stillwater residents who live around McKusick Lake are using a novel -- and natural -- way to get rid of the algae that's clouding their lake: a bale of barley.

Residents pooled their money earlier this year to buy a 700-pound bale of barley straw, divide it up and sink it in the lake.

So far, so good, said Bruce Werre, who lives on the lake and has been spearheading the barley drive.

"Let's put it this way: The algae has not reared its ugly head again," Werre said. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm optimistic enough to have quadrupled our order for next year."

A major algae bloom in May after several rainstorms and a heat wave led Werre and about 10 other members of the McKusick Lake Water Association to spend $300 on the project.


"It was the weekend of the fishing opener. I left on May 14, and the lake was beautiful," Werre said. "I came back on May 18, and the lake was covered -- completely covered. We just needed to do something. This was something that we could do as far as boots on the ground and feet in the water to try and combat the algae."

Studies have shown that decomposing barley straw releases an enzyme that inhibits new algae growth, said Erik Anderson, a water resource specialist with the Washington Conservation District. In 2002 and 2003, the district released barley straw to combat algae growth in Gellums Bay of Big Marine Lake, but it didn't work and hasn't been used since, he said.

Kevin Smith, a professor in the University of Minnesota's agronomy and plant genetics department, said the straw breaks down and decomposes naturally. Besides that, it's inexpensive and you don't need a lot of it, he said.

"What appears to happen is that it slows the growth of algae," Smith said. "We don't know exactly what compounds within the straw are responsible for that, but it seems to happen when the straw breaks down."

A resident on the east end of McKusick Lake placed barley straw in the lake last year and again this year, Werre said. "I thought it was voodoo science. I didn't believe it at first," Werre said. "He put it out after ice-out, and there were noticeable pockets where algae had not bloomed where he placed it."

Werre said his group sank sausage-shaped mesh nets full of barley straw at multiple locations around the 45-acre lake, including the outlet from Brown's Creek and at the stormwater catch basins that run into the lake, and will pull them up this fall. The residents plan to buy more barley this fall and put more bunches of straw in the water as soon as the ice goes out next spring.

"If it doesn't bloom at all, then we can say, 'Holy barley! We may be on to something here,' " Werre said.

City officials say it's too soon to tell whether the barley bundling is paying off. But Werre said he hopes to convince city officials that the plan is working well enough to gain the city's support -- both financially and manually.


McKusick Lake would usually have several algae blooms throughout the summer, Werre said. Not so this year.

"I don't know whether it was the barley or the atmospheric conditions or what, but we did not see the reoccurrence (of algae) like we've seen before," he said. "We've seen as many as three different blooms -- or for it to bloom and never to go away."

In the meantime, Werre is not revealing the source of his barley.

"It's within a 100-mile radius of the metro area, but that's all I will say," he said. "I don't want to lose my supply. It's an aggressive market. Who would think that something that produces a great beverage ... would be able to do something additionally positive?"

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