The residents who live near Little Lagoon are worried.
The Little Lagoon Preservation Society is a grassroots organization built to protect the brackish, 8-mile-long coastal lake that sits along Fort Morgan Road. They analyze the water quality and work to maintain a healthy lake while improving recreational opportunities.
This week the group is asking the state of Alabama to hold off on issuing a permit to a nearby wastewater plant to expand its capacity until scientists can determine what is causing harmful algae to bloom and grow in the lagoon.
"I'm not ready to say that the wastewater plant is to blame, but I want to see complete results of the study," said Dennis Hatfield, a nearby resident and member of the society. "I am worried about the plant being a point for nutrient loading and I am worried about making it worse."
The lagoon has a history of developing thick blooms of algae which discolor the water and can kill fish and sicken humans.
Historically, organizers said, the ground water around the lagoon also delivers a large amount of outside material to the water, potentially causing those algae blooms.
So, last year members began a watershed management project to determine what was flowing into the lagoon and from where. The hope was if they could determine the source, they could stop the flow and stomp out the algae.
The group commissioned a study with help from the University of South Alabama to determine how and where nutrients were entering the water. Those nutrients run the gamut of harmful to benign, man-made to naturally occurring.
The study did not discriminate. Organizers researched the impacts from every type of neighboring property, from golf courses to the uninhabited national wildlife refuge.
Preliminary results showed anomalies just south of Baldwin County Sewer Service's wastewater treatment plant in Gulf Shores that sits off Fort Morgan Road just a quarter of a mile from Little Lagoon.
As the study was being conducted, the wastewater plant's owners applied to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to increase the daily flow from 1.2 million gallons a day to 2 million. The processed wastewater is placed in ponds at the plant, but Little Lagoon Society members are concerned that those ponds may be the source of some of the chemicals flowing into the lagoon.
The group has asked the state to wait to issue the permit until the studies are complete. The state is accepting public comment on the proposed permit until Friday, Feb. 25. After that, officials said the department would evaluate the comments and make a final permit decision.
Jenny Williams, a representative for BCSS, a privately owned company, said their engineering firm, CDG Inc., has spoken with society leaders about their concerns. Williams said in an email that the Fort Morgan plant processes water from Magnolia Springs, Foley, Bon Secour and Gulf Shores and has applied for the increase to be proactive in accommodating future growth.
She added that the company feels that old septic tanks and an increase in construction may contribute to the lagoon's water quality.
"As a utility company that also pumps septic tanks and regularly converts septic systems to sewer service, we see the many septic tanks in the Little Lagoon watershed, in addition to the increase in construction as significant factors contributing to the water quality in Little Lagoon," she wrote. "As an example, we have pumped hundreds of septic tanks and converted many malfunctioning septic systems to our sewer service in this watershed the last 10 years."
Lagoon society members say they recognize that finding nutrients in the soil, in this case, nitrogen, doesn't mean those nutrients came from the plant. The nitrogen could have landed in that spot after a nearby lawn was fertilized, when an animal used it as a restroom or could have even dropped from the atmosphere.
Still, they are worried.
"We are anxiously awaiting the study," Hatfield said.