The sandy beaches at Grand Lake St. Marys should be crowded with sunbathers and swimmers soaking in the last rays of summer. Instead, the shoreline on a perfect summer day last week was packed with dead fish, dead ducks and fat carrion birds feasting on the rotting corpses. Ominous warning signs posted every few yards explain why the Ohio state park, which should be packed with visitors, is an eerie ghost town.
This lake is dying, said Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the agency responsible for the lake and the state park that surrounds much of Grand Lake St. Marys.
In June, state officials posted signs warning people to have no contact with the lake, even in boats. A new report issued Thursday lifted the ban on boating but still applies to swimming or eating fish from the lake. There were similar concerns last year but not to the extent that officials warned against even putting a boat in the water. This summer, the Ohio Department of Health investigated reports of at least 13 people with illnesses and several dog deaths possibly linked to the water quality.
Algae blooms are to blame. They are caused by too much phosphorus in the water, and a leading culprit for the source is uncontrolled agricultural fertilizer runoff. What overtook the lake were large blooms of cynobacteria, or blue-green algae. Its the type of algae that produce neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system, and hepatoxins, which affect the liver.
The algae are still blooming, the water is green, but the species composition seems to be changing, wrote Dr. Robert Hiskey in an e-mail. Hiskey is a biology professor at Wright State Universitys Lake Campus located on the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys.
The lake – the source of the St. Marys River – and state park should be recreational treasures. And both Celina, on the northwestern edge of the lake, and the town of St. Marys, on the northeastern edge, are inviting communities worth visiting. It would make a nice destination for Fort Wayne-area residents if not for the problems with the lake that are, understandably, keeping visitors away.
The Indiana connection
The loss of a nearby recreational oasis is not the only reason residents across the state line should care about the algae infestation. Grand Lake St. Marys, built between 1837 and 1845 to feed the Miami-Erie Canal, is the largest inland lake in Ohio. The 13,500-acre lake was the largest man-made lake in the world when it was built. It is also the headwaters for two very important Indiana rivers: the St. Marys and Wabash rivers.
St. Marys River travels from St. Marys, Ohio, west through Decatur to Fort Wayne, where it joins the St. Joe River to form the Maumee River, which eventually empties into Lake Erie.
Rod Renkenberger, executive director of the Maumee River Basin Commission, noted the blooms in Grand Lake St. Marys are the same type causing problems in Lake Erie.
A July report from the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, found the amount of dissolved phosphorus in the Maumee River is at the highest level since monitoring began in 1975.
On the west side of Grand Lake St Marys is a spillway that feeds Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Wabash River. The Wabash then flows through Indiana and joins the Ohio River, which joins the Mississippi River, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
Laura Walker, watershed coordinator for the Grand Lake-Wabash Watershed Alliance, said about 90 percent of the water in the lake belongs to the watershed feeding the Wabash, and 10 percent goes to the St. Marys River. But she doesnt think Fort Wayne residents should be overly concerned about blue-green algae blooms.
Youre not going to be growing the same kinds of algae in a river as you will in a lake. The teal algae – the one that produces the toxins – it usually has to have still water before it blooms. Its not typically going to form in a river, but algae is also hard to predict.
She thinks a healthy tree canopy helps protect the St. Marys River.
There are a lot of miles between Grand Lake St. Marys and the St. Marys River. There are a lot of changes in the water quality between the lake and the St. Marys in Fort Wayne, Walker said. The trees help cool the water and the roots act as a filter and decrease sediment erosion. Aerial maps show the Wabash has less of a tree line.
Bad for business
We do get a lot of Indiana visitors because there is no charge to visit our state parks, said Donna Grube, director of the Auglaize and Mercer Counties Convention and Visitors Bureau. She worries about getting those visitors back because there are other nearby options and because of the stigma of having to close the lake.
Weve been very transparent. You cant hide this kind of problem. So we hope that by being upfront when things get better people will return, she said.
The lake brings $160 million in tourism dollars and employs thousands of people. Grube said during a normal July the visitors center will have between 700 to 800 people stop in. This year the count was 150. Several marinas and bait shops have closed.
Grand Lake St. Marys is still a great place to visit and a great place to see, Walker said. She warns that scientists are seeing unprecedented occurrences of algae blooms all over the world and that it could happen in Fort Wayne.
Walker is absolutely right. This summer Ohio officials had to close lakes at two other state parks. And Indiana is not without its own problems.
Its unclear why blue-green algae blooms are becoming such a problem.
Hiskey, the Wright State professor, suggests: It may be the weather patterns, global warming, or just time and the years of nutrient runoff bringing us to a tipping point for the cynobacteria to become dominant. Just like Grand Lake St. Marys, many bodies of water have been receiving high nutrient loads for decades. This causes eutrophication. Eutrophic lakes have frequent or continuous algal blooms. Unfortunately, GLSMs bloom was and is a species that produce toxins.
The more immediate concern is solving the problem.
According to Renkenberger, Indiana may have an advantage because Indianas agricultural sector has really stepped up to control soil erosion and fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Its worthy of noting, at least in Adams and Allen counties, the agricultural community has been aggressive in trying to be environmentally sensitive and working to install a bunch of the best management practices.
State leaders need to continue to push those programs to prevent further degradation of our lakes and rivers.
However, the onus cant be placed entirely on the shoulders of farmers.
Hoosiers should, however, be concerned by plans concocted by Ohio officials to clean up the unholy mess because the plan involves Indiana. A plan released July 30 by the Ohio departments of health, environmental management, natural resources and agriculture proposes hauling manure to Indiana for disposal. The cleanup proposal also calls for a ban on manure-spreading between December and March to reduce phosphorus runoff from feeding the algae. But the ban wont kick in until March 2012, so Ohio residents will likely have to wait years before seeing improvement.
Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said he was not aware of Ohios cleanup plan.
We have deep concerns, said Barbara Sha Cox, of Indiana CAFO Watch. I think IDEM should be very proactive and testing should be done on a regular basis of those tributaries. If Ohio has a problem, the solution is not bringing it (manure) into Indiana watersheds. The citizens of Indiana should be putting pressure on IDEM to test and make the results known to the public.