Updated: 10:59 p.m. Friday, July 2, 2010 | Posted: 9:50 p.m. Friday, July 2, 2010

Grand Lake St. Marys 'dying' from toxic algae



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Grand Lake St. Marys 'dying' from toxic algae photo
Char Richtmyer, a Grand Lake St. Marys resident for 16 years, pulls a dead fish off the beach to toss it back in the water. For the second year in a row, the lake has been plagued by a new and potentially toxic form of algae that is killing fish, creating foul odors and driving away tourists at the height of the summer season. Staff photo by Jim Witmer

By Jim DeBrosse

Staff Writer

GRAND LAKE ST. MARYS — Ben Rupert has lived 47 of his 50 years in the Villa Nova section of Grand Lake St. Marys, where on Tuesday morning he watched juvenile detention crews shovel dead catfish from a beach and pile them in the back of a dump truck. When the crew left, only the hungry seagulls remained.

“Years ago, it was nothing to see 60 to 100 people on this beach every day in the summer,” Rupert said. “And you can see what it is today. This is definitely the worst it’s ever been.”

Residents and business owners say the water quality of the state’s largest inland lake has been gradually deteriorating over the last 10 to 15 years, but the problem has rapidly accelerated in the last three. An outbreak of algae in May 2009 led the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to post signs advising “limited contact” with the water and no ingestion. When the water cleared over the winter, the signs were taken down this April.

But by mid-June, a new and more toxic species of blue-green algae, called Aphanizomenon gracile, had taken hold of the lake. The new algae produced a foul-smelling blue-green scum and killed off thousands of fish. It also released liver and neuro toxins into the water. Although health officials aren’t sure exactly what levels of the toxins are dangerous to humans, the Ohio EPA posted signs June 18 advising “no contact” with the water.

Business people frustrated

The signs are likely to remain in effect for weeks to come, to the frustration of already hard-pressed business people. Tourism was down 16 percent after last year’s algae outbreak and has plummeted even further since the latest algae outbreak, said Donna Grube, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Mercer and Auglaize Counties. The future of the lake’s $160 million tourism industry and its 2,600 employees is at stake, she said.

While angry locals continue to press state officials for solutions, the experts say there are no quick ones.

“The clock is ticking. This lake is dying,” said Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which owns the lake and operates it as a state park.

The solution “will definitely take collaborative action among government agencies at all levels and private landowners. This problem didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be solved overnight,” Logan said.

Friday, Gov. Ted Strickland sents letters to the U.S. EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for economic and environmental assistance for a problem that’s “causing a significant loss to local businesses and the overall livelihood of the region.”

Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski said the latest species of algae bloom is one “we haven’t seen before, and there is cycling in the lake we’ve never seen before. At this point, we just don’t understand it.”

The root cause, however, is clear — the run-off of manure and fertilizers from watershed lands feeding the lake. Ninety percent of that land is used for livestock and crop production by 450 or so mostly family-owned farms, according to the Ohio Farm Bureau. It also happens to be some of the most productive and profitable farmland in Ohio. In 2007, Mercer County ranked first in the state, and Auglaize County eighth, in agricultural revenues, generating a total of $675 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Manure and most farm fertilizers contain phosphorus, which feed the algae in the lake. Depending on the species, the algae may or may not release toxins into the water. Either way, as the algae blooms and dies off, it robs oxygen from the water and kills off fish. The dying algae and its phosphorus settle into the sediment at the bottom of the lake.

Shallow depth, slow cycling rate

Experts say Grand Lake St. Marys is particularly susceptible to algae blooms because of its shallow depth and slow water cycling rate. Winds across the lake can kick up phosphorous from the sediment, further feeding the algae. And the lake is so massive it takes a year and a half for all of its water to cycle through.

Since last fall, an alliance of state agencies — ODNR, Ohio EPA and Ohio Department of Agriculture — have worked with local farmers to improve their fertilizer and manure management practices and to create uncultivated buffer zones to prevent run-off from reaching the lake’s watershed. The agencies have received $2 million over the last two years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help with the voluntary effort.

But progress has been slow. According to a report released by the ODNR in March, only about 23 percent of the 54,000 acres in the watershed is farmed under nutrient management plans approved within the last five years. The lake restoration alliance has a goal of increasing that compliance to 35 percent by 2011.

Programs to induce farmers to create buffer zones around their fields have been hampered by a lack of funds. The USDA’s Wetland Reserve Program offers $3,500 per acre to protect or restore wetlands, but farm values in the watershed are $8,000 to $10,000 per acre. Likewise, the federal Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) pays farmers about $50 an acre to create buffer zones, but the Ohio Farm Bureau says farmers can make two to three times that much by cultivating the acreage.

Larry Antosch, director of environmental policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said it’s not fair to make farmers assume most of the financial burden for “a societal benefit as a whole.”

But if the lake continues to deteriorate, mandatory land use practices for farmers may be in the offing, ODNR’s Logan said. He said the U.S. EPA is looking into developing formal regulation of so-called “non-point source pollution” — the multiple sources of water pollution that can’t be traced to a particular farm, especially after a heavy rain.

Under current state and federal law, fines can only be imposed if run-off can be tracked to a particular farm. And while larger farms that raise livestock are required to seek permits governing their land use under USDA guidelines, smaller farms and those that grow only crops need no permits.

Tourism industry vs. farmers

Mandatory land use requirements, including buffer zones, would have to be approved by the Ohio General Assembly, setting up a political battle between the lake’s $160 million tourist industry and the region’s $675 million agricultural industry. Antosch said farmers don’t want mandatory requirements because they lose flexibility “and the need to address the issues on each individual’s property.”

Impatient with government efforts, local residents and business owners have raised a half-million dollars through the Grand Lake St. Marys Restoration Initiative to explore new technologies that might alleviate the lake’s decline. They include the installation of two “Airy-Gators” to add oxygen to the lake and collection systems that will remove sediment and pump it to a disposal site. Both would have to be vastly enlarged to make a dent in the problem, said Robert Hiskey, a professor of freshwater science at Wright State University.

The Ohio EPA is considering at least one quick-fix possibility — applying alum to the lake. The chemical would bind with the excess phosphorous and drop it to the sediment where it could no longer feed the algae. The Ohio EPA’s private partner in the project, Tetra Tech Inc., is expected to release the results of a study and a treatment proposal sometime in the next several weeks, Ohio EPA officials said.

But state officials acknowledge the project may be too expensive — one application of alum may cost millions of dollars, according to preliminary estimates. And even if the alum drops the phosphorous to the lake bottom, winds could kick it up again, Hiskey said.

“I wish I could say the cavalry is around the corner,” Korleski of the Ohio EPA told a group of local community and business leaders meeting at the lake Tuesday. “Through partnerships and a lot of painful discussions, we will be able to solve this.”

But residents and business owners are angry that state agricultural and environmental officials allowed the lake to deteriorate to the point where it may take years to restore its water quality.

“I can see both sides of the coin — the farmers have got to make a living,” Rupert said. “But the land and water management practices here have got to change. This lake has become a toilet, and it needs to be flushed.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2437 or jdebrosse@DaytonDailyNews.com.