St. Mary’s Lake problems spill over to canal

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Algae affects St Marys canal

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

An algae bloom has formed in a canal leading from Grand Lake St. Marys, causing a terrible smell in the city of St. Marys and angering the small town’s mayor.

The canal’s algae bloom is a mirror image of a problem that has long afflicted Grand Lake St. Marys, Ohio’s largest inland lake that sits about 66 miles north of Dayton.

Patrick McGowan, mayor of St. Marys, said the historic canal is directly linked to the lake, which was built as a water supply to the Miami-Erie Canal in the 19th century.

“You’re damn right I am,” McGowan said when asked if he was upset about the issue.

Lake advocates have long blamed regional agricultural practices in the lake’s watershed for the problem, specifically the spreading of animal manure on fields that they contend often don’t need the additional fertilization. They say it’s cheaper for farmers to spread the manure instead of paying to haul it away.

“The problem is the lake,” McGowan said. “This is a man-made problem.”

The area is suffering a drought at the moment, with only eight inches of water flowing through the state-owned canal, he said. “The stench is horrific.”

Officials with St.Marys met Wednesday with representatives of U.S. senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, as well as U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana. He said the representatives gave the city a contact with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration. And they “promised us” they would work with state legislators on the issue.

“Believe me, we’ll hold their feet to the fire on that one,” McGowan said after the meeting.

“I do believe we took the opportunity to keep the issue of the lake in front of them,” he added.

The state needs to dredge the canal and remove “organic material” to improve the flow, the mayor contends. “They own it, and they make the merchants in downtown St. Marys pay a rental fee for that canal ground.”

He acknowledged there may be other solutions, and he said he is open to them.

It’s a problem state and lake-area officials and residents have wrestled with for years.

“I’m not surprised, as polluted as that lake is,” said Kate Anderson, a Columbus resident who owns a weekend home at the lake and is president of an organization — the Guardians of the Grand Lake St. Marys — that tries to protect the lake and its 52 miles of shoreline.

Like other advocates, Anderson and McGowan argue that the laying of excess manure on watershed fields needs to regulated and limited, something Anderson said takes “political courage.”

”They know what the problem is,” she said, referring to state leaders. “They’ve known since 2007.”

There are too many phosphates and nitrates going into the lake, McGowan said. Legislation must address that, in his view.

“I absolutely adhere to that statement,” the mayor said. “They over-fertilize these fields.”

James Lee, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said the EPA has received no complaints about the city's canal. He pointed to a state web site,, for algae information on state recreational waterways.

He declined to respond to the argument that state officials know how to deal with the issue of algae blooms but have failed to do so.

But he said state agencies have worked to improve the lake, dredging to improve water quality, removing fish, building wetlands, using aeration and alum treatments and more.

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