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- History: Grand Lake St. Marys was created in the 1840's when Beaver Prairie was flooded to provide a source of water for the canal system. The shallow lake later became a popular destination for boaters and anglers as well as associated residential and commercial development.
- Location: The lake is located in Mercer and Auglaize Counties in western Ohio. About 80 percent of the lake's watershed is farmland with a high concentration of livestock. Wetlands that provided a natural filter have disappeared over the years as lakeside development has increased.
- At Issue: Phosphorous that becomes trapped in the lake feeds blooms of toxic blue-green algae. The blooms became bad enough this year for the state to issue a warning to stay out of the water.
It’s a problem that has been brewing for more than a century.
Now the trouble has caught up with those who live near Grand Lake St. Marys, a former marshland in western Ohio that was flooded to feed canals more than 150 years ago.
With 13,500 acres, it is the largest inland lake in Ohio. But it is only seven-feet deep and traps as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of the nutrients and sediment that flow into it.
High phosphorous levels have produced blooms of algae that emit toxins that are dangerous to people and pets.
“You have the internal phosphorous loading – what’s in the sediment – plus the additional materials that are being washed in during storm events,” said Larry Antosch, OFBF senior director of program innovation and environmental policy.
The algal blooms have become so bad that the state is now cautioning against contact with the water, which has all but eliminated visitors to the lake.
Tensions are running high as local businesses and homeowners are dealing with the loss of a recreational destination that is an important economic driver.
Because 80 percent of the 92 square-mile watershed is agricultural land, farmers are recognizing they have a responsibility to help with clean-up efforts. But they say there are no easy fixes as the lake’s problems extend beyond agricultural runoff.
“We have a share in the blame and the problem, but there are many problems with the lake,” said Dennis Howick, president of the Mercer County Farm Bureau.
Howick said farmers are taking action by improving soil conservation and nutrient management efforts. In fact, millions of dollars in conservation funds have been utilized by farmers to implement practices such as hay buffers and manure storage.
This year, the Mercer County Farm Bureau has proposed strengthening its local policy, calling for all livestock farmers in the watershed to develop nutrient management plans. Such plans detail where and when manure and fertilizer should be used to avoid excess application.
Nikki Hawk, administrator for the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District, said she is encouraging farmers to control what they can.
“Agriculture may be the predominant land use, but it doesn’t need to be any part of the problem,” she said. “(We should) do everything in our power as an industry to take ourselves off the radar, out of the equation. If you take care of your house, then it will make a difference.”
Livestock farmer Ivo Post says most farmers are willing to voluntarily work toward the recovery of the lake. His biggest concern is that regulations and the associated paperwork could burden the many small and medium-sized family farms in the area.
“I want to be a farmer. My worst day of the week is when I’m in the office,” said the former Mercer County Farm Bureau president.
But the issue has become so heated that farmers have known additional regulation was likely. Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration recently proposed new rules that would, among other things, limit winter application of manure.
As farmers ramp up their efforts, others are looking at how to fix problems with the lake itself. Dredging out sediment would be an enormous and expensive undertaking. Other efforts look at restoring wetlands that have been lost over the years.
Lovett, of the lake association, said it's not the time to place blame.
“At some point in time we’ve got to quit saying who’s guilty and we’ve got to say we need to get this fixed,” he said.