Whenever Barb Niemeyer bikes around Choctaw Lake in central Ohio, she constantly scans the surface of the nearly half-square-mile body of water and adjacent ditches. She’s not just looking for her favorite bird, the blue heron, or at the plentiful fish skimming the water’s surface; she’s looking for conditions that could create the growth of cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae. The bacteria grows thick in warm, still and shallow water and feeds on phosphorus from various sources including manure, sewage and fertilizer that rain washes into streams.
A toxic form of cyanobacteria, which can sicken people and kill pets and wildlife, was first detected in the lake in 2012. It was only a small amount but enough to serve as a wake-up call for the private lake community in Madison County. About 850 households have agreed to increase their yearly community fees by $200 over five years to fund water quality improvements in their lake, and residents have been reaching out to local farmers and researchers to learn about practices that protect waterways.
“People who lived here a long time didn’t notice much difference in the lake. The lake was green before and it’s green now. The difference was that the hazardous green algae pushed out the favorable green algae. Turning the lake around is something that will take years,” said Jim Swihart, known locally as the “father of water quality at Choctaw Lake.”
Like many residents, the 51-year-old Choctaw Lake was the main attraction for Niemeyer and her husband to move to the community. Whether it’s sitting on the back deck watching the sunset reflect off the lake’s water or ripping through the water on skis, residents love their lake and are determined to keep it healthy.
New rules are now in place to protect the lake’s water, and residents visited area farms this spring to learn about the different methods farmers use to keep nutrients on the fields and out of waterways, including no-till, cover crops, grassy waterways and using
GPS to determine if one soil needs to be enhanced.
“We want to be proactive rather than reactive. Our goal is to clean up our own backyard and involve the watershed landowners,” Swihart said. “In our watershed, we’re the first stop the water makes. What we do here makes a lot of impact on a lot of downstream folks. This is an Ohio water issue, not just a Choctaw Lake issue.”
The Choctaw Lake Property Owners Association’s water quality improvement plan focuses on nutrient and silt reduction, elimination of hazardous materials to the lake, such as sewage, herbicides, litter and oil, and removal of undesirable plants or animals such as geese (one goose daily can produce a couple of pounds of droppings, which are high in phosphorus and nitrogen). Residents are prohibited from using phosphorus fertilizers on their lawns, asked to keep lawn clippings and leaves out of the water and encouraged to put in landscaping that slows down nutrients entering the lake. Boating activities that create large wakes aren’t allowed in shallow areas of the lake in order to prevent sediments rich in phosphorus from being stirred up from the bottom.
“We created a lot of our own problems. For 40 years we put phosphorus on our lawns and had septic tanks. Now it’s time to make a change,” said John Foote who has lived at Choctaw Lake since 1975 and was one of several residents who attended a water quality workshop that was part of a partnership with Madison County Farm Bureau, Clark and Madison County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Choctaw Lake Property Owners Association.
Choctaw Lake resident Harriet Dana, a master gardener with Ohio State University Extension, has helped educate neighbors about the lake’s challenges and its effect on downstream waters and wrote an article in the community newsletter on how to deter geese from lakefront properties. Three years ago she put in a solar-operated goose light that comes on at dusk, making the geese think it is coyote eyes glinting in the moonlight. Foote was impressed by the effectiveness of the lights.
“I heard all this noise about 3 a.m. and it was all the geese flying away,” he said.
Choctaw Lake residents are continuing to collect and analyze water samples taken from the lake to determine if it needs to be treated with copper sulfate, which keeps algae growth down, and if some of their preventative efforts are having an impact. They also are partnering with local farmers and landowners on water quality projects to help protect lakes and waterways.
“Everybody is looking for an easy solution, but this is not an easy fix,” said Niemeyer, a Madison County Farm Bureau member who has lived at Choctaw Lake since 1985 and is current co-chair of the Choctaw Lake Water Quality Committee. “Both farmers and homeowners are facing these challenges, and the goal is to find ways to move forward and work together. This is designed to be a long-term partnership.”
The Choctaw Lake Property Owners Association received a $8,392.50 grant from Ohio Farm Bureau and matched it for a study on whether putting in a wetland will improve Choctaw Lake. The money also went toward reimbursing landowners in the watershed who plant grass near waterways and farmers for the cost of seed for cover crops and the rental of a no-till drill to put in the cover crops, which help prevent soil erosion and keep nutrients in the soil. The grant was part of $150,000 that Ohio Farm Bureau awarded this year to county Farm Bureaus on a dollar-for-dollar match for applicable local water projects that are collaborative and support the organization’s goal of enhancing water quality and food production.
Ways you can help protect your watershed
A watershed is an area of land that drains rainwater or snow into one location such as a stream, lake or wetland. Maintaining a clean, healthy watershed is essential for our drinking water, food, fiber, manufactured goods, tourism and wildlife.
Some ways you can help keep your watershed healthy:
• Limit fertilizers on your lawn and choose a product without phosphorous.
• Dispose of chemicals properly. Don’t pour chemicals, pharmaceuticals, oil or paint into drains or toilets. Take them to a hazardous waste disposal center.
• Pick up pet waste and dispose of it by putting it in the toilet
• Service your septic system every couple of years to prevent septic system failures, which can contaminate groundwater and surface waters.
• Avoid applying fertilizer or pesticides in the rain or just before a storm is forecast.
• Don’t leave lawn clippings or leaves on the driveway or along the curb where they can end up in storm sewers and contribute to algal growth.
• If you live by a waterway, plant trees and shrubs to hold soil
• Stop large concentrations of Canada geese from setting up residence.
• Plant a rain garden with native grasses, trees and shrubs
to capture and slowly infiltrate runoff from your roof or
•Conserve water by installing a rain barrel to capture rooftop runoff for use in the garden or lawn.
Published in the November/December 2015 Our Ohio magazine. Stay connected with and support great food and farm stories like this by becoming an Our Ohio Supporter. For just $25 a year, you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.