OH: Commission trying to boost St. Marys

Toxic algae bloom is a major issue

St. Marys, Ohio – Ohio’s biggest inland lake has big problems,
but a group of local organizations are determined to restore its
former greatness as a natural resource and economic asset for the
area.

The Grand Lake St. Marys Restoration Commission, organized in
January 2010, is determined to counter the excessive amounts of
phosphorus washing into the lake and resulting in huge blooms of
toxic blue-green algae the past two summers. Those blooms resulted
in the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of
Health issuing advisories against people having any contact with
the water and not to eat fish from the lake. That practically shut
down the lake and its $150 million annual contribution to the local
economy. Businesses around the lake catering to boaters and anglers
were seriously hurt.

Milt Miller, fundraising chairman for the commission, said the
group got started after the governor came up to meet with concerned
citizens about the algae situation. The message, he said, was
essentially, “It’s your lake, you fix it.” The result was the
formation of the group to investigate ways to help the lake
out.

The “stakeholders” in the commission are the cities of Celina and
St. Marys, Mercer County, Auglaize County, the Lake Improvement
Association, the Grand Lake-Wabash Watershed Alliance, Wright State
University, the Lake Development Corp., and the Convention and
Visitors Bureau.

The basic problem, as has been noted in numerous news stories about
the lake, is the nutrient-rich runoff entering the lake from
surrounding agricultural lands. The result is a high level of
phosphorus in the lake, which feeds the toxic algae blooms in the
summer.

The commission’s initial fund-raising effort produced almost
$600,000 from local sources in two and half months.

“It’s a wonderful statement of commitment to the lake in hard
times,” Miller noted.

The group arranged for scientific consultation from Battelle
Institute in Columbus and Mad Scientist of Marysville to evaluate
specific projects the group could take on while the state looks
into wider-ranging long-term solutions for the lake.

So far, the commission is funding three projects that show promise
for helping the lake.

In Mad Scientist’s report on the lake, it noted there are no
wetlands left around the lake. Wetlands provide a natural filter
for water entering the lake.

To provide some of that filtration, Miller said, Mad Scientist has
a product called Floating Wetlands. He described it as being like
giant foam Legos that snap together and is covered with holes, in
which potted plants can be placed.

A few were installed last year to begin determining the best plants
to use and Miller said more will be placed in various locations
this year. One of the plans is to get housing developments to
sponsor contests for designs using decorative plants and place
those mats in the channels.

Two other projects attacking silt have begun or are being planned.
One utilizes a device called an “Airy Gator.”

“It looks like a pontoon boat with big wheels between the
pontoons,” Miller said.

He explained that the wheels aerate the water and send the newly
oxygen rich water to the bottom, where the oxygen activates natural
bacteria present that “eats” the silt and as a result, the
phosphorus.

One was used for about a month last fall, Miller said, with good
results. The sediment level was reduced from 18 inches to four
inches and good benthic activity was observed, which in turn
attracted fish to the area.

Another piece of technology to be tried this spring is a sediment
collector. Installed where a creek enters the lake, the collectors
trap silt as it enters the lake, which is then pumped out. Miller
said the technology is commonly used in the west where they often
use sand instead of salt on the roads in winter and they want to
prevent sand from building up in trout streams.

The technology shows promise, but it is expensive. Miller noted
that the sediment collectors cost about $125,000 each and the
Airy-Gators $59,000. The commission has purchased three of the
collectors and two Airy-Gators.

This winter, the commission’s efforts also got a boost from the
state. Newly-elected Gov. John Kasich visited the area and
expressed the new administration’s support for the lake. At a
meeting with the new heads of the DNR, Ohio Environmental
Protection Agency, and the Ohio Department of Heath, the commission
presented several things it would like the state to implement,
including four that it considered most important and should be done
as soon as possible. A week later, Miller said, it replied that
three of four would be implemented.

These were the introduction of alum to the lake to bind phosphorus
in the sediment, a dredging program to remove phosphorus-rich
sediments from the lake and a program to net large quantities of
rough fish in the lake as part of an effort to bring the lake’s
fish population back into balance.

The only immediate action the state could not arrange was for a
winter drawdown. Two state dredges are already at the lake and a
third will be moved there, with the funds to operate it.

Miller noted that these are mostly short-term actions and that
long-term improvements are needed in the entire watershed. Mercer
County, he noted, is one of the leading agricultural counties in
the state. Reports included on the commission’s website describe
how changes need to be made to some practices in the area,
especially in applying fertilizer and manure to fields.

But these things are only a partial picture of what the commission
has tackled so far and what it hopes to do. A more complete picture
is available by going to the Lake Improvement Association’s website
at www.lakeimprovement.com and clicking on “Grand Lake St. Mary’s
Restoration Commission.”

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