St. Marys algae shows up earlier this year than last

St. Marys, Ohio (AP) — Tests indicate the blue-green algae growth that has hampered tourism near the state’s largest inland lake appeared about two months earlier this year than last, possibly because of unseasonably warm weather.

The algae blooms, which produce a nerve toxin that can sicken people, have led to previous closures of Grand Lake St. Marys and swimming advisories at the lake in western Ohio.

The algae didn’t show up last year until late May, but tests show it may have started growing in early March this year, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Milt Miller, a co-founder of the Grand Lake St. Marys Restoration Commission, blames unusually warm weather.

Daily high temperatures reported by the National Weather Service were at least 11 degrees above normal from March 12-25 and exceeded 80 degrees on March 20-22.

“Typically, we don’t see those warm temperatures until May or June,” Miller said.

Blue-green algae feed on phosphorus from manure, fertilizers, and sewage running into nearby streams. The toxic algae that have shown up in many of Ohio’s lakes, including Lake Erie, were so thick in Grand Lake in 2010 that state officials warned people not to touch the water and said it likely caused seven people to get sick.

The latest test in April detected a concentration of the algae-produced liver toxin that was seven times higher than the level the state uses to advise older visitors, young children, and people with weakened immune systems not to wade or swim. State officials say warning signs will go up at the 13,000-acre lake and state park in a few days, in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

Lake temperatures have been too cold for water skiing or swimming, said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the Ohio DNR.

State officials treated 5,000 acres of the lake last year with alum, a chemical that starves algae by bonding with phosphorus, and the lake was able to stay open all summer.

Miller is hopeful that a similar treatment completed May 7 will help kill off this year’s algae before the start of the summer tourist season. Area tourism has suffered since the algae outbreak that led to the 2010 advisory not to touch the water.

An economic impact assessment in 2009 showed that sales, wages, and taxes generated approximately $193 million in Auglaize and Mercer counties, where the lake is located. A Small Business Administration disaster declaration survey showed average business revenue was down 35 percent to 40 percent in 2010 – about $77 million across the region.

The lake’s boosters say tourism improved last year amid the aggressive efforts to control the algae and the use of television and other media to spread the word that the lake was improving.

Hotel visitation was up 10 percent last year in Mercer County, where most of the lake is located, compared with being down 23 percent the previous two years, said Donna Grube, executive director of the Auglaize and Mercer Counties Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’re confident the alum will be effective again this year,” she said.

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