The fight to improve water quality in Ohio’s lakes is being waged from farm fields to the statehouse, and all parties involved agree that it will take time and money to ensure clean water for future generations.
The state’s lakes have been plagued in recent years by thousands of E. coli advisories and toxic-algae blooms that have sullied the reputation of beaches and cast doubt on the future of Lake Erie’s lucrative tourism industry.
At Grand Lake St. Marys — the state’s largest inland lake — three dredges are helping to scoop 300,000 cubic yards of muck from the bottom of the lake this year. By year’s end, more than 1 million cubic yards of phosphorus-laden sediment will have been removed from the lake since 2011.
Wetlands also are being constructed at Grand Lake to help filter millions of gallons of water flowing in from tributaries on the south shore.
“There’s a lot of work being done in the lake and in the watershed,” said Dina Pierce of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “The lake didn’t get like this overnight, and it’s not going to recover overnight. It’s a long-term process that has many facets.”
A fourth dredge will be delivered to Grand Lake in June. Indian Lake in Logan County also will get a dredge.
Farmers are the key players in efforts to clean up the lakes, experts say. Runoff from fertilizer and manure containing high levels of phosphorus feeds algae that can produce harmful toxins.
Ohio farmers are contributing $1 million toward a three-year study intended to provide answers about the impact of runoff. Ohio State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are among those involved in the study.
“We are not the only source of phosphorus,” said Brent Hostetler, who lives in Madison County and farms 2,000 acres. “You have municipal waste and septic systems. Some of these algae blooms are happening in places where there’s almost zero agriculture, if not population. Look at southern Ohio. I don’t think we understand the problem fully.
“We live here, too. We utilize the water for recreation like everyone else. I want clean water.”
Senate Bill 150, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. John Kasich, will require farmers using commercial fertilizer on 50 acres or more to be certified by the state. The program is expected to be fully implemented by 2017.
“It might educate some farmers on how important this issue is,” said Hostetler, whose farm is close to Big Darby Creek. “I think most farmers are doing the right thing as far as application of fertilizer. We’re using technology and we’re much more efficient. If there is fertilizer running off my farm I don’t want that; I paid for it.”
Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, says the new law does not go far enough.
“It’s unfortunate it was limited to commercial fertilizer and did not address manure applications,” Reutter said. “Anybody can look at that bill and say it’s not enough, but it’s a step in the right direction and we have to recognize that.”
Karl Gebhardt, the Ohio EPA’s Deputy Director for Water Resources, helped draft the legislation. He said the agriculture community is working to help solve the phosphorous problem.
“It’s in the farmers’ best interests not to put any more nutrients on the ground than are necessary,” Gebhardt said.
Efforts to clean up Grand Lake St. Marys, a shallow lake in Mercer and Auglaize counties that has been hit hard by E. coli advisories and algae blooms in recent years, has the attention of state and local officials.
One positive step at Grand Lake has been the construction of wetlands near Prairie Creek. A second wetlands is in the design phase for Coldwater Creek.
“We put $900,000 just into the infrastructure,” said Milt Miller, manager of the Grand Lake Restoration Commission, which was formed in December 2009. “We compare them, quite frankly, to a water treatment plant. We pump water out of the tribs and into the wetlands. By pumping 24/7, you’re continually getting that cleansing effect and a return on your investment.”
The wetlands are called “treatment trains” and they collect phosphorus runoff from 156 farms that operate in the Grand Lake watershed.
“Long-term, we’re seeing those as some of the best things we can do to turn this lake around and bring back its health,” Miller said.
Other initiatives at Grand Lake include infusing dissolved oxygen onto the lake bottom and the removal of rough fish that disturb sediment.
Gebhardt said new sewer systems around Grand Lake also have been a step forward.
“A lot of the houses were summer cottages, then they became full-time residences on septic systems,” he said. “We’ve put in sanitary sewers around those areas, which has helped address some of the water-quality issues.”
Other initiatives at Ohio lakes include attempts to chase off and control Canada Geese. The big birds — once thought to be extinct — leave droppings high in phosphorous and nitrogen.
State beaches also get two visits per season from a beach sweeper, which filters sand.
Also, the installation of new wastewater treatment plants in Ohio has helped reduce combined sewer overflows, which dump waste into waterways.
Another positive development: Scotts announced in January 2013 that it would no longer use phosphorus in its lawn-care products.
“When you think of what this algae needs, there are two possibilities: You reduce phosphorus or you make it colder,” said Reutter. “I don’t think anybody thinks we’re going to make it colder real quick.”
Staff writer Ken McCall contributed to this report.