Beaches are supposed to be for swimming, but at many Ohio lakes it’s swim at your own risk.
Since 2008, more than 4,200 water samples reported to the Ohio Department of Health indicated levels of E. coli high enough for the state to issue 2,433 advisories warning swimmers that they risk illness if they play in the water.
June has been the month when runoff from spring rains has caused the most E. coli spikes in state lakes, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of water sample data.
Toxic-algae blooms, meanwhile, tend to appear in late summer or early fall, when warm, phosphorus-laden water provides optimum growing conditions for cyanobacteria.
The advisories have become all-too-common on many lakes, including Grand Lake St. Marys, a large — but shallow — body of water in Mercer and Auglaize counties that experienced a devastating algae bloom three years ago.
“Are we going to have algae? Yes. Are we going to have scums from algae dying off? Yes. Are we going to have elevated microcystin toxin levels? Yes,” Grand Lake St. Marys park manager Brian Miller said last week, one day before the lake tested high for E. coli.
Grand Lake St. Marys isn’t alone. Lake Erie, which is subject to intense testing by a consortium of agencies under a Clean Water Act grant, has had more than 19,000 samples taken since the beginning of 2008, or 90 percent of the samples taken in Ohio waters during that time period.
The intense testing has revealed elevated levels for E. coli, and Lake Erie — the anchor to Ohio’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry and home to nearly half of the state’s public beaches — has had 2,361 advisories for E. coli.
The remaining samples from 44 other lakes resulted in 72 advisories in 27 lakes. The lakes with the most advisories were Buckeye Lake with 16, Grand Lake St. Marys with six, and Shawnee Lake with six. E. coli advisories are specific to each beach, so lakes with more beaches have a greater chance of getting advisories.
The main culprit in the fight to keep lakes clean is phosphorus, a mineral found in fertilizer and manure used on farms across the state. Heavy rains lead to runoff that finds its way into Ohio’s watershed. Goose droppings and sewage systems also contribute to the problem.
Many farmers are trying to help by participating in nutrient management programs, but Mother Nature has the final sayplays a big role in the battle to keep lakes clean.
“So much of what happens is weather-driven,” said Karl Gebhardt, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Director for Water Resources. “We can have the best practices on the ground, but if we get the wrong amount of rain at the wrong time and we get high temperatures, you get the nutrients in there and bingo.”
Test results fluctuate
Ohio’s lakes have undergone increased testing since the U.S. EPA released results in 2009 of an inland lakes study that revealed the scope of the water quality problem.
“There’s a lot more awareness worldwide that these things exist,” said Jean Backs, who coordinates beach sampling of cyanobacteria and E. coli for state parks. “They’ve been around millions of years, but sometimes maybe a balance in a lake gets tipped where they get the upper hand and they can proliferate.”
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources conducts in-season E. coli testing on a biweekly basis at its beaches. Algae blooms, which can be toxic, are tested only after their presence is visually confirmed.
Chris Evans, treatment plant coordinator at Caesar Creek Lake and Cowan Lake, was collecting water samples last week at Caesar Creek Lake, southeast of Waynesville. The lake is deep, which means it is less susceptible to harmful algal blooms.
“(Testing) tells us if the conditions are ripe for E. coli to flourish, therefore it would be ripe for pathogens to flourish if any are present,” Evans said. “It doesn’t mean that they are present; you don’t know.
“That’s why we word our signs the way we do. We don’t shut the beaches down; we just let people make an informed decision.”
The state posts a recreational public health advisory if E. coli levels are high, or if toxin levels in algae blooms exceed recommended levels. An advisory means the level of bacteria in the water has reached unsafe levels and could make swimmers sick, according to the Ohio EPA. Children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are advised not to swim during an advisory.
For microcystin, a toxin that can exist in algae blooms, Ohio’s threshold to post an advisory is 6 parts per billion. The World Health Organization’s threshold is 20 ppb. Toxins can affect the liver, nervous system or skin.
“The state of Ohio adopted 6 to be a little more protective of children,” Backs said.
For E. coli, test results can fluctuate wildly. Caesar Creek Lake recorded a reading of 2,419 ppb on May 24, 2011. A week later, the level was 7. The state’s threshold is 235 ppb.
“There’s a lot of factors involved,” Evans said. “It could be that we have rains that come in with nutrients that are brought in off the watershed. Or I could have the bad luck of sampling behind a goose. What you don’t see in dissolved solids could cause you to have a spike.”
State agencies work together to monitor recreational areas. ODNR does the testing but relies on the EPA and Department of Health to analyze samples. If an advisory is required, ODNR will post signs at beaches.
The Department of Health’s Beachguard website lists E. coli testing results and is accessible to the public. As of 6 p.m. Friday, 27 of Ohio’s 134 public beaches were under advisories, including the east side of Grand Lake St. Marys. Eighteen of the affected areas were on the shores of Lake Erie.
Lake Erie’s phosphorus levels high
According to a 2013 National Resource Defense Council guide to vacation beaches, Lake Erie’s beaches gave Ohio a rank of 30th out of 30 states ranked for water quality. Dozens of beaches on the shallowest of the five great lakes compiled a total of 7,651 days of E. coli advisories during the more than five years the data cover.
Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, says the Maumee River is the lake’s primary source of phosphorus. The river drains about 4.2 million acres of agricultural land.
“That runoff is very dependent on the amount of precipitation and the intensity of the precipitation,” Reutter said. “In 2012, for instance, we had a very dry year and a very, very small (algae) bloom. In 2011, it was the wettest year we’ve had in the last 40 or 50 and we saw the worst bloom we’ve ever seen on the lake.”
That bloom covered about 1,600 square miles and could be seen prominently in satellite images.
Reutter said Lake Erie’s issues have changed over the years. In the 1970s, the big problem was raw sewage. That eased as cities improved their treatment plants, although Detroit’s massive plant was not in compliance from 2009 to 2011, he said.
“Lake Erie was considered a dead lake (in the 70s); we had giant algae blooms,” Reutter said. “We solved the problem and the lake responded and became the walleye capital of the world.
“We’re back now to about the same (phosphorus) concentrations we had in the 70s. The blooms are back and, in many ways, you can argue that the lake is worse now than it was in the 70s.”
Reutter is calling for a 40 percent reduction in Lake Erie’s phosphorus load, and farmers are moving in that direction. A state report released in November said that the amount of phosphorus fertilizer sold in Ohio in 2011 was the lowest on record.
Gebhardt joined the EPA last month after working at ODNR. He is charged with coordinating efforts addressing water quality resource issues related to harmful algae.
“The ag industry is making changes,” he said. “We continue to hear that there needs to be more regulation, but we feel we can continue to push the voluntary programs until it gets to a point where we have to look at other alternatives.”
Scientists say climate change is contributing to the polluting of recreational waters worldwide.
“Unless we take care of the root cause, which is eutrophication coming from fertilizer, the harmful algal bloom problem will be continuous, especially under the global-warming scenario,” said Jiyoung Lee, an associate professor of environmental microbiology at Ohio State University.
“Without doing anything, it’s going to be worse because we expect more heavy rain, and it’s going to be warmer.”
‘Watershed in distress’
Grand Lake was designated as a “watershed-in-distress” by ODNR on Jan. 18, 2011. That means the state can require neighboring farmers to comply with nutrient management programs.
The lake has not had a major algae bloom since 2011, but generally is under a recreational advisory during the summer months.
Advisories on Grand Lake’s three beaches have lasted much longer than those of other lakes. The lake’s six E. coli advisories since 2008 totaled 720 days, an average of 120 days each. Buckeye Lake, also with three beaches tested, compiled 475 days of advisories for an average of about 30 days. By comparison, Lake Erie’s average beach advisory lasted about three days. The frequent testing at Lake Erie provides more up-to-date readings than at the other lakes.
By one measure — advisories resulting from algal toxins — Grand Lake St. Marys is by far the state’s leader during the past three years, the newspaper’s analysis of separate data kept by the Ohio EPA found.
Ohio’s largest inland lake, covering 13,500 acres, had 85 percent of the dangerous water sample results recorded by the EPA since the beginning of 2011.
In all, Grand Lake St. Marys had 409 water samples showing unsafe levels of toxins resulting from algae growth since 2011. The next highest is Buckeye Lake with 47 unsafe samples, followed by Lake Erie with 22 and East Fork Lake with three. No samples showing unsafe algal toxins were found in other Ohio lakes.
In late April, microcystin levels in Grand Lake water measured near the city of Celina’s intake were four times the state’s threshold.
“We have 156 farmers (near Grand Lake) working on a nutrient management plan,” Gebhardt said. “Are we going to see results overnight? Probably not, but it’s a big step in addressing what we’ve identified as part of the problem.”
Campgrounds are full this weekend and optimism is high for a good summer season, said Brian Miller, the manager at Grand Lake St. Marys State Park.
The Walmart Bass Fishing League returned to Grand Lake last weekend for the first time since 2009 and tournament participants caught more than 500 fish. The circuit has penciled-in Grand Lake for a 2015 tournament.
“It looked fine, but you could tell the color was off just a bit,” tournament director Dave Maxfield said. “But we caught a lot of fish; the fish looked great.”
Miller offered a similar report.
“We’re seeing the best fishing that I can ever remember seeing as far as the crappie, bass, catfish … it’s unbelievable.”
Milt Miller, who has lived on the lake’s north shore since 1973, is the manager of the Grand Lake St. Marys Restoration Commission. He said the bed tax at local hotels has produced more revenue in the past two years, a positive sign.
He also acknowledges that the lake has had its issues for decades, and that the goal is to return it to “healthy brown” status.
“There is a contingent that feels our lake has been this way for a long, long time, but science wasn’t there to detect it,” Miller said. “Do I subscribe to that theory? Kind of, sort of, maybe.
“Every August that I can remember, the lake turned green and we called it ‘The Turnover.’ Whether that was blue-green algae back in the day, I really don’t know.”
Find out what is being done to improve the water quality in Ohio lakes in Monday’s Dayton Daily News.
“Are we going to have algae? Yes. Are we going to have scums from algae dying off? Yes. Are we going to have elevated microcystin toxin levels? Yes.”
Grand Lake St. Marys park manager Brian Miller.
For more information on Ohio’s beaches, including a list of current advisories, go to MyDaytonDailyNews.com.
This newspaper analyzed databases compiled by the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to find out what beaches have had the most E. coli advisories and the most potentially harmful levels of algal bloom toxins in recent years. We also talks to experts who have tracked the water quality at state lakes for decades.