The rivers, streams and inland lakes in Clark and Champaign counties draw thousands of visitors each year for recreational activities and play a key role in the local economy.
That’s why the Springfield News-Sun examined several years of data and reports to see how healthy the local waterways are for swimmers, boaters and others as algae blooms and high bacteria have threatened both drinking water and recreation in lakes across Ohio.
On Friday, state officials posted a recreational public health advisory at Kiser Lake in Champaign County after sampling indicated high levels of microsystin, a toxin created by algae. At the levels found at Kiser Lake, swimming and wading aren’t recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women, those with certain medical conditions and pets, according to information from the Ohio Department of health.
Grand Lake St. Mary’s, Lake Erie and Buckeye Lake all have had toxic algae warnings, including a “do not drink” advisory for the water in and around Toledo in 2014.
But most local waterways are generally in good health for recreational purposes, according to interviews with state agencies, local officials and environmental experts, but toxic algae has been found before at Kiser Lake and E. coli at C.J. Brown Reservoir and Indian Lake in recent years.
Local waterways like state beaches are monitored for bacteria like E. coli and harmful algae blooms. But residents should also pay attention to warnings that are occasionally posted along beaches and other waterways and need to be cautious on the water, particularly after rain storms, said Sarah Hippensteel Hall, manager of watershed partnerships for the Miami Conservancy District.
“In general, our waterways are very safe for recreation such as paddling, rowing, fishing and wildlife watching,” Hippensteel Hall said. “However water flows can change rather quickly during rain events and threaten safety.’
Advisories at local beaches like Kiser Lake in Champaign County have been posted almost annually for the past several years for high bacteria levels and harmful algae. Some of those advisories have lasted only a day, while others have been posted for close to a month, according to state records.
Protecting and improving local waterways is critical not only to provide safe drinking water but also offer opportunities for fishing and swimming, Hippensteel Hall said.
“The economic health of our communities is tied to our rivers and streams,” Hippensteel Hall said. “Those rivers that run through our communities, that’s our workforce attraction and retention and our communities know that.”
Jesus and Alicia Manzano laid in the sand along the water at Buck Creek State Park early last week. Their niece and nephew, Perla, 14 and Juan, 9, played just a couple of feet away at the water’s edge. Dark clouds threatened rain late in the afternoon, but Jesus Manzano said a day off provided a good chance to spend time at the beach for most of the morning.
Inland lakes like Kiser Lake State Park and the C.J. Brown Reservoir are typically monitored at beaches and boat ramps once every two weeks through partnerships between the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and various local agencies, said Natalie Pirvu, an environmental program administrator with ODNR’s Division of Parks and Watercraft.
Bacteria can come from numerous sources, including wildlife, sewer overflows and failing septic systems.
Many species of blue green algae aren’t harmful. But under the right conditions, some varieties produce toxins that can sicken humans or pets that come into contact with or swallow the water.
Blooms most often occur in shallow, warm water and are fed by excessive amounts of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. Those nutrients are often found in fertilizers and sewage that washes into lakes after storms.
Earlier this month, state officials posted warnings at two beaches at Buckeye Lake due to high levels of microsystin, the toxin created by algae.
For swimming, warnings are posted when toxin levels exceed six parts per billion. When levels exceed 20 parts per billion, visitors are typically urged to avoid all contact with the water.
In most of the state’s beaches, ODNR staff collect water samples and any advisories are posted online at the Ohio Department of Health’s BeachGuard website. The website provides results for 147 public beaches and 10 private beaches.
The samples taken at the two Buckeye Lake beaches showed levels higher than 25 parts per billion.
About 28 advisories were posted at various beaches across the state one day earlier this week, mostly along Lake Erie and mostly for bacteria levels.
No advisories have been posted at any of the beaches tested this year in Clark, Champaign or Logan counties, according to the state web site.
‘Kiser Lake has water quality problems’
Advisories have been posted at Kiser Lake in Champaign County five times since 2012, according to the state data, including three advisories for high levels of bacteria and twice for algal blooms. The lake was under an advisory for 27 days beginning in July 2015.
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The case in 2015 resulted in a public health warning telling at-risk people to stay out of the water. Microcystin levels at Kiser Lake State Park Beach were measured at 42, 7, 63 and 79 parts per billion during that period, according to an assessment of water quality of Kiser Lake performed for the EPA last year by Tetra Tech, a consulting firm.
That report showed algal blooms caused by nutrient concentrations have started to become more common at Kiser Lake. It also recommended an education program to make residents in the watershed more aware of the issues facing the lake, as well as further study to identify ways to reduce levels of nutrients like phosphorus in the lake.
“Based on the available data, it is apparent that Kiser Lake has water quality problems that include toxic algal blooms, degraded water quality and reduced aquatic habitat that place restrictions of the recreational beneficial uses of the lake,” the report says. “The current lake conditions are due to legacy nutrients within the lake sediments and ongoing loading from the watershed.”
Additional data is needed to determine the best way to manage the waterway, the report says.
C.J. Brown Reservoir
In Clark County, contamination advisories have been posted twice in recent years for high bacteria levels at one of the two beaches at the C.J. Brown Reservoir, according to the BeachGuard data. An advisory was posted for seven days in 2015 and for four days in 2016.
The state’s threshold for bacteria is 235 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters, Pirvu said.
“Fortunately, especially in the area of the state we’re talking about, we don’t see a lot of those advisories which is really great because we have such great water in those lakes,” Pirvu said of inland lakes in Southwest Ohio.
Residents last week said they’ve never had cause for concern when visiting the beach at the reservoir. Meghan Flowers and Maddie Campbell were getting ready to leave after spending most of the afternoon at the beach with Eloise Campbell, 4. They said they visit as often as once a week during the summer because it’s clean, rarely crowded and is one of the few places in this part of the state with a real beach.
“It actually has a sandy beach and the water is generally warm here,” Flowers said.
Similar advisories were posted at three beaches monitored at Indian Lake in Logan County between 2013 and last year. In all a total of six advisories were posted at the Logan County lake’s public beaches, each time for high levels of bacteria, according to the state data.
An Ohio Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report issued last year by the Ohio EPA showed the state’s inland beaches typically see fewer advisories than those along Lake Erie.
“Although not sampled as frequently as streams or Lake Erie beaches, bacteria levels at most inland lake beaches do not frequently exceed the threshold, resulting in fewer postings compared to some of the beaches along Lake Erie,” the report said.
Buck Creek and Mad River
The Ohio EPA’s most recent water quality study for the Mad River is more than a decade old, and teams from the state agency evaluate about four or five smaller watersheds around the state each year.
The Mad River, a sub-watershed of the Great Miami River, drains about 657 square miles. It runs through Logan, Champaign, Clark, Miami, Greene and Montgomery counties, flowing southwest until it joins with the Great Miami River in Dayton.
In general, the larger bodies of water in the area like the Mad River and Great Miami River are good quality for recreational activities, including fishing, paddle boarding and kayaking, said Dina Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Ohio EPA.
“We always caution people to use common sense when they are in any natural surface water to understand there is risk from bacteria, particularly after rain storms, which can cause sewage overflows and runoff from land that contain bacteria,” Pierce said. “So always avoid ingesting untreated water and wash off after being in the water.”
The EPA’s most recent report on the Mad River showed some of its tributaries were impaired by fecal coliform bacteria, and the river also faced challenges including impairments from agricultural and urban runoff, habit alteration and overflows from wastewater treatment plants.
The Miami Conservancy District monitors the Mad River for nutrient levels daily throughout the year, Hippensteel Hall said, and consistently sees high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
In Springfield, students at Wittenberg University have monitored Buck Creek and documented how newly created recreational opportunities on the creek have helped restore and improve the urban waterway. That includes features like a whitewater course that was added several years ago.
Wittenberg has instruments on a 5-mile span of Buck and Beaver creeks to monitor water levels and water quality.
Water quality within Buck Creek is likely improving, albeit in incremental steps, said John Ritter, a Wittenberg professor of geology and director of the Environmental Science Program. The biggest challenges facing the waterway include stormwater pollution from both urban and agricultural land uses in the watershed, including combined sewer discharge, sediment and nutrients, he said.
Ritter has spent years studying Buck Creek, and said projects like Springfield’s ongoing Erie Interceptor Express Sewer project are steps toward improving water quality. He pointed to data he’s collected in recent years that shows how nutrients and other pollutants spike in the creek after heavy rainfalls, often first from runoff from the city, then later from agricultural runoff draining into the waterway.
The $23 million Erie Interceptor is under construction now and is part of bigger project to eliminate overflows of raw sewage into local waterways. That will go a long way toward improving the water quality in Buck Creek, Ritter said, although it won’t solve all the challenges the creek faces.
Increasingly, Ritter said, more communities are realizing rivers and waterways like Buck Creek are an important amenity that can draw residents and businesses to a community.