It's as if a neutron bomb exploded above Ohio's Grand Lake St. Marys.
The lake is intact, but the people are gone -- no one fishing, swimming, or boating. And for good reason. Ohio's largest inland lake (13,500 acres) has been closed for months due to a bloom of toxic blue-green algae.
The lake's closure has not only been disappointing for area anglers, but in a down economy has also been devastating for bait and tackle store, marina, and other business owners dependent upon the lake and travel and tourism for their livelihood.
"Our sales have declined more than 70 percent compared to two years ago," said Dan Manning, owner of The Outdoorsman in the small town of St. Marys. Billed as "St. Marys one-stop fishing shop," Manning and his wife Brenda have owned and operated their store, Grand Lake's largest bait and tackle, for the past 19 years.
"The state has known about the blue-green algae in the lake since 2007," Manning said, "but didn't announce it as possibly being a problem until May 23, 2009, the day before the Memorial Day weekend. That's one of our largest income-producing weekends of the year, and I estimate that the timing of that announcement cost us between $5,000 and $10,000. Our sales dropped by one third the day the announcement was made."
As a result, the Mannings have closed a large part of their business, a marina they leased from the state, located across the street from their bait and tackle shop.
This past summer (2010) Grand Lake St. Marys totally closed for several months, the Ohio EPA advising people against having any direct contact with the lake water whatsoever. The agency now says the lake is under a toxin advisory, meaning boating is permitted, but suggests that boaters not touch the water. Swimming, fishing, and eating of fish caught from the lake are still not recommended.
Biologists say the toxic algae bloom is a result of an overload of phosphorus draining into the lake. The phosphorus is believed to be coming mainly from runoff emanating from mega-farms located in the lake's watershed. Those farms house and produce feed for thousands of head of livestock: cows, hogs, and chickens.
"Because it's so shallow, averaging just nine feet deep, Grand Lake St. Marys is a large Petrie dish," quipped one Ohio fishery biologist. "Whatever flows into the lake is going to grow, including algae."
The algae bloom this year was unusually severe due to a perfect storm of conditions. A six-inch rainfall washed excessive amounts of nutrients into the lake in June. The lake water was exceptionally clear at the time, which allowed for greater penetration of sunlight. This was followed by a hot summer, seeing many days of temperatures rising well into the 90s with light winds -- optimum conditions for algae growth.
"I've been living here all of my life, and have never seen anything like it," said John Andreoni, a local angler and outdoors writer who lives just south of the lake near New Bremen, Ohio. "For two months this summer the lake looked like pea soup and had a very strong septic smell to it."
But the problem is more serious than just looks and smell. Blue-green algae are a known neurotoxin, meaning that at high concentrations they can severely damage the brain and nervous system of both humans and animals. To date, Ohio has had seven people likely sickened by coming into contact with the lake's water.
There are no conclusive tests for illnesses associated with toxic algae, but the Ohio Department of Health labels cases "suspected" if doctors can rule out other causes. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and dizziness. Could it only be a matter of time before Ohio marks its first human death due to toxic algae?
State officials have a two-pronged plan for combating the problem. One idea is to dump sand into test areas of the lake to encourage the growth of nontoxic algae. The second idea involves adding aluminum sulfate to the water to starve the toxic algae. Both projects are experimental, with no guarantees as to their results. But should either prove beneficial, it might buy Ohio officials time in finding a more permanent solution.
Despite the efforts of the Ohio departments of Health, Natural Resources, and EPA, John Andreoni, the Mannings, and other local residents believe that the environmental problems at Ohio's Grand Lake St. Marys will not be going away any time soon.
"There are so many variables involved that I don't believe the algae issue will be solved quickly," Andreoni said. "It took us years to get where we are, and it will likely take years to solve this problem, requiring various groups of people working together."
Dan Manning believes that dredging may be a large part of the solution.
"Tons of phosphorus have accumulated on the lake bottom over time," he said, "and until we do something about that, the problem of toxic algae will likely continue to reoccur each summer."
But what is one lake's bust is resulting in another lake's boom. Indian Lake, located 30 miles directly east of Grand Lake St. Marys, experienced an unexpected influx of fishermen and boaters this past summer.
About one-third the size of Grand Lake, Indian is one of Ohio's premier saugeye fishing lakes, with anglers catching thousands of the walleye-sauger hybrids annually. Grand Lake St. Marys saw some fish killed due to the algae, which tied up oxygen in the water.
W. H. "Chip" Gross is an outdoors writer/photographer from Ohio, and a frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com. He may be contacted about this story though his Web site: www.chipgross.com.