Killer lake kills property values, tourism jobs

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Algae bloom, Baltic seaThere is a 13,000 acre lake in western Ohio that has turned into a killer. Thanks to an overabundance of phosphorus from runoff fertilizer and manure, an outbreak of toxic algae has taken it over. The algae is suspected of making nine people sick and likely contributing to, if not causing, the death of three dogs. The state has declared the lake a "No Contact" zone, meaning people should not even touch the water.

But health problems are only one aspect of the disaster. For homeowners in the area with lakefront properties, the algae has been financially devastating. I spoke with Wilhelmina Klosterman of Grand Lake Realty, who told me that since they were forced to add "EPA issue" to listings, home sales have virtually died. She has one $1 million listing that isn't selling although the price has been cut to $785,000. Another $97,000 home has drawn no interest even after dropping the price to $79,900. Another part of the problem is lenders, who are unwilling to take a chance in this market. Klosterman also rents camp spaces and motor homes to people who visit the lake for summer recreation. This summer, her business has been abysmal.

Donna Grube of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Mercer and Auglaize Counties, told the Dayton Daily News that tourism dropped by 16% last year after a smaller and shorter-lived algae bloom formed, causing the EPA to issue warnings. This year, 2,600 people's jobs are threatened because their work is dependent on the tourism business in the area.

The culprit in this tragedy is the aquamarine-colored algae, Aphanizomenon gracile. It produces an unpleasant odor, but worse, releases liver and neurological toxins that have killed thousands of fish already. In concentration. These toxins can cause liver and nerve damage in humans, as well as stomach problems and more.

This could be the harbinger of a more widespread problem, too. This lake was created in the gap between the Miami and Maumee Rivers in the 1840s to provide water for the Miami and Erie Canal. Recent tests performed by Heidelberg University researchers found very high levels of phosphorus in the Maumee, a watershed covering northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana that feeds into Lake Erie.

The same algae is reported to be thriving in other Ohio lakes across the state as well, perhaps due to the weather. To date, this has been the hottest summer in Ohio since 1934.

The true dimensions of the problem are unknown, however. The State of Ohio, facing budget problems, several years ago stopped testing water in most lakes.

Grand Lake St. Marys is surrounded by flat farmland and is very shallow. Its water doesn't replenish very quickly, and has a mucky bed that retains phosphorus. This allows the algae to form dense blooms that deplete the oxygen supply in the water. There are many other lakes in Ohio with the same profile.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the EPA and the Ohio Department of Agriculture are working on the problem. The long-term solution could be to adopt farming practices such as buffer zones to reduce the amount of fertilizer and manure runoff that ends up in the lake. In the short term, they are considering dumping vast amounts of alum into the creek, which will counteract the phosphorus. This solution, however, could cost millions to a state that lacks the money to even test waters to see where it might have problems.

Photo: 377,000 sq. km algae bloom in Baltic Sea
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