Minnesota is sometimes known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Keeping with the theme, Ohio could be known as the Land of 110 Lakes.

Ohio contains 110 natural, inland lakes of 5 acres or more – fewer than 5 acres being deemed a pond – according to scientific reckoning with which not everyone agrees. One international standard puts pond size as any standing water body up to 19.768 acres.

Using that definition, Ohio could be called the Land of 43 or 44 Lakes, depending on whether it’s rained lately around 19-acre Fishel Lake in Guernsey County. Accepted is that natural lakes of 5 acres or more occur in 21 of the 88 counties, and those lakes cover a measly 4,658 acres.

Minnesota could give Ohio 1,000 lakes and hardly miss them. In Ohio, where 90 percent of the historical wetlands have been wiped out by development and agriculture, each surviving lake or pond from the last ice age can be considered as precious as a crown jewel.

Just three natural "lakes" occur in central Ohio: 5-acre Smoot Lake in Licking County, 10-acre Davenport Pond in Pickaway County and the curiously named Hitler Pond, covering 6 acres, also in Pickaway County. Ohio’s largest natural lake, at 345 acres, is Aurora Pond in Portage County.

The state’s biggest inland water body, at about 12,680 manmade acres, covers almost three times as much ground as all of Ohio’s natural lakes put together. That body would be Grand Lake St. Marys, which is about 9 miles long, 3 across and a little more than 7 feet deep. The lake, built over the headwaters of two rivers, was formed by damming outflows into the Wabash River, whose water ends up in the Ohio River and points south, and into the St. Marys River, which drains eventually into Lake Erie up north.

The land, bulldozed by glaciers, is flat and somewhat fertile. The lake is, in sum, like a large pan of shallow water that holds only those fish that don’t easily cook like boiling frogs when summer turns up the heat. The lake’s denizens include largemouth bass, white and black crappie, bluegill, walleye, saugeye, channel and flathead catfish, yellow perch, bullhead, carp and sucker. As is true of most Ohio impoundments, gizzard shad form a significant part of the fishy food base.

Grand Lake St. Marys, built about 175 years ago to feed a long-gone canal, is the impoundment that in its human-assisted decrepitude has made microcystis, a toxic form of blue-green algae, famous. Or is it the other way around?

At any rate, after being plagued for years with summer algae blooms attributed to nutrient loads tied to agricultural runoff, the lake last summer produced so much microcystis that people were ordered to stay away and warnings were issued about eating the fish. The fish were left to make do, and quite a few didn’t and died.

A substantial slice of the local economy is tied to Grand Lake St. Marys, which is located in Mercer and Auglaize counties. Thus, if droves of people choose not to recreate near water they fear is poisoned, businesses like bait shops that cater to those droves will go belly up with the fish.

Recent efforts to treat parts of the lake with a chemical, aluminum sulfate, proved not as successful as state officials had hoped. Further experimenting will take place in the spring, and the eventual price tag could reach $8million to $10million this year to use alum to lock up the nutrients on which the algae feed.

Acknowledged, though, is that little precedent exists for treating such a large body of water. In short, nobody will, or can, predict the results.

Given that nutrient loading from farm runoff, specifically from livestock operations, appears to be the primary cause of the algae blooms and that little movement toward mitigating that runoff is planned for this year, the Ohio Division of Wildlife will be taking some unusual steps in 2011.

"We do not have that location on the list this year for stocking with saugeyes," said Ray Petering, an acting assistant chief of the wildlife division and the executive administrator of fishery management and research.

Saugeyes, particularly a hybrid strain earmarked for Grand Lake St. Marys, don’t reproduce, meaning once previously placed stocks of these popular fish are gone there will be no replenishment in the foreseeable future.

Grand Lake St. Marys will be slow to return to "normal" even if no additional nutrients are added. Petering said the process could take 20 years. In the meantime, it’s likely so-called rough fish, which include carp, some types of catfish and bullhead, will take over, Petering said.

Wildlife division officials are so wary going forward of the water at Grand Lake St. Marys that a well has been drilled, with another to follow, to help supply the fish hatchery the division operates there.

While Grand Lake St. Marys wasn’t born on a landscape pocked with numerous natural siblings, it’s getting more unnatural all the time. Oh, what sad squander.


By Dave Golowenski, The Columbus Dispatch