Boaters, skiers and anglers have come back to Grand Lake in recent weeks – a welcome site to area businesses.
While the fear of being on the water has subsided compared to last year when a thick, foul-smelling algae bloomed excessively, caution by many lake users remains active.
On the safe side
Chuck Black, 52, has used the lake since he was a kid. He now works on boats and sells gas at the family business, Windy Point Marina near Montezuma.
"I’m pulling boats in all the time and the water drips all over me and I’m not glowing yet," he said laughing. "But I wouldn’t let my grandkids in it. Why take a chance?"
The state placed its first algae toxin advisory on the lake in 2009, which basically advised people to be cautious of getting in the water and swallowing it. Then last year after severe algae blooms and reports of humans and animals getting sick from the water, the state advised against all contact, including boating and eating the fish.
This year’s advisory warns against swimming in or swallowing the water.
Randall Puthoff, 30, fished along Lake Shore Drive on Tuesday with his two sons. They caught three bullhead catfish and smaller fish for bait.
He didn’t fish last year due to the state advisory. The state has since deemed the fish safe for consumption after tests showed algae toxins were not present in tissue samples.
Some have accused the state of unnecessarily frightening people and killing tourism last year.
The lake’s prominent species of blue-green algae is cyanobacteria. The massive algae blooms last year were caused by a different species of algae that had never been seen on the lake. Both types produce toxins.
"I think last year was a bigger deal because this had never happened before and the state wanted to get the word out," Puthoff said as he fished. "Now even though the lake looks better, it’s going to be a tough fight to turn perceptions around."
Mike McKirnan, 66, who moved to the area with his parents when he was 9, has enjoyed boating and skiing on the lake for years. He still used the lake last year despite high toxin levels.
This year he said the lake looks better and he plans to take his pontoon out more, although admits he wouldn’t let his grandkids ski.
"We ran the jet skis a bit and washed off afterwards," he said. "But I’m not real big on putting the grandkids on skis yet … maybe some day."
Kerry Smith, 41, who’s skied on the lake for years, said the only thing he did different last year was to avoid algae scum that looked like "moldy carpet."
His friends told him he was crazy. But Smith says he didn’t get sick even after swallowing lake water from wake-boarding and skiing.
"My friend and I never stopped for the most part between May through September," Smith said. "We didn’t ski through any of the nasty floating garbage, though."
Lake different than years ago
With the exception of last year, people say the lake looks the same as it has the last decade – a murky green color punctuated by channel scum that appears during hot, humid summer months.
But go back further and there are differences, residents say.
"I can remember 20-30 years ago, even before they put in the sewer, it wasn’t bad," Black said. "It was always dirty and dark, but now it’s much greener."
For years, hundreds of unsewered homes on the lake’s south side emptied raw sewage into the lake. The Ohio EPA in the 1970s instituted a building ban on undeveloped land near the lake due to declining water quality. Most of the lake’s unsewered homes were connected to centralized sewer by 1986. A few remaining homes on the lake’s north side were connected recently, Mercer County Commissioner Jerry Laffin said.
The biggest source of nutrient loading to the 13,500-acre lake comes from runoff of phosphorous found in manure from farmland, studies show. Ag land makes up more than 80 percent of the land in the 58,000-acre watershed that flows into the lake.
Livestock numbers in Mercer County have tripled in the last 50 years, state officials say. Most of the livestock in the watershed are located in the southern part of the county, also where most of the watershed is located.
Black recalls as a child seeing scads of cattails and lily pads, a sign of good water quality. Now they’re all gone.
Floating algae scum and fish kills are more common in recent years.
McKirnan said when he skied the lake with buddies in high school 50 years ago, you could see into the water at least 10 inches. Like Black, he too saw more vegetation around the lake.
Puthoff said 15 to 20 years ago there were lots of frogs on the lake. Today he’s lucky to hear one.
"To me that’s (frogs) a big indicator of good water quality," he said.
Lake looking better
Black said this year’s better-looking lake is having a positive effect.
He’s seen people tubing, skiing and boating. Last year he was lucky to have one boat visit the marina per week. This year he’s averaging a couple a day and even more on weekends.
"You get out of the channels, and it’s clean," he said. "It doesn’t smell bad either like it did."
Smith agrees, but can’t say for sure why the lake looks better.
"I think something has changed, but I’m not necessarily sure if it’s the alum," he said. "The jury’s still out on that in my opinion."
The state last month spent $3.4 million to put alum in the center of the lake. The alum, which is suppose to deactivate phosphorous, is being used as a short-term solution to improve water quality.
Smith said he knows the lake will never be pristine like a natural lake; it’s manmade from a swamp and it is shallow. It didn’t get into its current condition overnight, and it will take many years of people working together to improve it.
"Nature reacts in decades," he said. "The south side of the lake dumping sewage in took its toll and years of farming took its toll."
The long-term solution for the lake is to lessen nutrient loading. Farmers are working with local, state and federal agencies to put conservation practices in place to reduce runoff. As of January, they also must follow new manure laws triggered by the state after it designated the watershed "distressed."
All agree the algae crisis on Grand Lake has finally gotten the state and the community’s attention and that’s a good thing.
"The LRC (Lake Restoration Commission) has raised a bunch of money to put equipment in the lake and the alum treatment helped a lot," Puthoff said. "And they’re dredging more than they used to … I guess it’s woke everybody up."