TREADING WATER

Treading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the Midwest

With lessons for Iowa, polluted Ohio lake ravages local economy

A sign at Grand Lake Saint Marys West Beach, in Ohio, warns visitors of the toxins from harmful algae. Officials have spent about $500,000 on projects to improve the water quality at West Beach and hope to remove the swim warnings next summer. (Andy Grimm/freelance)
A sign at Grand Lake Saint Marys West Beach, in Ohio, warns visitors of the toxins from harmful algae. Officials have spent about $500,000 on projects to improve the water quality at West Beach and hope to remove the swim warnings next summer. (Andy Grimm/freelance)
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ST. MARYS, Ohio — Two tourism directors 700 miles apart, one in Iowa and one in Ohio, use the same word when describing the effect a swimming ban caused by water pollution would have on their lakeside vacation communities:

Devastating.

For Rebecca Peters, Okoboji Tourism director, it’s hypothetical because the northwestern Iowa region generates nearly $290 million a year as people flock to the lakes known for their clean water.

But in the Greater Grand Lake Visitors Region in western Ohio, the lake’s four public beaches have had swim warnings every summer since 2009 — which means this 13,000-acre lake surrounded by homes and used as a vacation destination has been deemed for a decade as no longer safe to touch.

“For us, when it first started, it was like the sky was falling,” said Donna Grube, executive director of the Grand Lake tourism bureau.

Last weekend, after spending millions of dollars over 10 years trying to fix Grand Lake’s chronic water quality problems, one beach finally was safe enough for swimming. Officials hope the cleanup works and lures tourists back.

They also warn other Midwestern states: It can happen to you.

Study: Iowa already missing out

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in June announced the “This is Iowa” campaign to persuade people from other states to visit, move to and work in Iowa. Prominently featured on the campaign’s website is a photo of a family pedal boating and a shout out to four Iowa lakes — Red Rock, Coralville Lake, Clear Lake and Lake Rathbun.

What the site doesn’t tell people is that Rathbun, which hosts the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Honey Creek Resort, had a swim advisory one week in August. High levels of toxins produced by algae turned the lake a murky green much of the summer. Moreover, microcystins can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation to liver damage.

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Clear Lake had three advisories this summer for high levels of E. coli, a bacteria that indicate feces in the water.

As Iowans go elsewhere for vacation, the state loses out on tourism spending. A 2018 Iowa State University study found Iowa stood to gain $30 million a year by improving its water quality.

“Beach advisories may cause families to cancel planned trips altogether,” the study states.

West Lake Okoboji is an exceptional Iowa lake, with clear, cold water that so far has avoided algal blooms because of careful monitoring and protection.

“Because so many people spend time in and around the water, we want to make sure it’s healthy and safe,” Peters said.

Okoboji tourists — most from a 200-mile radius — collectively spend an estimated $1 million a day during the peak summer months. This money holds down property taxes and helps pay for schools, roads and police, providing year-round residents with more amenities than those in many other Iowa small towns, Peters said. But many of these benefits would vanish if a lake is deemed unsafe for swimming.

“From a tourism perspective, being able to swim in the lake is important,” Peters said. “It would be devastating for their property values as well, which then would affect tax revenue the city and county brings in, which would affect the money they have to make improvements.”

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Ohio lake dealt economic blow

Grand Lake is Ohio’s largest inland lake, stretching across two counties in western Ohio and providing plenty of space for lakefront homes lining the shore and canals carved out by developers.

The lake has been filling in with silt since it was constructed in 1949 and now, despite regular dredging, has an average depth of just 6 feet — making it particularly susceptible to harmful algae fed by agricultural runoff from nearby corn and soybean fields.

Jesse Stienecker, 59, of New Breman, Ohio, grew up on Grand Lake in the 1970s, boating and water skiing with friends.

“You would get done swimming and your arms would be green,” he said. “I swam in it and constantly had ear infections.”

But in 2009, alarm bells sounded when Grand Lake water samples showed microcystin toxins at 82 milligrams per liter — more than four times the World Health Organization standard for recreational waters. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency warned people not to swim or water ski in the lake and said dogs shouldn’t play in or drink the water.

“The 2010 algae were worse than 2009, forming a blue-green scum with a foul odor,” federal EPA officials reported in 2011. “Dead fish washed up on the shoreline. Twenty-three cases of human illnesses and dog deaths potentially related to the algal toxins were reported.”

Total tourism income for the region plunged 22 percent from $51.7 million in 2008 to $40.3 million in 2010, and the region lost more than 500 jobs supported by tourism dollars, Grube said.

Some businesses shuttered, people had trouble selling their homes and trickle-down effects were felt communitywide.

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“I get my hair done by a lady in St. Marys,” Grube said of the town on Grand Lake’s eastern shore. “She said the lake issue hurt her business. A number of waitresses are her clients. Their hours were cut or their restaurants were closed in the winter because they didn’t have enough business. They had to stop getting their hair done.”

Losses for property values, businesses

Six Ohio counties between 2009 and 2015 showed a loss of property values in near-lake homes of 11 to 17 percent, with Grand Lake homes losing $51 million in value during that time, according to 2017 economic analysis by David Wolf and Henry Klaiber in the Ecological Economics journal.

Stienecker opened Ohio Marine in the late 1990s in Celina, a city of 10,000 on the northwest end of Grand Lake.

The marina sold Bass Pro Shop-brand boats, serviced boats and rented about 100 boat slips, serving locals and tourists, he said. Despite being in a volatile industry, where everything from gas prices to interest rates to weather can hit boat sales, business was good until the first warnings about harmful algae on the lake, he said.

“People quit using their boats,” Stienecker said. “We would do boat shows and not sell a single boat.”

Stienecker and his business partner tried to hold on, but they had loans on the property and by 2010 Stienecker had to get out.

“I went months and months and months without a paycheck,” he said. “I was doing construction on the side, but it got to the point I had to think about my family.”

Stienecker left the business, which eventually closed. He now does construction full time with his sons.

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Local residents still use the lake, boating or participating in fishing derbies. A handful of sailboats surged in front of the St. Marys Boat Club on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and dozens of boats gathered for an outdoor concert in the evening.

Tourism income and jobs have rebounded, but reports on the algal blooms still deter some visitors, Grube said.

“If you’re going to go on vacation and you Google it (Grand Lake) and the first thing you see are stories about horrible conditions, you’re not going to pick that lake,” she said. “Why would you?”

Fixing the problems required costly cure

Ohioans’ primary water quality concern has been Lake Erie, which has had significant algal blooms for seven of the last 10 summers, the National Weather Service reported. In 2014, microcystins from the algae contaminated drinking water for 400,000 residents in and near Toledo.

But Grand Lake’s problems also caught the state’s attention, and the Ohio EPA designated it a distressed watershed in 2011. New rules, such as a 2015 law prohibiting farmers from applying fertilizer and manure during the winter, helped reduce runoff that feeds harmful algae.

“Two big things changed over the years,” said Jared Ebbing, community/economic development director for Mercer County, Ohio. “The state instituted a manure ban over the winter months. We’ve been developing a lot of wetlands, which we call treatment trains, in the lake and upstream. If you let Mother Nature do what she does, it’s amazing what the difference can be.”

Brian Miller, southwest district park manager within the Ohio DNR, lives just east of one of these treatment trains. The $2.1 million project, completed in 2016, pulls water from Coldwater Creek, a tributary to Grand Lake, and channels it through a series of wetlands over 32 acres before letting it flow into the lake.

“We can pump about 3 million gallons a day,” Miller said. In the summer, when cattails, grasses and other vegetation are lush, the plants draw up nutrients and help clean the water.

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A study published in the Journal of Environmental Quality in 2018 showed levels of nitrate and phosphorus flowing from nearby streams into Grand Lake decreased between 5 and 35 percent during the spring and summer and 20 to 60 percent during the winter months covered by the manure ban. That research was led by Stephen Jacquemin, an associate biology professor and research coordinator for Wright State University, which has a campus on Grand Lake.

Adding to the cleanup are two other treatment trains; a fourth in the works is expected to cost $2.5 million.

Warnings stay for now on West Beach

Reopening Grand Lake’s West Beach also has been expensive. The $500,000 price tag has included building a rock jetty reducing the beach’s connection to the lake, dredging the lake bottom, installing a fabric “curtain” that extends underwater between the lake and beach and aerating the water.

Two water tests before Labor Day weekend showed microcystins were well below the 20 micrograms per liter safe recreational standard, but because it was so late in the summer season, Grand Lake officials decided to wait on removing signs that say “Danger, avoid all contact with the water.”

West Beach, with its sand perfectly combed, remained deserted for much of the Labor Day weekend.

James Lyle, 41, who lives on the south side of Grand Lake, used the waveless cove to race remote-control boats, gingerly stepping in the water every time he had to retrieve the vessel.

“If they get it cleaned up and get it advertised, then I think you’ll see a lot of people over here,” April Lyle, 42, said of the beach as she watched her husband’s boats circle the water.

Getting people out to swim at West Beach would be a major milestone for the lake’s recovery and a confidence builder for the community, Miller said.

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“We can look then at how we scale that 8 acres up to 13,000 acres,” he said. Given how many other lakes across the country have been effected by algal blooms, Miller expects Grand Lake will be a model for other communities.

“What I tell folks when I travel to other lakes is, ‘Don’t think it can’t happen to you, too.’ Protect your watershed and make sure you’re putting best practices in place in your watershed.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com†

About this story

Erin Jordan of The Gazette researched and reported on the progress — or lack of progress — in reducing the flow of nitrate and phosphorus into the Mississippi River and other lakes and rivers during an O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. Jordan worked with Marquette students Meaghan Kaupe, Mark Lisowski and John Steppe to travel to both ends of the Mississippi River and report on what is happening in the 1.2 million-square-mile watershed. Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.

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