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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
A sign at the front entrance of Salamonie Reservoir explains the water is green because of blue-green algae blooms.

Heed the warning signs

The plight of Grand Lake St. Marys should have served as a cautionary tale for Hoosiers about the need to protect the water quality in Indiana lakes. Toxic blue-green algae blooms caused the closure of the lake and the loss of millions of dollars in tourism revenue in 2010. Now, several of Indiana’s lakes are in jeopardy of suffering the same fate.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources posts on its website high algae count warnings at lakes or reservoirs in state parks when water testing shows blue-green algae counts of more than 100,000 cells per milliliter of water. Currently, seven state-managed lakes are on the warning list, including Salamonie Reservoir and Sand Lake at Chain O’ Lakes State Park.

According to water quality tests the Indiana Department of Environmental Management took on July 9, Sand Lake was at 183,760 cells per milliliter of water, or about 80 percent higher than the standard, and Salamonie had 1,265,360 cells per milliliter of water, 12 times higher than the standard. IDEM is expected to release updated water testing results today.

The blue-green algae – cyanobacteria algae – can produce toxins. In humans it causes skin rashes, eye irritation and stomachaches as well as tingling in the fingers and toes. It can easily kill pets and other animals, including fish and water fowl.

The toxic algae infestation of Salamonie Reservoir is linked to the recent deaths of two dogs. It’s likely the deaths could have been prevented had warning signs been more prominently posted all around the reservoir at the time.

Blue-green algae blooms are caused by too much phosphorus in the water, and a leading culprit for the source is uncontrolled fertilizer runoff from agriculture and lawns.

Blue-green algae has plagued Grand Lake St. Marys the last couple of years. The closure in 2010 cost the communities around the lake an estimated $200 million in lost tourism revenue, according to the Auglaize & Mercer Counties Convention & Visitors Bureau. The lake was completely closed in 2010. This summer the lake is under a Recreational Public Health Advisory because of the high of toxic algae levels. The advisory warns against swimming and wading in the lake for the very old, the very young or those with compromised immune systems; but it does not ban swimming.

Frustratingly, the algae problem persists despite costly efforts to mitigate the blooms. Ohio dredged sediment from the lake in 2011 and again this year. Last year, the state treated 5,000 acres of the 13,000-acre lake with aluminum sulfate, or alum, to neutralize the phosphorus that feeds the algae. This year Ohio spent about $5 million to treat the entire lake with alum.

According to state natural resources officials, blue-green algae blooms began appearing in Indiana in 2001 but have only started to cause concern in the last couple of years.

This summer’s heat and drought are exacerbating the problem.

Despite witnessing the loss of recreational opportunities and tourism dollars, plus the high costs of battling the toxic algae overgrown in Ohio, Hoosier lawmakers have failed to take action to prevent the problem from taking hold in Indiana. A common-sense bill proposed by Republican Rep. Dick Dodge to limit residential use of fertilizers containing phosphorus was largely ignored.

Many environmental advocates also say that state rules governing the way the state’s large livestock operations handle manure don’t go far enough in protecting the state’s waters from pollution.

Hot and humid summers are nothing unusual in Indiana. The joy and relief of taking a cool dip in one of the many nearby lakes to escape the heat will soon be replaced by the fear of toxic algae if state leaders don’t make protecting Indiana lakes a more pressing priority.