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Tourism Suffering At Grand Lake St. Marys

Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio is the state's largest inland lake. It's a state park that for years has been a popular tourist destination. But farm runoff has polluted the waters. Now there's an algae bloom that's the worst in the lake's history. Tourism is drying up and some local people are irritated by what they believe is inaction by state officials.

At a boat ramp near state park headquarters, Jim Kohler is winching his 21-foot sailboat "Obsession" onto a trailer. The thick green algae in Grand Lake St. Marys is so bad he wants to protect the boat's paint from being stained.

"Well I think it needs a good power washing," Kohler says. "I'm going to go wash it and let it sit in dry dock for a few weeks."

Dozens of other boats sit in slips at the marina floating on a thick green mat of algae. Rebecca and Joe Herzog say they've been vacationing at the lake for 20 years and they've never seen it like this.

"I'm just taking a picture of the algae. It's really sad," says Rebecca Herzog.

"It's pretty bad. Up the road at the beach it's nothing but green," says Joe Herzog. "It's horrible."

"I took a piece of a stick and scraped it and it's just like sludge. It's just nasty," says Rebecca.

The waves washing ashore look more like green latex paint than lake water. Plus there's the overwhelming odor of dying algae that blows through the almost empty campgrounds and into the cities of Celina and St. Marys. The odor - which smells like manure - was enough to cause camper Carl Wallace to reconsider his favorite pastime.

"The only thing I do is fish but I don't think I'm even going to do that this time. It smells pretty bad," Wallace says.

The algae problem is not new to the lake, it's happened in years past. Runoff from farms in the area has polluted the lake with nutrients like phosphorus which cause the algae blooms. Signs used to warn visitors not to touch surface scum. Now they warn against coming into contact with the water altogether says Craig Morton, the park superintendent.

"One of the toxins that this new type of algae produces had a level of nine parts per billion and they don't really know at what point that it's dangerous so the EPA and the Department of Health decided to err on the side of caution and put up the water quality advisory," Morton says.

There are different ideas on how to kill the algae. One of the most promising, says Morton, is to dose the lake with alum. "In theory what it's supposed to do is tie up the phosphorous; sink the phosphorous to the bottom, then there's no phosphorous to feed the algae, supposedly the algae would then die and go away and this could buy us anywhere from 8 to 10 years," Morton says.

But people who earn their livings from lake tourism want something done now. Earlier this month, at a meeting of the Lake Improvement Association, residents listened to state officials explain the complexity of the problem. Marina and campground owner Bill Goodwin says he stood up, made a brief statement and walked out.

"I'm madder than hell and I want something done, and I left and they applauded me," Goodwin says. Two marinas have gone out of business along Grand Lake. Part of declining boat sales has to do with the poor economy. But on a day in July when there might be a hundred boats on the water there are almost none in sight.

"Last year you could picnic you could fish you could go boating without coming in contact with the water but this year with the smell it's not even something you want to be close to," says Donna Grube.

Grube is executive director of the local convention and visitors bureau. She says the algae is taking its toll on the local economy. In a good year, tourism would bring in $150 million to the area. She says revenues have declined as the lake's problems have worsened.

"We have looked for help and it hasn't been there. So folks have sort of taken it into their own hands to try to find some solutions. And thankfully the Ohio EPA, the Ohio Department of Natural Recourses, the governor's office, they now see the severity of this problem and have also come to help," Grube says.

Grube says it's too early in the season to know what kind of economic hit tourism has taken this year.