St. Mary's is a quaint little town; if you blink, you'll miss it. It's out in the middle of flat farmland and small communities, but it was once considered a "hidden gem." The lake was dug by man, using no electric machinery, and for a long while was regarded as the "largest man-made lake in the world." At 13,500 acres, the lake is massive, with beautiful lakeside homes and recreational activities on almost every side.
Growing up, we camped there often. I have so many wonderful memories there, but the best memory of all was my son's first camping trip with my family.
Back in 2008, on my son's first birthday, we loaded up our vehicles and took a trip out to the lake to enjoy our annual camping trip. The weather was perfect--warm, breezy, and clear. When we arrived, we set up camp, ate dinner, and then went out to enjoy the recreational activities. We swam, went canoeing, fished, and sat around the campfire, enjoying our time together. Even the tornado warning on our second day there couldn't keep us from staying an extra night. We were used to it, as a matter of fact. It seemed that every time we went camping at Grand Lake St. Mary's, there was a storm. It never bothered us. In fact, it made us love the place even more. Nature is a beautiful thing, after all.
When it was time to leave, we were all pretty bummed out. And little did we know, that would be our last trip to the massive man-made lake.
Grand Lake St. Mary's Algae Bloom, 2009 through 2014 (Current)
Unfortunately, Grand Lake St. Mary's placement is all but ideal. Being that it is surrounded by farm land, the continuous runoff of fertilizer has allowed blue-green algae blooms to thicken. Also referred to as cyanobacteria, this blue-green algae causes liver problems, and can even kill pets, fish, the elderly, young children, and those who are in ill-health. Some otherwise healthy adults have even become sick when coming into contact with the water.
In 2009, the high bacteria levels were discovered by the state. By 2010, the beaches that were once filled with hundreds of people were completely empty. The algae bloom had grown so think that it was causing low oxygen levels in the lake, killing numerous fish. At least 7 people ended up sick, likely due to the bacteria growing in the lake. Many people living on the lakeside began to sell their homes.
What is causing the Grand Lake St. Mary's algae bloom?
Being that Grand Lake St. Mary's is shallow (only about 7 feet deep in the deepest area) and massive, the winds can pick up sediment from the lake which only feed the algae even more. And because of the size of the lake, it takes almost a full year and a half to cycle all of the water. Some individuals have referred to Grand Lake St. Mary's as a "giant petri dish," as it is large, shallow, and sits and bakes in the sun while fertilizer runoff, as well as runoff from nearby homes with septic system failures continues to feed the bacteria.
Despite the lake seeming like a "lost cause," the state has spent over 8 million dollars to try and get the algae under control. They've ordered state-mandated procedures for farmers nearby, have tried various different chemicals in the lake, and even attempted to use giant pumps. Sadly, it seems that the attempts have failed. By the end of April 2014, readings of microcystin measured over four times the state's safety threshold.
As a result, signs are again popping up in the area to warn people of the dangers of the water.
Fortunately, there are many organizations and people coming together in order to do what's best for the lake. Farmers have begun taking measures to reduce runoff, and the state continues to explore the options to save the "dying" lake.
While I hope that one day the lake will be restored to it's original glory, I know that it will take years, perhaps even decades. The lake didn't become a "giant petri dish" overnight, so it will take an equal amount of time, if not more, to get the algae situation under control.