[USA] All waterfront activities, including swimming and boating, were canceled last weekend at Lakeside, a popular summertime resort on Lake Erie, after high levels of toxic algae were detected in the water.
The beach and boat rentals reopened on Monday, after water quality improved.
But the episode raises the question: How long until the lake’s algae problems start to significantly affect Lake Erie’s $12.9 billion tourism industry?
It’s not a hypothetical question.
Last year, after toxic algae shut down Toledo’s water supply for three days, officials at the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park, in nearby Oregon, fielded questions and cancellations from concerned tourists – even though the resort gets its water from another source and wasn’t affected.
“The negative impact from that was felt all the way down the lake shore. It became not just a Toledo issue but a Lake Erie issue,” said Larry Fletcher, executive director of Lake Erie Shores and Islands, the convention and visitors bureau that markets the popular lakeshore counties of Ottawa and Erie. They are home to Cedar Point, the Lake Erie islands, Lakeside and other lakefront destinations.
“It’s definitely something that concerns us,” he said.
It’s particularly worrisome this year, because scientists have predicted that algae problems this summer will be far worse than last year, thanks to heavy rains in late spring that flushed agricultural runoff into the lake.
Last weekend, blooms of toxic algae gathered along the waterfront of some of the state’s most popular summertime destinations, including Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island.
“It looked like green paint,” said Lori Hayes, long-time owner of the Inn on Kelleys Island.
By mid-week, however, Hayes said the thick scum in the water in front of her property had largely dissipated.
Fletcher said it’s important for visitors to realize that algae problems are largely localized, affected by wind and other weather conditions.
Swimmers who couldn’t go into the water at Lakeside over the weekend, for example, could have made the 10-minute drive to nearby East Harbor State Park, where the beach was open.
“What we encourage people to do is to find out what the conditions are in those areas you’re planning to go,” he said. “Don’t write off your trip to the lake.”
So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Bob Gatewood, who rents jet skis, power boats and kayaks on South Bass and Kelleys islands, said July has been a terrific month for business. Last weekend, during Put-in-Bay’s popular Christmas in July celebration, every boat he had was in the water – despite the algae problem.
Julene Market, the marketing director for Miller Boat Line, which transports thousands of visitors from the mainland to South Bass and Middle Bass islands every summer, said she has yet to hear from customers worried about water quality.
But if the problem persists, as is expected, she may. “Is it going to dissuade people? I don’t know.”
Put-in-Bay, she said, has enough attractions that even if visitors are advised not to swim, they’ll find plenty to do.
The same is true at Lakeside, the Victorian-era Chautauqua community on the Marblehead Peninsula, which offers a variety of recreational and educational programming.
Kevin Sibbring, the president of Lakeside Chautauqua, said visitors and residents supported the decision to shut down all water activities, including a sailing race, after lab results on Friday revealed worrisome levels of the toxin microcystin in the water. The beach reopened Monday, but was closed again Wednesday.
Two lifeguards are believed to have gotten ill from exposure to the algae last week, he said.
Sibbring said he believes the lake algae problem will get worse before it gets better – but he’s glad for the increased focus on the issue. Lakeside, he said, plans to continue to take a leadership role in educating the public about the lake and its fragile state.
“We all care deeply about this resource,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the most significant environmental issue in the 21st century.”
Hayes, the Kelleys Island innkeeper, said the green scum in the lake earlier this week reminded her of the 1970s.
“People didn’t come here then. The lake was dead. We don’t want that to happen again,” she said.
For a more recent cautionary tale, Ohioans need only look to Grand Lake St. Marys, about 100 miles south of Toledo, which bills itself as “Ohio’s other great lake.”
In 2010, the lake, surrounded by farmland, was hit by a devastating algal bloom, fueled by agricultural runoff. Residents were warned not to swim in or even boat in the water.
Tourism to the region fell about 50 percent in the next two years, according to Donna Grube, director of the local visitors bureau.
In recent years, tourism has rebounded somewhat, as officials promote non-lake attractions. And the water quality in the lake has improved – though the state just posted signs this week that advise against swimming.
“We’re not expecting a real good year,” Grube said.
A hundred miles north, along the Lake Erie coast, tourism officials are more cautiously optimistic.
Fletcher, with the Erie and Ottawa visitors bureau, said the region is large and diverse. It’s important, he said, that perceptions of the problem not become worse than reality.
“There may be isolated places where there are issues,” he said. “But this is a big lake.”
Photo: All waterfront activities, including swimming and boating, were canceled last weekend at Lakeside Chautauqua because of toxic algae in the water. The beach reopened on Monday.
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