A Critical Concern: Water Quality

Over the past five years the Steuben County Lakes Council has taken water quality samples in Black Creek, the largest tributary of Hamilton Lake. For the past two years in Fish Creek a tributary of the St. Joseph River.  During May and June sampling this year we recorded alarming increases in the concentrations of bacteria and phosphorus in the waters of these streams. Hamilton Lake received concentrations that averaged 13.5 times higher than the state standards for bacteria this summer.  In response to these results, additional samples upstream were taken in an effort to pinpoint the source of this contamination.  These samples, along with another round of testing in July, indicate that livestock near the ditches flowing into Black Creek and Fish Creek are a major contributor to these high readings. 
We realize there can be other contributors such as faulty septic systems and wildlife that can make additional inputs to the high bacteria readings.  Also, other types of farming activities besides livestock contribute to the elevated phosphorus concentrations.  But with roadside observations within the watersheds and a fly-over, the major source is obvious.  Sure, the heaver rains of May and June caused increase runoff, but the concentration of bacteria is still three times higher than the standard for recreational use water during a much dryer July.  Recreational use is what Hamilton Lake is all about.  The demand for the unique recreation opportunities that a high-speed boating lake with good water quality provides is what creates a premium price for lake residential property.

Therefore, the main reasons for concern is that the high bacteria readings of this summer can cause health problems for swimmers, tubers, and water skiers.  Also, high phosphorus inputs enhance algae growth which in abundance can produce toxins.  The nutrient phosphorus also stimulates aquatic vegetation growth.  The current cost of controlling aquatic weeds that interfere with boating activities is already more than most association members want to pay.
The town of Hamilton and the properties around the lakes have already made a significant investment in reducing bacteria and nutrient inputs into the lake by investing in a central sewage treatment facility a few years ago with monthly user costs.  The lake users don’t want their efforts overwhelmed by the high levels of bacteria and nutrients coming in with the Black Creek inflow.
A similar but larger problem exists in the Fish Creek Watershed with readings as high as 12,900 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of E coli bacteria that will be passed down stream to the drinking water supply of Fort Wayne.  Also reducing phosphorus runoff to the streams has been a focused effort in the   Western Lake Erie Basin since the large algal blooms in Lake Erie and Grand Lake St Marys.  The Black Creek and Fish Creek watersheds should do their fair share to accomplish this goal.

As the dynamics of farming activities in both the watersheds of Black Creek and Fish Creek have changed over the years, we cannot afford to let the byproducts of the current farming operations negatively impact the well-being of the people and water resources downstream.
Over the past ten years the SCLC has conducted a water quality testing project to garner information regarding the condition of the county’s lakes. It is our goal to discover where problems exist then guide the lake associations in seeking solutions. Hopefully, the Hamilton Lake Association will be able to establish open communication with parties involved and establish methods to prevent future problems.

Pete Hippensteel