Scientists Visit Grand Lake St. Marys

Staff Writer

On Aug. 1, Grand Lake St. Marys received a visit from a group of scientists who wanted to look into the wetlands that are working around the lake.

Dr. Bill Mitsch, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a professor emeritus at Ohio State University — who specializes in wetland and aquatic biogeochemistry and ecological engineering — visited with a group of five scientists — two from Poland — to show off some of the effective wetlands in Ohio.

Mitsch, who visited Grand Lake last year after hearing about the issues plaguing the lake, came to see the wetlands when he heard that their installation might have led to improvement of the lake’s water quality.

Off the bat, he noticed that the lake looked cleaner this year, but wasn’t willing to completely attribute that to the wetlands just yet as he said that cause and effect can be difficult to prove. That being said, he believed groups working with the lake were heading in the right direction.

“I’m impressed how they hooked up with the farm fields south of the lake,” Mitsch said. “They just need more of them.”

Looking at the wetlands themselves, Mitsch said he was impressed with their size and structure, adding that he believed they were built the right way and could eventually lead to an improved lake system.

“They’re not overloaded,” he said of the wetlands. “The calculations that I saw, I mean I haven’t studied them in detail, but it appeared to me that they were putting the right amount of water in the right amount of wetlands. That’s the critical variable, the amount of water you have put in and the size of the wetland. If the wetland is too small, it’s not going to work. Too big, it will work but it’s not using space effectively.
“I think they’ve been able to figure out the sweet spot, now they need several more of those wetland systems.”

He also mentioned that the wetlands working for Grand Lake were similar to the ones at OSU, which he helped maintain for many years.

Although he was impressed by the quality of the wetlands, one critique Mitsch had was in regards to the name. He said whoever is in charge of naming the wetlands should consider removing “treatment train” from the title because he feels it dismisses the importance of wetlands and is also confusing to those who are unfamiliar with the term.

“Treatment trains is by no means an acceptable term in science,” he said. “I read one of Stephen [Jacquemin’s] early papers and it talked about treatment trains and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I really did not think that it was a wetland.”

Around the same time as the visit to Grand Lake, Mitsch and the other scientists were attending a conference in Huron based around the idea that wetlands can be useful to clean up lakes such as Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys who are suffering from harmful algal blooms.

There, Mitsch also updated the scientists on the overall idea on a project he and several other scientists from several states were working on with regard to wetlands and agricultural land.

Under the guise of Wetlaculture, the experiment they are working on is being tested in three polluted lakes — a portion of the Great Black Swamp in Defiance, a portion of Buckeye Lake and a lake down in Naples, Florida — in “test tube” tubs.

The experiment hopes to show that farmers can utilize wetlands to help reduce the amount of fertilizer needed on their land for crops by switching every few years from a crop producing field to a wetland area.

“It’s a new way of looking at solving these pollution problems by farmers and landowners utilizing crops, as they always do, but occasionally, from time to time they will flip to a wetland to let the wetland clean up the water and then you plant the crops that will use up those nutrients,” he said. “It’s a procedure to stop putting fertilizer on land every year.”

Mitsch said that while they are still in the early years of their research, they are working on a business model that could help farmers make money by switching their land from agricultural use to wetlands then back to farmland. He added that clean water is just as valuable as produce, especially in areas such as Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys, and producers should get paid just as they would for corn or any other crop.

The business model works almost independently of the government, Mitsch added.

In an article by the Toledo Blade about the conference, a method of using environmental bonds would be available to purchase by investors for projects such as the wetlaculture. Sam Miller, a University of Notre Dame associate professor, spoke about the financial aspect of the project at the conference. According to the Blade article, the first of these environmental bonds have already been sold with one of the first buyers being Goldman Sachs, who purchased them to help reduce sewage overflow in the nation’s capital.

The article goes on to say that such bonds could be purchased and used to afford services from agencies such as the National Resource Conservation Service who would help revert farm land back into wetland areas to help filter runoff headed toward water, thus preventing algal blooms.

That cycle of going back and forth from wetlands to agriculture, in theory, would continue every few years, according to Mitsch.

At three test lakes, there are 28 “test tube” tubs that are used to mimic a wetland. At the site at the Great Black Swamp in Defiance, they found the wetlands were able to remove 72% of phosphorus out of the soil.

“And that’s scalable,” Mitsch told the Leader. “In other words, if it happens at that small scale, it could happen with 100 acres or 1,000 acres. If we can get that kind of performance with the wetlands, then that’s half the battle with getting phosphorus out.”