By Nancy Allen
All six candidates running for commissioner in Mercer and Auglaize counties agreed that everyone needs to work together to help clean up Grand Lake St. Marys, because everyone pollutes in some form or another.
The candidates spoke at a forum Saturday sponsored by the Lake Improvement Association. The nonprofit organization a year ago spawned the Lake Restoration Committee to help clean up the lake and surrounding watershed.
The lake is plagued by almost continual algae blooms caused by runoff from farmland, failing private septic systems, lawns and other sources. When the algae decays, it uses up oxygen in the water used by fish and other aquatic life. It also gives the lake its characteristic green color.
Each candidate was given two minutes to answer five questions that they had been given prior to the forum.
Participating were: Tom Gagel, Democrat incumbent for Mercer County Commissioner, and his opponent, Bob Nuding, Republican candidate; Jerry Laffin, Republican incumbent candidate for Mercer County Commissioner and his opponent, Democrat Jeff Schwieterman; John Bergman, Republican incumbent candidate for Auglaize County Commissioner, and his opponent, Ted Vorhees, Democrat candidate. Many of the candidates agreed that filter strips would go a long way to help keep the water clean.
"We need to find solutions that are cost effective," said Bergman, who farms near the Auglaize/Mercer county line. "The most cost effective will be filter strips on agricultural land and taking a look at manure and chemical application rates."
Gagel said Mercer County Commissioners recently decided to require tenant farmers who work county-owned land to install filter strips on land that is located near streams.
Both Gagel and Laffin said the guidance of the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District office is needed to educate farmers about best management practices, such as no till and filter strips. These practices can keep excess sediment and nutrients from getting into the lake. They also noted the SWCD office is funded by discretionary funds, which may be cut due to an ongoing budget shortfall in the county.
"Hopefully we can survive that," Laffin said.
Bergman said the Auglaize SWCD office is in "pretty good shape" budget-wise and works to encourage farmers there to use best management practices.
Schwieterman said commissioners should reclaim the grass-covered rights of way along county and township roads that have been encroached upon by farmers. He also suggested getting the remaining areas around the southern part of the lake sewered.
Laffin said Lake Acres Drive should be hooked up to sanitary sewer in November or December and that the county is engineering a section from Idlewild subdivision to the Mercer County Sportsman Association to be hooked to sanitary sewer, the last section in the county along the lake that is unsewered. Laffin said commissioners will continue to work with the Maria Stein community to bring them online with sanitary sewer services.
An EPA-imposed building ban around the lake from 1972 through 1984 prohibited new construction until the county installed a centralized sewer system to decrease the amount of human waste entering the lake.
Vorhees noted the lake is much cleaner since that happened.
"The lake has come a long way since then. It's much better due to the sanitary sewer installed," he said. Vorhees also suggested the possibility of looking at a way to decrease the amount of goose and duck feces that gets into the lake.
Overall, the candidates said various lake groups need to focus on a few solutions that will do the most to help the lake. They also suggested talking with legislators loud and often.
"We need to be in contact with local legislators because there is not enough local money and we need to seek line item funding," Bergman said. "To be successful in receiving line item funding we'll need to identify the key issues and demonstrate they can be solved."
Nuding said it is important for any group seeking funding to get organized and get "on the radar screen."
"The organization and cooperation of the groups screaming is critical," Nuding said.
"It seems harder to get state financial support than from federal," Laffin said. "As usual the squeaky wheel gets the results. That's the key."
Gagel said the role commissioners can play in cleaning up the lake includes working with lead groups like the LIA to enlist the help of local, state and federal officials.
"We need to educate farmers and homeowners to help them understand what can happen down the road."