By Nancy Allen
A public forum to identify concerns about Grand Lake and gather community consensus on what to do about them will be held Aug. 23.
The event -- billed as a lake summit -- is being organized by State Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Mercer County commissioners. It will be held 9 a.m.-noon at Wright State University-Lake Campus, announced Commissioner Jim Zehringer during Tuesday's monthly agriculture breakfast in Celina.
Reading from a prepared statement, Zehringer said the summit is to "ensure that the public and those who make public policy have a unique opportunity to hear comprehensive discussion and understand how the lake and those who depend on and live near it interact with agricultural families making a living in the watershed. Policy-makers and stakeholders will be looking for common interests on which they can build consensus and durable public policy for the future."
Fourteen individuals representing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, city of Celina, county soil and water conservation office, state and local agriculture groups, Grand Lake/Wabash Watershed Alliance, the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lake Improvement Association, Lake Development Corporation, the Lake Campus, and Ohio EPA have been invited to be on the panel. The event will be moderated by Mercer County Farm Service Agency Executive Director Chris Gibbs.
This morning Faber, who has been involved for months in interested party meetings mostly about lake water quality, said the purpose of the summit is to get all the groups to work together. "Depending on what we hear at the summit from all the participants, I think it would be nice to have a master plan that would be both realistic in funding requests and mostly, a unified approach," Faber said. "I would like to see everybody in the same boat rowing in the same direction."
In recent months, county commissioners have been asked by local farmer Steve Zumberge to pressure state officials to enact a water level drawdown policy for the lake to lessen flooding during rain events. Zumberge farms land west of the lake that floods during heavy rains and/or spring thaws. Overflow water exits the lake via the West Bank spillway, flows into Beaver Creek and then the Wabash River.
Initially billed as a public forum to discuss two main topics -- lake level and water quality issues -- the summit has evolved into a broader format.
Commissioners have said they will not take sides on the lake level issue, but rather want to use the summit to present an expert panel on lake issues in order to have an open community discussion. The event will be open to the public and questions will be taken from the audience by panel members.
When the state opened the new spillway in 1997, it discontinued a lake drawdown policy and instituted a new hands-off approach, letting it naturally regulate itself. Prior to that, the state did let water out of the old spillway through gates that could be opened and shut. The new spillway has tubes at its base that can be opened to let water out.
It is likely that both topics will be discussed. Local lake groups have been working in recent years to pressure legislators for state and/or federal funds to help clean up the watershed area that flows into the lake. The Wabash River watershed and the smaller Grand Lake watershed, which lies within the Wabash River watershed, have been deemed two of the most degraded in the state, based on Ohio EPA water quality testing.
It is unclear how far state officials will be able to get into a discussion on the lake level, because a lawsuit is still pending in the Third District Court of Appeals in Lima. The lawsuit ended up in the appeals court when the ODNR in January appealed a ruling in Mercer County Common Pleas Court in favor of five farmers who sued the state over flooding they say has been worsened by the new spillway. Zumberge is one of the farmers suing the state.