Can glory days return to Lake Lansing?

Lake Lansing just wants to be left alone. In the Prohibition Era, bootleggers raised hell in a house on stilts that sat in the belly of the lake – site of a men’s social club – while a lookout warned of an impending sheriff’s raid. By the time the police boat reached the moated fortress, all alcohol had been hurriedly dispatched into the lake through a trap door.
Over the years, the lake has imbibed more than its share of bad whiskey. Septage, arsenic, fertilizer, dog poop, gull dung, mercury and just about everything that people throw on the ground for miles around the 450-acre waterworld winds up in the lake. “If you spit on the sidewalk,” says Pat Lindemann, the Ingham County drain commissioner, “it goes into the lake.”
Lake Lansing is a popular recreational resource used by about a quarter-million people per year. They swim, kayak, sail, fish, canoe and jet ski on the pond. Some still commune with the spirits. But come this May 2002, Lake Lansing will add a dazzling new attraction that is bound to increase foot traffic. A unique Community Bandshell will unfurl in the South Park, providing melodies and “family-oriented entertainment” for hundreds. The 1,530-square-foot, lighted stage will be home to the Meridian Community Band, hosting a hundred area musicians. The band will hint at the glories of yesteryear when the lake was Lansing’s No. 1 culture center for spooning, dance and merry making.
But what is the condition of the lake water these days? Just how clean or polluted is it? Is it safe to swim in? Are the fish OK to eat? With renewed attention to Lake Lansing comes increased scrutiny.

Chad Dally/City Pulse

Lansing was shocked eight summers ago when Lake Lansing’s weekly fecal coliform (poop-related) sample results came back high. The timing couldn’t have been worse. It was the Fourth of July weekend, not the time to close Ingham County’s leading bathing beach. But that is what happened. And three weeks later it happened again.
The media descended on the story. Meetings were called. The Lake Lansing Property Association wanted answers. What was causing the high bacteria numbers? Was there human sewage in the lake? Was it geese? The Drain Commissioner’s Office and the Ingham County Health Department investigated and issued a comprehensive report that December. It was the first time that anybody had ever taken a thorough look at the lake. The findings surprised everyone.
You’ll have to wait till the article’s end for the principle findings on why the fecal coliform readings shot up. For the moment there are two other findings worth noting.
First, many people were shocked to discover that more than 90 percent of the lake’s water comes from storm water runoff! That’s right. The rainwater actually becomes Lake Lansing (though there is no municipal sewage draining into the lake). The lake is made up of the water that runs across surface areas around the lake, including the wetlands to the north, but also everything on parking lots, streets, and lawns (such as fertilizers, herbicides, salt and automobile byproducts). This proportion of surface contribution is unique for such an overdeveloped lake. Most lakes receive a good portion of their water from rivers and groundwater, where pollutants are diluted.
That’s still true. “Every time that a car’s brakes are applied, copper is released,” said Lindemann. While the amount from one car is not a lot, “With about 1,000 brake applications every 15 minutes on the streets around the lake,” it all adds up. “When it rains, that copper goes into Lake Lansing.”
It was also discovered, in 1994, that there were 12 unknown drainage inlets feeding runoff material – metals, biologicals, chemicals – into the lake. The origins of these 12 inlets were unknown.
What we do know is that the history of Lake Lansing, pre-21st century, was phantasmagoric. Lindemann stressed that you cannot understand the lake in isolation. “You must look at the land around it. Human social behavior contributes to the quality of the lake,” he said. So, as a point of comparison to the 1994 social behavior, discussed later, let’s take a look at the land around the lake through time – before the hidden drainage inlets, before the urban sprawl, before the Europeans, indeed, before human contact. These findings will also surprise you.
Ice Age
Ten thousand years ago, environmental conditions on the thick, mile-high ice-sheet atop Lake Lansing would have been extremely harsh. The glacier would have appeared as frigid zigzags of meltwater and icy lakes amid shivering mud stirred by the freeze-thaw restlessness of slush and water. It was a wretched landscape made worse by the pounding of katabatic winds – freezing blasts of air that roared off of the glacier as air masses soared over the ice surface, chilled abruptly, then sank rapidly.
“As the ice receded, it left two kettle ponds,” said Lindemann. “The rest was marsh.” Eventually the two ponds were surrounded by a dense forest of white pine, oak, hickory and birch trees. Native plants prospered: the sweet berrylike fruits of the red mulberry tree, the gentle swaying of the Cat-tail sedge, and the baying Bog bluegrass. The ponds teamed with fresh fish.
Native Americans
Long before Europeans set eyes on the ponds, the Pottawatomie, Ottawa and Chippewa tribes called them home.
Trails passed on all sides of Lake Lansing, one of which led eventually to Saginaw Valley. The natives placed dams on the Red Cedar and Grand rivers and speared salmon, whitefish and muskellunge in deep holes. Near the Red Cedar River, in present-day Okemos, they cleared brush and timber and established planting grounds of about 10 or 15 acres, harvesting corn and vegetables. Over the ages they forged a well-worn trail that connected these planting grounds to what is now Lake Lansing. Thelma Lamb, a local historian writes, “No bushes grew in the track it had been used so long.”
The natives thrived on the wild bounty around the Lake Lansing ponds, depending on the forests and streams for their food clothing and shelter. Lamb writes, “They utilized nature’s resources: edible roots; oak, hickory, beech, and hazel nuts which often took the place of bread; wild fruits – plum, crabapple, black cherry, grape, blackberry, and strawberry; and wild game.”
“If there was wild rice in the lake, which there probably was, they would have definitely harvested it,” said Tom Peters, an educator at the Nokemos Learning Center in Okemos.
One can easily imagine two Ojibwa thrashing the rice over the sides of their lightweight birchbark canoe in Lake Lansing. “It was a sustainable resource,” said Peters, “much of the rice missed the canoe and the seeds went back into the water to grow rice again.” Peters said that birch bark was pliable, “like rubber,” when wet during canoe construction. “It was durable and lightweight.” One can easily imagine a band of lake harvesters bringing back wild rice to camp as they portaged down that old Indian trail to the cultivating grounds over by the Red Cedar River. The native Americans undoubtedly had a name for the lake (or the general area), but it is not known.
First European Contact
Between 1819 and 1840 European colonialists throughout Southern Michigan succeeded in dispossessing the native inhabitants not only of their land and livelihood but also, in consequence, of their culture and spirit of life. In the summer of 1837, whole villages were lost to a smallpox outbreak. The few who survived the onslaught of the invaders’ land possessiveness, liquors and diseases became poor, broken and wandering specimens around the area. Chief Okemos, who lived in the area till 1858, was revered by the locals, but only after he was domesticated. Once a fierce warrior who fought the Americans bravely in Northern Ohio, Okemos was often reduced to begging for food.
A pair of brothers, both “physicians with money,” were the first colonialists on the lake. In 1836 Obed Marshall and his brother paid the U.S. Land Office $318.08 for 160 acres south of the lake including the shore, Evelyn Huber Raphael wrote in 1958 in “A History of the Haslett - Lake Lansing Area.” The U.S. government had thus transformed the land into a commodity, usurping the native American’s view that the land and lake were common resources for all to enjoy.
The colonialists originally called it Pine Lake for the stand of beautiful white pine trees on the east side of the lake – the largest stand in Ingham County. But the white pines were soon destroyed for their wood resources in the second half of the 19th century. According to Raphael, the biggest logging operation was conducted by a John Saltmarsh, whose name ironically revealed his intent. He “assaulted the ‘marsh’” in the winter one year, sending the logs over the lake ice on sled runners. They were stockpiled for export behind the new train depot. Saltmarsh also owned a picket mill, to make the fences that would set the enclosures around the new form of land division around Lansing: private property.
A Century or So Ago
In the age before the car, Pine Lake was the Harbor Springs of the area. Many prominent Lansing families built summer cottages along the north shore, the most impressive being the mansion of the rising automobile maker, R.E. Olds. At the end of each summer was a Venetian Night, for which, Raphael writes, “the whole summer colony turned out, decorating their individual boats for a grand prize.”
The 50 years between 1880 and 1930 were the golden age of Pine Lake, for its new inhabitants. A spiritualist colony, named for James Haslett, was established offering classes in mental philosophy, psychometry and mediumship. There was an art gallery, Friday night dances and a steamboat called the “Belle Haslett” that traversed the lake, carrying 150 passengers.
A trolley made Lansing closer to Pine Lake for the Michigan Agricultural College students of the era who would dance, skate and romance in and around “The Casino,” a gigantic pavilion with a large open porch extending over the water. According to Raphael, “The last trolley left at 11 p.m.; missing it meant a long walk home. The last trolley was filled to capacity and more, with the bravest hanging over the sides.”
Unlike greater Chicago’s 30-mile lakefront, which was protected as a public resource for all citizens to enjoy in perpetuity, the periphery of Pine Lake was open to real estate speculation. One of the earliest lakeshore owners was Frank Johnson, who is reported to have said, “I sat down under a tree one afternoon [by the lake] and made up my mind to just go buying.” And buy he did.
In 1927 “Pine Lake Johnson” assumed the prerogatives of ownership and changed the name of the water body to Lake Lansing, “because there were dozens of Pine lakes.”
Of course, much of the pine was gone. Thus was the lake’s name transformed from a referent to nature into an alienated abstraction, having no physical relationship to the water. John Lansing, the lake’s namesake, you see, never set a toe in the water named for him too, nor for that matter in the city itself. Born in 1754 in Albany, N.Y., Lansing was a wealthy real estate mogul and lawyer who is often remembered for his fateful trip to the New York Post Office in December 1829. He mysteriously disappeared on that errand; it was presumed that he was murdered.
Perhaps the essential connection between John Lansing and Pine Lake has to do with timber. Lansing was, like Pine Lake Johnson, a timber cutter of some renown who owned tens of thousands of acres of land, much of it chopped down.
Soon to disappear as well was the trolley connecting Lake Lansing to the rest of Michigan. It closed down in 1929. Johnson was largely responsible for Lake Lansing Drive, which circles the lake, opening the lake to more sprawl and automobile traffic. Raphael writes, “with the advent of the automobile. . .most of the summer dwellers left their cottages at Pine Lake and established colonies on larger lakes.”
Mid-Twentieth Century
By the 1950s there was a lot of human urine and feces entering Lake Lansing through old, inadequate septic systems around the shoreline. The effluent and nutrient-rich sediments dramatically accelerated weed and algae growth, affecting boating and recreation. The lake was already quite shallow (an average of 5 to 7 feet) and, by that time, in an advanced stage of eutrophication, a slow aging process in which the lake was evolving back into a marsh.
In response, city sanitary sewer lines were extended to the lakefront residential neighborhoods in 1964. The sewer pipes took the effluent away for treatment, and the waste was eventually discharged into the Red Cedar River. Ironically however, the extension of the “urban boundary” of water and sewer systems onto the lakefront increased development activities in the area, placing other kinds of pollution pressures on the lake.
Meanwhile, the locals felt that something had to be done about the mass of weeds and algae. From 1978 until 1983 the Ingham County Board of Commissioners undertook a clean-up that included dredging the bottom of the lake. They soon discovered, however, that the three block-long “soils piles” of the dredged material that they placed adjacent to the lake contained high amounts of arsenic, some of it the result of an arsenic-laden pesticide applied earlier to control weeds.
So polluted are these dredged soil piles that Michigan’s Environmental Response Division has ranked them 17th of 70 for priority cleanup activities in Ingham County. A county consultant is currently sampling the groundwater down the gradient from these sites to see if the groundwater has been degraded. According to Bob Godbold, environmental health director at the Health Department, “This is a complex study. It may be difficult to determine whether the high arsenic levels found around these sites are being caused by the sites or are naturally occurring arsenic.” Lindemann, the county drain commissioner, doesn’t think they will be a problem with groundwater pollution from these sites. However, arsenic pollution is a serious problem in several areas of Lake Lansing’s groundwater, making it a danger for those still on private drinking water wells in the area.
Back to 1994
Now we’re back in 1994, when the town was alarmed about the high fecal content of the lake and wanted answers. The authors of the county report in December highlighted 14 “summary findings and conclusions,” including “the most evident and urgent problems.” Six findings were “good news,” (e.g. there were normal dissolved oxygen levels, and algae plumes were not a problem, in their estimation). But eight findings were troubling. Here they are, synthesized into the four major points:
— Housing development had destroyed much of the shoreline vegetation and was thus a significant contributor to pollution. The authors noted “a large percentage of shore line has been constructed to accommodate lush lawns and beach and boating activities.” As a result, there was a lack of shoreline vegetation (on the land and in the water) that can act as a buffer strip to absorb many of the pollutants. They noted that there were high phosphorous levels in the lake and said that these were associated with lawn care and bird feces. There were three“hot spots” of high pollution (sediment load) in Lake Lansing’s bottom: the northeast corner of the lake had a phosphorous load five times higher than the rest of the lake; there were above normal phosphorous levels found on the northern shore, near a condominium development and nitrate; and nitrate levels were about four times higher at the southern tip. All these areas were near drainage inlets.
— Birds, dogs and other animals were significant contributors to the fecal pollution. The number of geese had increased four-fold between 1990 and 1994, increasing the amount of excrement (and nutrients like phosphorous) in the lake. The authors reported that nutrient loading by water fowl (particularly Canadian geese) can promote lake eutrophication, a process in which increased nutrients decrease the dissolved oxygen in the lake, favoring plant over animal life. Geese also contribute to “swimmer’s itch.” It was also noted that the dog population had grown and that “uncontrolled deposits of their fecal material” could be a problem.
—The lake was “infested” with high levels of a “harmful” exotic weed, called Eurasian Milfoil. A nonindigenous aquatic plant, Milfoil reached Midwestern states between the 1950s and 1980s. It forms thick underwater stands of tangled stems and vast mats of vegetation at the water’s edge. It can disrupt recreation like boating and kill off native plants. “Milfoil was a contributing factor to the lake’s high bacterial counts in the Summer of 1994.”
—The high bacteria counts of 1994 were caused by “a combination of weather, weeds and animal population and behavior.” More specifically the scenario looked like this. A period of low rain in June was followed by a similar period of heavy rain, creating a flushing effect. The animal waste and bacteria which had accumulated over time on the sidewalks, lawns and streets was dumped into the lake all at one time. This combines with bird feces from the surface (geese defecating on the water). The added nutrients accelerated weed growth, which provided a safe environment for coliform bacteria.
Despite these “urgent problems,” the authors concluded that, “The general health of the lake is good.” This assertion could be seen as a declaration that the waters were safe for swimming and recreation (indeed, there have been no beach closings there since ‘94), but it didn’t mesh with some of their other findings, where the indicators were poor.
County officials made 15 recommendations “related to the issues facing Lake Lansing’s health and viability.” At heart, the authors called for an overall “watershed management plan” linking all 15 issues. Among their many recommendations: eradicate the Milfoil; install catch basins in approximately 17 locations (costs ranged from $800 to $1,500); forbid composting by area property owners; manage the bird population; and install buffer strip landscapes around the lake.
The Health of the Lake Today
An environmentalist inside the Ingham County Health Department, who tests for water pollution in various mediums around Lansing, confided to me that he would never let his kids swim in Lake Lansing. “It’s too polluted,” he said, referring to the many unknown chemicals, metals and biologicals in the water, transported in from the adjacent land.
Lindemann disagreed. “It’s an arbitrary thing. You can’t say you can’t swim in the lake. There isn’t a river in the state that doesn’t have pollution.” He added that Lake Michigan gets its share of sewage, “but you can still swim in it.”
“It’s a lake at risk,” he said. “It’s safe today, but it’s at risk of not being safe if you don’t take care if it, if you don’t stop putting schmutz in it. Otherwise it could go sour on us again.”
But some of the lake’s fish are “sour,” if you eat enough of them. Lake Lansing is under a mercury advisory for its fish, but the fish haven’t been tested for 12 years. And another item of concern is arsenic contamination for any Lake Lansing area resident that still has a private water well. According to a recent study by the Health Department, there are several pockets of groundwater around the lake with greater than the new federal standard of 10 parts per billion of arsenic. The arsenic is most probably due to natural deposits.
John Warbach, one of the 226 Lake Lansing property owners who is closely involved in the environmental stewardship of the lake, said that much has been accomplished by area residents since 1994. The problems with Milfoil and fertilizer have improved, as most lakeside residents have stopped using fertilizer on their lawns. However he is still concerned about the levels of various metals in the lake, which haven’t been measured. And there is still a problem with gulls that settle on the water in the night, defecating and adding to pollution. “A watershed plan is nearing completion, and we’re waiting for a draft from the consultants, Progress Engineering, who will present their findings and recommendations at a public meeting in March.” Warbach hopes that the association will install catch basin filters along the storm drains to decrease pollution entering the lake.
There are plans to build a Lake Lansing Trail from the eastern edge of MSU to Lake Lansing, paralleling the Red Cedar River. Since the spring of 2001, the Ingham County Parks Department has been doing intensive research into this proposed multi-use, non-motorized trail. The trail would connect with the proposed MSU Red Cedar Greenway and the existing Lansing River Trail, thus providing bikers and hikers with an 18-mile continuous, non-motorized route through Ingham County. Thus 150 years after the native American trails connecting local waterways by foot were lost, they’re now being regained.
Responding to news about the new Community Bandshell in Lake Lansing, Lindemann said, “Anything you can create that enhances the peace and enjoyment of each other is a good thing. But it has to be built right. You cannot do it so that it’s bad for the water.”
In summary, over the course of 200 years, the Ojibwa Lake was transformed from a local fishing spot to a recreational wonderland, vastly improving property values but placing the water body at greater risk of pollution from non-point sources. In 1994, citizens began to better realize that the lake was vulnerable. Efforts are still being made to correct many pollution problems. There is much to enjoy in the Lake Lansing area, but also much education to be had about the current and potential pollution dangers.








©Copyright City Pulse