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 mens social club while a lookout warned of an
impending sheriffs 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 Lansings
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
was shocked eight summers ago when Lake Lansings weekly fecal
coliform (poop-related) sample results came back high. The timing couldnt
have been worse. It was the Fourth of July weekend, not the time to
close Ingham Countys 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
Commissioners 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
Youll have to wait till the articles 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 lakes water comes from storm water runoff! Thats
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.
Thats still true. Every time that a cars 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, lets 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
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
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.
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 natures 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 Americans
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
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
Unlike greater Chicagos 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 lakes name
transformed from a referent to nature into an alienated abstraction,
having no physical relationship to the water. John Lansing, the lakes
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.
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 Michigans 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, doesnt think they will
be a problem with groundwater pollution from these sites. However, arsenic
pollution is a serious problem in several areas of Lake Lansings
groundwater, making it a danger for those still on private drinking
water wells in the area.
Back to 1994
Now were 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
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
threehot spots of high pollution (sediment load) in Lake
Lansings 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 swimmers 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 waters edge. It can disrupt recreation like boating and
kill off native plants. Milfoil was a contributing factor to the
lakes 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 didnt mesh with some of their other findings, where the
indicators were poor.
County officials made 15 recommendations related to the issues
facing Lake Lansings 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
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. Its
too polluted, he said, referring to the many unknown chemicals,
metals and biologicals in the water, transported in from the adjacent
Lindemann disagreed. Its an arbitrary thing. You cant
say you cant swim in the lake. There isnt a river in the
state that doesnt have pollution. He added that Lake Michigan
gets its share of sewage, but you can still swim in it.
Its a lake at risk, he said. Its safe
today, but its at risk of not being safe if you dont take
care if it, if you dont stop putting schmutz in it. Otherwise
it could go sour on us again.
But some of the lakes fish are sour, if you eat enough
of them. Lake Lansing is under a mercury advisory for its fish, but
the fish havent 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 havent 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 were 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, theyre 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 its 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