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CAN LAKE ERIE BE RESURRECTED AGAIN?
By Suzanne Forcese
In the 1970’s Lake Erie was declared dead, past the point of being saved. A miracle occurred when both Canada and the United States developed stronger policies and worked together with many partners to address the point sources of phosphorus loading, mainly waste water effluent, as well as non-point sources, in particular agricultural run-off. The success of this endeavor was evidenced by the drop in phosphorus loadings with an impact on algal blooms and hypoxia from 28,000 tonnes/ year to 10,000 tonnes/ year by the 1990’s.
However, the blooms are back and with a vengeance. Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria produce toxins that are a health risk and create serious repercussions for Lake Erie and tourism. A dangerous bloom in 2014 released an algae produced toxin called microcystin that contaminated the drinking water of 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, prompting the city to turn off the taps for 5 days. “Lake Erie has had a bad decade,” Raj Gill, Great Lakes Program Director of Canadian Freshwater Alliance, told WaterToday.
Gill emphasized that a combination of physical characteristics and surrounding land use make Lake Erie the most susceptible of the Great Lakes to eutrophication (the effect of excess phosphorus). This situation is further complicated by a changing climate, hydrological patterns and invasive species, all of which are resulting in shifting ecological systems.
According to Dr. Scott Higgins of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), “the situation in Lake Erie’s western basin is identical to that of Lake Winnipeg. Eutrophication has promoted harmful blooms of cyanobacteria
in the western basin; hypoxia in the central basin caused by the decomposition of dying algae; and nuisance algae in the eastern basin that can clog water intakes, impede recreational uses and degrade aquatic habitat. Cyanobacteria blooms also produce potent toxins that may threaten drinking water sources, fish populations, beach quality, coastal recreation, and the overall ecological health of the lake.
The resurgence of algal blooms is demanding a new approach for another reason. Cost. Uncontrolled, algal blooms on Lake Erie could cost Canada $5.3 billion over 30 years. The largest costs are imposed on tourism and non-users who value the lake’s existence, property owners, recreationists and commercial fishing. Controlling the blooms could reduce this cost by $2.8 billion.
“I have never seen it this bad before. The water was foamy and the beach was stained green.”
Markie Miller, spokesperson for Toledans For Safe Water(TFSW)
Algal blooms are also a threat to those communities that depend on the lake as their drinking water source. WaterToday spoke with Markie Miller, spokesperson for Toledans For Safe Water(TFSW) who visited Maumee Bay on the 5-year anniversary of Toledo’s water shut down. “Here it was, a beautiful sunny Saturday on our only beach, which under normal conditions would be crowded.”
Miller, whose TFSW group was instrumental in the Lake Erie Bill of Rights LEBOR, added that while visiting the deserted beach, she had to wear a face mask for protection against the toxic fumes from the algae and the piles of zebra mussels’ shells. “I have never seen it this bad before. The water was foamy and the beach was stained green.” A nearby resort that takes its water from the lake for its architectural fountain display was spewing the green toxin adding to the grotesque scene. “This is really impacting tourism.”
LEBOR itself was a short lived victory for Lake Erie and surrounding communities when the State of Ohio passed an injunction on LEBOR on behalf of Drewes Farm.
“It has been frustrating,” Miller continued, “because the Judge has prohibited us from being heard in the case. We aren’t even allowed in the courtroom.”
In an interesting development, the City of Toledo has stated that “we have a charter. Our citizens have a right.” Miller adds, “Historically, communities have not received support from cities.”
“We have certainly been challenged.” However, alliances are forming. In Acri, Italy, citizens passed a Declaration of Support for LEBOR. “This is why we keep fighting. If citizens thousands of miles away have heard the message then perhaps more communities can come together.”
Another connection closer to home is with The Canadian Freshwater Alliance. “We hosted a webinar with TFSW,” Raj Gill told WT. “We have the same frustrations.”
“The main issue in Canada is the run-off from farmland which comprises 75% of the phosphorus loading. More difficult to pinpoint and assess is the run-off from urban areas. There is no regulation for fertilizer use in Canada.”
Canada, the US, the Province and municipal jurisdictions worked together in 2018 on a commitment to reduce phosphorus entering the West Basin by 40%.
The Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan states:
“Based on robust scientific evidence this plan includes cost-effective, high impact actions that reflect a collective responsibility for environmental management through a variety of federal, provincial and partner actions that need to be co-ordinated and implemented by all sectors and communities in the Lake Erie Basin.”
Gill’s concern is that although the Plan commits to “reduce phosphorus loadings; ensure effective policies, programs and legislation; improve the knowledge base; educate and build awareness, and strengthen leadership, and co-ordination,” work plans have not been released.
“Without a detailed plan, it is meaningless. Voluntary measures are a good first step but it’s not enough. The governments have to step up and tighten regulations on fertilizer use.”
“We have enough research to do a lot more than we are. We need more wetland restoration. Buffer strips. There needs to be the will and the momentum in terms of what we value economically. We all value the lake.”
The emotional connection between people and their water is proven by the actions of many Canadians across the country supporting responsible water stewardship. The Lake Erie Challenge demonstrates the depth of that bond.
On August 24, two teams of athletes will be pushing their limits to defend Lake Erie, when they will swim and stand-up paddle board across the vast open water distance of 30 km from Long Point to Port Dover. Their mission is to raise funds to free Lake Erie from microplastics, sewage pollution and toxic algae blooms.
Can Lake Erie be saved? Dr. Scott Higgins (IISD) believes it can, “We’ve done it before. We can do it again. The drivers may be different this time. But it can still be done.”
Maumee Bay, Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio, on the 5th anniversary of the City’s water shut-off
Photo courtesy Markie Miller, Spokesperson for Toledans For Safe Water
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