Natural shorelines with a canopy of native trees and undergrowth are the foundation of a healthy lake ecosystem.
Unfortunately there are very few natural shorelines left in the Lake Erie coastal zone. Many of these areas, which drain directly into the lake rather than draining first into one of its tributaries, are this week’s watershed focus.
These shorelines suffered from the same disastrous practices that impaired our streams. The story is the same; trees, wetlands and floodplains were replaced with agricultural, industrial, commercial and residential areas. Farms, buildings, roads, and other structures made poor substitutes because they increased runoff and erosion and many were built right up to the water’s edge leaving no buffer to protect the shoreline or the bluffs above.
Lake Erie’s relatively shallow depth, and the heavy agricultural, urban and industrial concentrations along its shores have made it the most severely polluted of the Great Lakes. The dangers to this ecosystem were not recognized at first, in part because no one tracked them. But in recent years the problems have become especially evident. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and industrial and municipal wastes that were dumped into the lake created a toxic brew that impaired water quality, destroyed wildlife habitat, sickened and killed wildlife, and contaminated municipal water supplies and closed beaches. Sediment contaminated by long-standing industrial activities continues to contribute dangerous pollutants to the waterways and harmful algae blooms are continuing to grow in size and regularity.
Now the region must cope with the true costs of past growth if we are to repair water quality and wildlife habitat that are critical to survival. Making the same mistakes (again) will only increase the environmental, health and economic costs. Any new development or redevelopment along the lakeshore must therefore restore the shoreline to its natural state to protect this vital finite resource.
We can live without fossil fuels and development but we can’t survive without water. So do we respect and protect our fragile ecosystem? Or are we destined to repeat history?