Sandusky Bay is the home of Cedar Point, a roller coaster destination that boasts spectacular views of Lake Erie from over 400 feet in the air. Each year more than seven million people flock to visit the region in Ohio that also includes Kelley’s, South Bass (better known as Put-in-Bay) and Middle Bass islands. Excellent fishing opportunities draw anglers who love walleye, perch, trout and bass. Boating, birding, beautiful sandy beaches, stunning Lake Erie sunsets and historical sites, including a place that served as a safe haven for runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, attract other visitors.
Unfortunately, this area is also becoming a hot spot for sediment contamination and harmful algae blooms caused by polluted runoff from a watershed that drains more than 1,825 square miles (1,168,000 acres) through all or part of 12 counties.
The Sandusky River is also the site of the recent U.S. Geological Survey confirmed report of reproducing invasive grass carp, a species of Asian carp. If grass carp become widespread in the Great Lakes, their consumption of aquatic plants could threaten nesting and spawning areas and sites critical to the early development of native species of fish and waterfowl.
These problems are all caused by human activity and therefore are preventable. Construction sites, agricultural practices, large-scale tree removal and other land uses have increased runoff that carries sediment, phosphorus and raw sewage that feed the algae blooms. And the only way the grass carp could have gotten in the Sandusky River was by human release.
It will therefore take cooperation and human action throughout the watershed to keep invasive carp out and to improve the water quality of this tributary that empties into Lake Erie. A 2009 Ohio Environmental Protection Agency study shows two-thirds of surveyed Sandusky Bay tributary streams are not meeting Ohio water quality standards. Melting snow and spring rains — intensified by the changing climate — carry fertilizer, pesticides and other pollutants from the land into tributaries, and then into a shallow Lake Erie western basin. This nutrient-laden water heats up in the summer, promoting both toxic and nontoxic algae blooms. When they flow into the central basin and die, they decompose and rob oxygen from the water, creating immense “dead zones” across the center of the lake.
Creating riparian buffers between farm fields and streams, fencing livestock out of streams and replacing or repairing septic systems and sewage treatment plants can reduce the sediment, nutrients and pesticides entering the streams. Changing the time of year when fertilizer is applied can also curb phosphorus runoff. Establishing a limit to how much manure, fertilizers or pesticides can wash off farms, many of which are factory farms, would also be helpful. (The Clean Water Act, first passed in 1972, focuses on industrial water pollution.)
The only way to ensure that view of Lake Erie from 400 feet encompasses a vibrant and healthy environment and economy is for municipalities and citizens to embrace these and other best management watershed practices on the ground without delay.
ANNA McCARTNEY, a communications and education specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org