Can Lake Erie make another remarkable comeback?
Once known as “North America’s Dead Sea,” a nickname earned in the 1960s, Lake Erie became a legendary environmental success story after the United States and Canada enacted regulations to control sewage and industrial pollutants, and conducted a multibillion-dollar cleanup. However, there is plenty of evidence that Lake Erie urgently needs our help again to recover. Regular beach closings, lake water that looks like spilled paint and the closing of an Ohio water treatment plant near Toledo that became overwhelmed with algal toxins in September are just a few signs. The federal Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, primarily regulates point sources of pollution that can clearly be measured, such as pollution created by power plants. But to deal with our current problems, we must focus on the watersheds that drain water into Lake Erie. That water carries sediment, nutrients and pollutants that can’t easily be traced to their source.
Starting today and in coming weeks, we will examine the Lake Erie basin and the places where the water originates and how pollutants are carried into the lake. The majority of inflow for Lake Erie is drainage from the upper portion of the Great Lakes basin through the Detroit River. Water also drains off the land from cities as far away as Fort Wayne, Ind., and from cities and farms located in watersheds in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. Rain falling on exposed soil, on roads and on parking lots hastens erosion and the transport of soil particles and pollutants into tributaries, which deposit them near their mouths and connecting channels. Storms then carry them farther into the lake.
Before the Lake Erie basin was settled, these streams typically ran clear year-round. Natural vegetation prevented stormwater runoff and soil loss, and there were few people to cause serious pollution. But then the forests were cleared for logging and agriculture, and impervious surfaces began to replace natural areas where cities cropped up. Add unregulated industrial pollution and untreated sewage to accelerated runoff and erosion, and it’s easy to see
why the lake was declared dead in the past. Today phosphorous from agricultural runoff and sewage overflows travels downstream to Lake Erie where it fuels algae growth, which is linked to dangerous toxins and dead zones. The mercury in the Lake Erie ecosystem comes from the inflow contributed by rivers and streams as well as by way of the atmosphere, primarily through wet precipitation and dry deposition. Once these and other pollutants are in the lake, they are impossible to remove. Because water crosses political boundaries, the effort to reduce nutrients and pollutants will require an ecosystem approach that links upstream causes with downstream effects. Keeping them out of the tributaries and groundwater will take coordinated and strategic actions by federal, state and local governments as well as the 11 millions citizens who rely on this important source of freshwater for their drinking water.