A healthy Lake Erie is impossible if the water that feeds it is polluted.

The costs for pollution caused by past generations are enormous and the negative impacts still remain. Doesn’t it make sense to prevent new sources of pollution so future generations don’t have to pay insurmountable environmental and economic costs?

Averting water problems upstream is the least expensive cure for pollution and flooding problems downstream. Although all tributaries that empty into Lake Erie deserve attention, the Maumee River, which is the largest tributary on the Great Lakes, accounts for a sizable percentage of pollution in Lake Erie. More than 3,900 miles of rivers and streams from parts of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana flow into the Maumee, which begins its 137-mile journey in Fort Wayne, Ind., at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers. It empties into the lake at Maumee Bay near Toledo, Ohio.

By 1850, forested areas had been converted to farmland, villages and towns. Coastal wetlands and the Great Black Swamp were cleared and drained from 1850 to 1900, eliminating the capacity to prevent pollutants and sediments from entering the lake.

And because the land was flat, farmers dug channels to rivers and streams to drain their land and keep it from flooding. These changes, combined with rapid urbanization and industrialization from 1920 to 1950, increased erosion and accelerated the delivery of sediment and other pollutants into the lake. This contributed to Lake Erie’s massive algae blooms and thousands of square miles of dead zones.

The United States and Canada cracked down on Great Lakes pollution from industry and municipal sewage systems and limited the use of phosphate in laundry detergents. Those policies led to a remarkable Lake Erie recovery from the days when it was declared dead. Since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to limit point-source pollution, billions of dollars have been spent throughout the Great Lakes Basin to construct treatment facilities for both domestic and industrial wastewater.

Although conditions have improved, present-day land use continues to alter habitat and contribute sediment, nitrates and other chemicals to Lake Erie waters. There are no laws limiting urban and agricultural nonpoint source pollutants, which can’t be traced to a single source.

More than any other tributary, the Maumee River carries the largest amount of agricultural chemicals, animal waste and sediment into the lake. That sediment contains herbicides, pesticides and nutrients, namely phosphorus and nitrogen, from farms, lawns, outdated sewage treatment plants, faulty septic tanks and some industrial operations. Since about 1995, reactive phosphorus entering Lake Erie from the Maumee has increased 218 percent.

Algae blooms, some of which produce toxins that make the water unsafe for human contact or consumption and interfere with recreation, have also returned. These toxins increase the cost of providing safe drinking water. The fish kills that occur when the dead organic matter decays and depletes oxygen in the water are hurting the fishing industry.

Avoiding these disastrous consequences that will surely sink Lake Erie’s multibillion-dollar tourist economy requires action to ensure that water entering into the lake from the Maumee River Watershed and others is not polluted.
ANNA McCARTNEY, a communications and education specialist for Pennsylvania Sea Grant, can be reached by e-mail at axm40@psu.edu.

Issue Publication Date: 
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Main Office: Tom Ridge Environmental Center 301 Peninsula Dr., Suite 3 Erie, PA 16505 814-217-9011