Many Lake Erie water quality problems could have been and still can be averted if human, agricultural and industrial waste is kept from running into the tributaries that empty into the lake. There is plenty of evidence that in the past, little thought was given to protecting the tributaries that feed Lake Erie.
The Ottawa River, which drains into North Maumee Bay at the western end of Lake Erie, is just one example of how fixing these problems is much more difficult and expensive than preventing them. The millions of dollars spent to cap the most notorious landfills along its banks or to remove toxic sediment do not begin to account for the true environmental and economic costs of what has long been considered Ohio’s most polluted waterway.
Much of the pollution occurred before environmental laws were passed in the 1970s. Decades of manufacturing activity and improper waste disposal practices and sewage overflows resulted in the release of hazardous substances into the Ottawa River watershed. This pollution, which migrated from landfills, industrial facilities and wastewater treatment plants along the riverbanks and in the watershed, contaminated the water, fish and wildlife in the river and adjacent North Maumee Bay. Even after the federal landmark Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 to curb industrial discharges, the river was written off as a sewer. However, many concerned citizens, community groups, business and government organizations have worked hard to improve the river’s quality. During the last decade, progress has been made. In 2010, one of the largest cleanups in Great Lakes history removed nearly 300,000 tons of contaminated sediment in Ohio’s hottest spot for industrial pollutants at a cost of $47 million.
In 2012, another restoration effort that began in 2005 was also completed when the University of Toledo finished a final phase of the university’s Ottawa River project on the main campus. Finally in May 2012, the state of Ohio lifted some, though not all, of the river’s “do not eat fish” advisories that had been in place for 21 years. In 2011, some advisories against making skin contact with river water were also lifted for the first time in 20 years. Yet in some areas both advisories still remain in effect.
To be sure, the Ottawa River has a long way to go before claims can be made that it is free of pollution. The river’s story should, however, be a constant reminder of the expense and difficulty that come from dealing with problems left by past generations and why prevention is the only sound solution for protecting the water that feeds Lake Erie, the source of drinking water for millions.
Keeping human, agricultural and industrial waste out of our waterways ensures that future generations can swim and fish and benefit from the greatest source of freshwater in the world.