It’s as much about the economy as it is the quality of life for a group of concerned Lake Erie stakeholders who are notable for their newly-formed economic interest group called the Lake Erie Improvement Association. And perhaps it’s a good model for others similarly affected.
The problem: An increasing bloom of toxic algae that’s now appearing each summer on Lake Erie. In fact, in 2011 it was so widespread that it covered about 1,600 miles of the western and central portions of the lake with algae reaching two feet thick at many points. It’s resulted in expanding the so-called “dead zones” (areas lacking oxygen) on its bottom, reducing fish populations while also fouling beaches, hurting the $11.5-billion-a-year tourism industry and damaging the marine industry, among others.
It’s all bringing back bad memories of the late 1960s when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River burned and Lake Erie became the poster child for the nation’s water-pollution problems. But the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 requiring vastly improved wastewater systems and state legislation to reduce phosphorus going into the lake combined for one of the great environmental turnaround stories.
In less than a decade, Lake Erie had become the sportsmen’s walleye fishing capital of the nation, while annually producing the most abundant freshwater commercial fishery in the five Great Lakes for a variety of species. Its renewed water clarity brought back activities like scuba diving, while boat sales mushroomed and thousands of new marina slips were built and Ohio sailed into the nation’s top 10 boating states. Now there’s genuine fear again for the lake’s future.
“We’ve seen this lake go from the poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery. Now it’s headed back again,” laments Jeffrey M. Reutter, director of the Sea Grant program at Ohio State University and a foremost authority on Lake Erie.
“The goal of [the Lake Erie Improvement Association] is to reduce nutrient loading into Lake Erie and to help address other Lake challenges,” explains Jim Stouffer Jr., association president and CEO of the Catawba Island Club. “[The association] bridges the gap between public and private Lake Erie stakeholders using a business-model approach. We’re uniquely positioned as an organization to speak for healthy Lake Erie-dependent businesses to promote economic sustainability.”
To that end, the group has developed an aggressive 22-point strategic plan. A few highlights include issuing an annual Lake Erie Status Report Card; taking direct actions like banning phosphorus fertilizer use on mature lawns; setting nutrient target loads at river tributary outfalls; and reducing phosphorus runoff on agricultural land by one pound or more per acre.
It’s the latter that’s the elephant in the room. The Lake Erie watershed encompasses more than 22,000 square miles spanning four states and parts of Canada. It’s estimated that 75 percent of the land use is for agriculture. Moreover, it’s believed most of the phosphorus originates near Toledo where the 137-mile Maumee River empties into the lake’s western end. The other area of prime concern is the Detroit River, which provides the overwhelming majority of water flow into the lake’s western end. But while the Maumee provides only an estimated 5 percent of the water flow, it contains 50 percent of the phosphorus.
To see meaningful cuts in phosphorus levels, experts agree the methods and equipment used by some 70,000 farmers impacting the lake must change. No small undertaking, to be sure, but it’s acknowledged that most of the phosphorus is now coming from farmland. Here’s why:
Nowadays, more than half of the farmland is planted without old-fashioned tilling. Rather, seeds are inserted mechanically into small holes in the unplowed ground. Then, fertilizer pellets are spread on the bare ground at the rate of 48 pounds per acre. In the old days, most pellets sank into the plowed soil and stayed there. But now there’s no plowing. So rain and snowmelt wash an average 1.1 of the 48 pounds off unplowed soil, much of it into the Maumee and Lake Erie.
The algae problem isn’t just on Lake Erie. Blooms are hitting other lakes in Ohio like Grand Lake-St. Marys or in Lake Winnipeg, one of Canada’s largest, and in some bays in Lake Huron, to note a few. The U.S. and Canada successfully spent billions in the 1970s and ’80s to reduce the phosphorus by two-thirds. But it’s back again, seemingly bigger than ever.
Groups like the Lake Erie Improvement Association see that the problem might be even more intractable now. That’s why they are lobbying, promoting research, expanding monitoring, demanding implementation programs, pushing more education and hastening to bring about a new outcome.
If you are part of the Lake Erie watershed, I strongly urge your direct support of the Lake Erie Improvement Association. If not, but you do have similar circumstances in your area, I suggest you look at the plans and actions of the association as a possible model for your direction. Simply go to: www.lakeerieimprovement.org .