Concerns are rising over the future of Lake Erie, which is threatened by a toxic algae generated by pollution and climate change.
Taking this vast water resource for granted, as we often do, is not an option. Businesses from recreation to heavy industry that rely on a healthy Lake Erie are now at risk. It is critical to deal with these threats to sustain our economy. County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz made that point in his recent “State of the County” address in calling out the “blue economy” as a key foundational principle for this region.
The concern over the dead zone – the oxygen-depleted region where few organisms can survive – should be a major concern in Western New York. The Western New York political delegation and stakeholders at all levels must use their influence to advocate for the policies, legislation and behaviors that will protect our tremendous natural asset.
A recent New York Times article on the subject offers a thoughtful look at the problem.
The algae bloom back in 2011, according to the Times, covered a sixth of Lake Erie and contributed to an expanding dead zone at the bottom of the lake. The algae reduces fish populations and has a cascading effect on the multibillion-dollar Great Lakes tourism industry and, ultimately, for Western New York’s blue economy.
There have been major gains since the federal Clean Water Act was signed in 1970, followed by the regional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement two years later. The effort curbed most of the pollutants, including phosphorus, that were killing the lake. American and Canadian authorities spent billions of dollars to reduce phosphorus, which feeds the algae. But levels have since risen, mostly because fertilizer applied to farm fields eventually makes its way to the lake.
In 2011 the poisonous blue-green algae called Microcystis spread nearly 120 miles, from Toledo at the western end of the lake to past Cleveland.
Jill Jedlicka of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper said it’s not only what is in the products we’re using but the increasing volume. What happens on the land affects the water, she said.
Climate change threatens to make the problem much worse. Very intense rainfalls flush huge amounts of phosphorus into the system at one time, and a warmer lake will provide a better environment for the algae.
All this is also coming at a time when invasive species threaten to take over parts of the lake. The zebra mussel consumes a less-dangerous type of algae, but in the process adds phosphorus to the lake, which helps feed the toxic Microcystis algae.
It took a massive effort 40 years ago to save Lake Erie. Repairing the recent damage will be another huge lift that must be undertaken to preserve the lake that is our back yard.