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The waters lapping up along the Lake Erie shoreline are no longer orange. The lake doesn’t smell as bad as it once did. And talk of “a dead lake” has been put in the distant past. The water even looks bluer, clearer – and more alive. But appearances can be deceiving. Lake Erie – the focus of cleanup efforts for four decades – is still, in many ways, simmering just below crisis.

Instead of industrial slag, chemical pollutants and blazing rivers – infamous trademarks of Lake Erie during the Rust Belt’s heydey – that choked nearly all life out of the water, the lake remains under assault on several fronts:

Sewage systems. Farms. Aquatic organisms from far away places. Climate change.

Phosphate discharges were eliminated 40 years ago, yet toxic blue-green algae rolls again across the western half of Lake Erie, creating a suffocating “dead zone” up to 100 miles across its center.

Traces of various drugs and pharmaceuticals are showing up in the water nowadays – even caffeine.

Asian carp knock at the lake’s front door – one was found in Scajaquada Creek in 2007 – threatening to invade its ecosystem.

And more than a billion gallons of raw sewage overflow directly into these same waters from Buffalo and Erie County.

Now, the 21st century cycle of environmental cleanup is grappling with a fresh round of threats.

If successful, scientists are confident that an elusive balance between man and nature on a post-industrial Lake Erie will be restored.

All acknowledge this: Buffalo Niagara residents rely on Lake Erie, as a place of recreation – for swimming and sunbathing, boating or fishing – and also for commerce.

Most importantly, it’s where many of us – along with more than 10 million others around the lake – get our fresh water to drink.

In some places, the lake is even being hailed as the key to Buffalo’s rebirth.

It may be more important, in 2013, than ever. Much will depend, many agree, on what happens in these next few years on the beaches and bays, in the sand and waves.

The Buffalo News today begins a five-day series on Lake Erie’s Troubled Waters.