It’s a long way back to health once an ecosystem the size of Lake Erie takes sick. Even if the initial ailments are cured, or at least ameliorated, new ones come along, posing new and significant challenges to a body of water that, more than anything else, defines life in much of Western New York.
That is only one of the reasons the attention and money devoted to restoring this lake, as well as the rest of the Great Lakes, are worth the effort. Our economy, recreation, lifestyle, climate and even health are inextricably linked to the giant body of water on our western doorstep.
Last week’s five-part series by Buffalo News reporter T.J. Pignataro laid out the challenges that Lake Erie faces, and they are significant. But start here: The lake no longer catches fire. That’s an improvement from the days when the lake or the rivers feeding it, heavy with chemical pollutants, would literally burn. It was a symbol, and a potent one, of the Rust Belt despair.
It is also less common today to find garbage washing up on the shore. At one time, hypodermic needles would wash up on land by the thousands, along with other medical waste.
In those ways, conditions in the lake are markedly better. Where once the lake was seen as a natural dumping ground, we know now that indifferent attitude carries consequences. Those who live near the lake have learned to care about it, and to want to protect it.
That’s a start.
But things don’t remain static and the challenges have multiplied for all the Great Lakes and especially for Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five inland seas. A poisonous coat of green algae forms in the summer, and while it is concentrated in the western end of the lake, it is moving this way. Invasive species are changing the nature of the lake. Water levels have fallen and raw sewage befouls the water. There is much work yet to do.
Two years ago, the algae bloom stretched from the lake’s western end to Cleveland. It kills fish and the birds who eat them. Dogs have died after drinking the toxic water. A man who waded in to rescue his dog suffered nerve damage in his arm.
Several factors are believed to be behind the annual algae bloom, including fertilizer runoff and climate change. Neither is easy to repair, but not impossible, either. In Ohio, farmers are being encouraged to build buffers between their land and nearby waterways. Sediment ponds could absorb pollutants before water reaches Lake Erie. More judicious use of fertilizers could mitigate the problem, as could abandoning the practice of spreading manure when fields are frozen.
Also troubling are the drainage systems such as those in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. They predate the Clean Water Act of 1972, and combine storm and sanitary sewers. The systems can be overwhelmed in rainy weather, forcing the release of untreated sewage into the lake or Niagara River. In addition, old underground pipes can leak. If the dead fish don’t keep you from the beach, that will.
Indeed, health officials now monitor water quality daily to determine whether Erie County’s beaches are safe for swimming. Often enough, they are closed, causing frustration along with the pollution.
Those problems, too, can be fixed, and while the cost will be high, so will the cost of doing nothing. Eventually, those systems will have to be upgraded, if not replaced. The price tag can only go up with time.
A more difficult problem is that of declining lake levels. That problem is largely a consequence of summer heat and lack of rainfall and snow pack along Lake Erie and its watershed – and those of the three monster lakes upstream. This may partly be due to climate change, a problem that demands attention but that will likely take years or decades to temper.
It’s an intermittent problem, and levels right now appear to be rising. A hot, dry summer could change that, though. To a great extent, this is a problem that requires the lake’s users to adjust their habits and cope while governments and individuals come to grips with the problem of climate change.
Also difficult, and uncertain in its impact, is the invasion of non-native species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels. With the capacity to upend the ecology of the lake, they require constant monitoring and evolving strategies to counter their threat.
But there is good news. All the Great Lakes are becoming cleaner and, to his credit, President Obama – who has lived near the Lake Michigan shoreline – has committed to restoring the lakes, and provided funding for that project during the economic hardship of the Great Recession. That commitment must continue.
For all of the political ill will in Congress, this should be as nonpartisan an issue as it ever has cause to consider. Clean water isn’t Democratic or Republican. Neither is poison algae. What is more, the region is awash in members of both political parties.
There are signs of improvement. Some fish and bird species, including the bald eagle, appear to be making a comeback. Others continue to struggle. In the end, though, there is no real choice but to continue working on the problem. Not only does this lake help to define us, its influence pervades our environment. The fact is that we need it as much as it needs us.
Perhaps that is good news.