When my daughter and her husband visited from El Paso, Texas, what most impressed them about this region was not Niagara Falls. Although they did find those falls impressive, they seemed almost stunned by the extent of Lake Erie. They stood for perhaps 10 minutes on the shore at Woodlawn Beach looking out over this vast body of water. Finally, Jim turned to Susan and me to say, “Looking down the lake you can even see the curvature of the earth at the horizon.”
I think my son-in-law captured in that comment what we fail to appreciate about where we live. Of course, every place on earth is unique, but ours is, I believe, very special. We have not just one but two of the five Great Lakes close at hand. They provide this seemingly endless amount of fresh water. Of course, the view meant even more to a couple coming from West Texas. Instead of water they have desert. The view when flying into El Paso is little different from looking at a child’s sandbox. And in the Southwest, lack of water is becoming an ever-increasing problem. The two biggest water storage areas, Lakes Mead and Powell, are each down more than 100 feet from full capacity.
To gain some perspective on the amount of water contained in Lake Erie, consider some comparisons. When full, Lakes Mead and Powell together contain less than 17 cubic miles of water. (Today they contain about 7.) And Great Salt Lake contains 4.5 cubic miles. Lake Erie, the smallest of the Great Lakes in volume, contains 115 cubic miles. Lake Ontario, although smaller in surface area, contains 393. It is much deeper than Erie.
OK, I hope you are impressed with this wonderful, seemingly almost infinite resource. But are we aware of just how threatened that resource is?
At times, our beaches are closed to swimming due to pollution, but we at the eastern end of the lake have not yet had the algae problems of the west. There, in late summer, the water turns into what looks like and has the consistency of pea soup. It contains, thankfully in small amounts, some of the most serious poisons known.
There are dead zones in the lake where the oxygen is depleted to the point at which no aquatic life can exist. Despite the work of people like Sharen Trembath, who annually clean our beaches, we have a build-up of plastic microbeads in the water. Asian carp threaten to join other invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels, round gobies and sea lamprey. Botulism is killing aquatic birds. And this winter, waterfowl were dying of starvation along the frozen lake.
We know the problems; thankfully some are working to alleviate them. On April 5, the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club will address some of these issues with “A Conservation Conversation on the Status of Lake Erie.” This meeting will be held in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fontana Boathouse at 1 Rotary Row.
The sessions will include a history of the Fontana boathouse by Anne McCooey, its executive director; “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Water Quality in the Niagara River Watershed” by Erin Riddle of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter; “Aquatic Invasive Species” by Helen Domske of New York Sea Grant; and “Algae Issues and Invasive Species Threats in the Western Basin; Central Basin Dead Zone Issues” by Dave Spangler, representing Lake Erie Waterkeeper and the Lake Erie Charterboat Association. The program will conclude with a tour of the Great Lakes Laboratory by its director, Alexander Karatayev.