There were some long faces in the room when Lake Erie’s virtual report card was displayed for all to see at the recent Waterkeeper conference. After a detailed examination of the key areas of concern, the brows were knit, the expressions pained, and the anxiety impossible to disguise.
Lake Erie faces a prime number of major issues – seven. According to one member of the all-star lineup of experts who took to the podium at the Lake Erie Waterkeeper annual gathering at Lourdes University on Thursday, the lake gets poor grades in most areas, but there is also hope in others — some progress is being made.
Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant program and one of the most knowledgeable and respected voices on the health of the lake, laid out critical areas that provide an often sobering barometer on the state of the lake:
2. Phosphorus and nutrient loading
3. Harmful algal blooms
4. Aquatic invasive species
5. The “Dead Zone”
6. Climate change
7. Coastal economic development
Reutter said Lake Erie remains a leading example in the U.S. on the impact of pollution, but it can also boast being the best test case on how an ecosystem can recover if the proper measures are put into place. And the lake is not alone with its current troubles.
“This is not just an Ohio problem or just a Lake Erie problem: This is a worldwide problem,” Reutter said about the issues threatening the lake.
Because Lake Erie drains 4.5 million acres of agricultural land, it takes in large amounts of sediment, both from the rivers and from the disposal in the open lake of material from dredging operations. Reutter said he does not expect that issue to improve anytime soon, because alternative disposal methods are very costly.
On the phosphorus and nutrient loading front, Reutter said he hopes conditions will improve as farmers become more actively involved in helping limit the amount of nutrient runoff that reaches the lake.
“I think the people in the agricultural community will respond, so we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Lower water levels, an increase in the frequency of storms, and warmer weather all play roles in exacerbating the problems with harmful algal blooms. The lake experienced a massive bloom in 2011, when record patterns of rainfall produced significant runoff, but the algal blooms were much less of an issue in the very dry 2012, Reutter said.
Aquatic invasive species have created a crisis in Lake Erie for many decades, with lampreys, zebra mussels, white perch and gobies headlining a lengthy list of notorious invaders. Reutter gave the lake a poor chance of fending off the latest threat — Asian carp.
“There are just too many pathways,” Reutter said, referring to water links that would allow these fish to reach the Great Lakes and ultimately find an ideal home in the nutrient-rich, warm-water habitat of Erie’s Western Basin. “It is probably only a matter of time.”
The Lake Erie “Dead Zone” is as ominous as its name suggests. Each summer, a layer of cold water gets trapped along the bottom of the Central Basin and when the decomposition of dead algae uses up the oxygen in this region, there is none to replace it due to the layering of the water. Large fish kills can occur when high winds turn over this cold, oxygen-poor layer of water and send it to the surface. The Western Basin is too shallow to experience a similar temperature layering of the water.
Reutter said the outlook for remedying the Central Basin “Dead Zone” remains poor. “Heavy nutrient loads and reduced water levels may make it impossible to eliminate,” he said.
The uncertainties that climate change brings to the issues confronting the health of the lake leaves Reutter to expect no improvement on that front, as well.
On the coastal economic development issue, Reutter said he expects the value of property along the lake to remain high, and that coastal tourism will continue to grow as fishing and boating remain strong, and birding interests bring an increasing number of visitors to the Lake Erie shoreline.
“We can see clearly that Lake Erie provides a real economic engine for the entire state,” he said. “Sometimes, we are just too close to it, so we take that for granted.”
Reutter maintains optimistic the Herculean efforts that brought Lake Erie from being given up for dead around the time of the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969, to its status as the “Walleye Capital of the World” just two decades later, can be repeated.
Reutter warns that Lake Erie’s path to avoiding an environmental catastrophe and making another recovery will likely be a costly and difficult one, but not an impossible or improbable one.
And it will be worth it.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.