Erie’s defense has rivals joining forces

7/29/2013
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

There are no rivalries, no fight songs, and no team colors that matter when a wide cross-section of scientists and biologists cast a worried eye toward the horizon and sound the same alarm.

They see sedimentation, phosphorus loading, huge algal blooms, fertilizer runoff and sewage plant overflows, aquatic invasive species, dead zones, the impact of climate change, and coastal economic development — it’s all out there, looming on Lake Erie.

So these Buckeyes and Spartans and Rockets and Wolverines, and the Falcons and Boilermakers and Fighting Irish, and even the Student Princes from Heidelberg University are all on the same team when it comes to lining up to do battle with the lake’s most pressing issues.

They share a deep sense of consternation over that ominous row of threats facing Lake Erie, and their approach to confronting those issues is to huddle up, craft a wise plan, and call an audible whenever the situation demands it.

Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory, demonstrates how to collect zoo plankton in Lake Erie at Stone Laboratory on Put-in-Bay as Dave Baker of Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research watches.
Jeff Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory, demonstrates how to collect zoo plankton in Lake Erie at Stone Laboratory on Put-in-Bay as Dave Baker of Heidelberg University's National Center for Water Quality Research watches.

“I think it’s critically important that we work together, and that we’re willing to collaborate and share information,” said Jeff Reutter, the director of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab research facility located on Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay.

“If we were all working individually, the value of that work goes way down.”

This collaborative science web between athletic rivals continues to expand. Reutter will share his work next month with a group from Penn State at a symposium on lake issues to be held in Erie, Pa. Biologists from Stony Brook University in New York have recently studied at OSU’s Stone Lab.

Researchers from the University of Maryland have contacted Reutter, hoping to become part of the shared information network as they deal with nutrient loading issues in Chesapeake Bay that are similar to Lake Erie’s nutrient problems.

“The sharing of research and information goes well beyond this room,” Reutter said Monday as he addressed a gathering of journalists and representatives of a variety of interest groups at a Lake Erie water quality workshop held at Maumee Bay State Park’s conference center.

Scott Swinton is an economist from Michigan State who studies agriculture, food, and resources, and he said there is a distinct value in bringing together the work of scientists representing different entities.

“In the big picture, it’s good, because it makes for better work if you have multiple heads involved,” Swinton said. “With Lake Erie, you’ve got different research teams working on different issues. And with the algal blooms, that’s an issue of regional concern that could grow to national concerns.”

The worries here on the shore of Lake Erie are significant enough to demand the attention of many a researcher and scientist from UT, OSU, UM, BGSU, MSU, and any other institution of higher learning in this part of the country.

Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, and the most nutrient-rich, which exacerbates many of its problems. It is surrounded by mostly agriculture, while the rest of the Great Lakes are surrounded by more forest land. Deep, cold, and clear Lake Superior has 50 percent of the water in the Great Lakes system, and just two percent of the fish, while Lake Erie has about two percent of the water in the Great Lakes, and 50 percent of the fish.

While the university biologists and researchers are more than content to carpool their way to some long term solutions for what ails Lake Erie, you see the same type of collaborative work being done on the agency side, involving corporate, governmental, and nonprofit groups.

“There is a tremendous amount of energy going into finding solutions to this problem,” said Doug Busdeker of The Andersons Inc. about the consortium of forces working on the lake issues.

And there is a lot out there worth preserving, protecting, and enhancing, said Steve Davis from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Davis, who is also an uber Buckeyes fan, still lauded the work a research team “from that school up north” (Michigan) has done addressing Lake Erie issues

“The cooperation is very valuable, because there are so many different areas that need study,” Davis said. “We all have ownership of this problem, so we all need to work together. And I think we’re at a point where all involved are rowing in the same direction.”

Bill Stanley from the Nature Conservancy said the sheer number of issues and their complexity demand an “all hands on deck” approach.

“When you confront problems like these, you try and put together the best group you can,” Stanley said.

But despite the civil approach and voluntary détente, deep seated loyalties still occasionally come to the surface, even when the discussion involves phosphorus from agricultural operations leading to huge blooms of algae in the lake, which was the focus of Monday’s symposium.

“Because of those rivalries, it makes for some very fun meetings,” Ohio State’s Reutter said. “But we all know that consensus is much more powerful, especially when we are able to work together and then speak with one voice.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.