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Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

How much contaminated water can Lake Erie take?

When you think of the world in terms of watersheds, it looks different, much different.

Take the Lake Erie watershed, for example, particularly in light of the recent historic storms and the deluge of rain that swamped northern Ohio.

It has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. It just sits there - thousands of square miles of land drained by ditches, creeks, streams, and rivers flowing unstoppably downhill to the lake. It has to take what nature, and man, dish out.

In the recent deluge, untold millions of gallons of water flushed into the lake in a liquid rampage. The flood carried with it an abnormally heavy burden of contaminants from modern urban and agricultural society.

Tons of silt - grains of prime cropland. Chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides from the farms.

Gasoline, grease, motor oil, antifreeze, hydraulic fluids and more - leaked from our motor vehicles - flushed off city streets and parking lots. Chemicals that we spray on our oh-so-neat-and-green lawns. All manner of litter-objects, from baseballs to motor-oil containers. Human waste and anything else we throw down our toilets.

All of it washed straight into the emergency overflow pipes of overwhelmed sewers and drainage tiles. And into the waterways.

Such a monumental slug of societal filth will make its mark in the lake, somehow, some way. It is all connected. Nature does not operate in a vacuum, though we proceed as if out of sight is out of mind.

To cite just one consequence, the recent slug of contaminants that the lake has had to swallow likely will promote blooms of toxic blue-green algae.

Roger Knight, Lake Erie programs manager for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, winced at recent storms and abnormally heavy rains. "My immediate reaction was, we're going to see a heck of a blue-green algae bloom." In fact, he added, citing recent online satellite glimpses of the lake, "you can see it already."

The difference between satellite images of near-shore areas a day or two before the storm events and a day or two after "was pretty pronounced," Knight noted.

For a while afterward, a north-northeast wind pattern kept silty, polluted runoff pinned to the shoreline. The effect on Sandusky Bay was dramatic, Knight said. The southern half was brown, the northern half blue-green. Mixing no doubt is occurring as the winds switch to prevailing offshore patterns.

But timing is everything. Had this rain event occurred in May, when water temperatures were cooler, Knight would have expected the rains to stimulate production of plankton, the microscopic life upon which all higher aquatics depend, one way or another.

But the rains occurred in June, after the stage where they would benefit plankton. So the door was open to unwelcome blue-green algae rather than "edible" green algae.

"If we get too much phosphorus [from farms, streets, lawns, human excrement] late in the season, the blue-green algae will outcompete the green algae," the lake scientist explained.

The blooming of blue-green algae may be aided and abetted by zebra and quagga mussels, those pesty invasive cousins, which we have allowed to infiltrate the Great Lakes by our refusal to take seriously the perils of dumping ballast-water from overseas shipping. But that's yet another issue.

Back on point, Knight proceeded to run through a list of conservation and environmental strides made in the last 35 or so years, all bent on curbing the contaminant tide and keeping land, well, on the land.

But a lasting need remains for long-term support of programs that are subtle, not sexy. Programs that do not show bricks-and-mortar monuments in front of which politicians can proudly strut for photo-ops.

Programs that increase, not diminish, support for those critical living filters - wetlands. Or groundwater re-charge projects, ones aimed at water-retention on land and metered release of floodwaters.

Such programs are built on concepts that are not easily explained in this just-give-me-a-soundbite world. But they are critical.

"The whole ecology of the lake is going to depend on what happens in these [tributary] watersheds," said Knight. "We need to do a better job of managing watersheds - not just for fishing, but for drinking water. We do have to drink the water that comes out of that lake." Still he wants to be optimistic. "I think communities are moving slowly toward green philosophy. But we need the public [as a whole] to buy in."

Buy in with votes supporting funding to do smart, watershed-conserving programs and projects - votes to elect political representatives willing to look beyond re-election and special favors.

In the end, what happens at Fort Wayne, Ind., or Defiance, Lima, Findlay, Bucyrus, Crestline, and beyond - not to mention in and around Toledo and sizable shoreline cities - sooner or later affects Lake Erie and its health.

And our health and well-being. It affects our ability to enjoy and thrive in the place where we live.

In a practical sense, no amount of planning or prevention can be done to head off the full impact of castastrophic events. It is, after all, unrealistic to invest in very expensive systems and plans that may be needed only three or four times in a century.

And it is true that great strides have been made, in recent decades to keep the soil on the farm, along with the fertilizers and pesticides. Efforts to improve municipal sewer systems also have progressed, though sometimes in fits and starts.

But a Great Flood, as the region recently experienced, still calls up the Big Question:

Do we still treat our rivers like sewers and our lake like a giant toilet bowl? If we do, we do so at our peril. It's all connected.



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