Sunday, Mar 26, 2017
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Tom Henry

Lake Erie algae's economic impact attracts attention

PORT CLINTON -- About 100 people woke up early on a frosty morning last month, got in their cars, and drove for hours to vent their frustration about the green slime that plagued portions of Lake Erie last summer. But it will take more than talk to end the lake's unnecessary downward spiral.

The people who packed the Dec. 9 state legislative hearing in Port Clinton heard about synthetic fertilizers, manure, sewage, and violent weather triggered by climate change. Testimony taken that day was followed days later by a hearing in Columbus before the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, the state's premier policy board for the lake.

The latter hearing included testimony from fish biologist Roger Knight, Ohio's sole representative on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which sets annual catch limits for the eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that border the lakes. He said the "trends are moving in the wrong direction, no matter where on the lake you go."

His words echoed those of Ohio Sea Grant director Jeff Reutter, who said at the Port Clinton meeting that years of progress have been undone by neglect.

Lake Erie has almost as many problems today as it did before the federal Clean Water Act ushered in modern sewage treatment in the early 1970s. A lack of responsiveness to land-use issues by elected officials has allowed Lake Erie to go "from a dead lake to the walleye capital of the world to a dead lake again," said Mr. Reutter, who runs Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island.

At the Port Clinton hearing, area businesspeople, charter-boat captains, and marina operators were as angry about Lake Erie's toxic algae as private property owners and environmentalists. The algae drives away tourists, lowers property values, raises the cost of treating drinking water, and displaces fish.

Perhaps altruism will drive efforts to protect Lake Erie one day. But not yet.

The lake's best hope for recovery is its role as the centerpiece of Ohio's $38 billion tourism industry, $10.1 billion of which is derived from counties along the Lake Erie shoreline.

State lawmakers' epiphany about the lake's importance to our economy, while late, is a good sign. Money talks.

People don't plan vacations at a lake that looks like a cesspool by midsummer. And if the pea-green glop and rancid odor aren't enough, there's the issue of high gasoline costs for boaters who need to motor farther in search of blue water.

It is no wonder that the number of licensed charter-boat captains in Ohio dropped from 800 in 2010 to 700 last year.

Officials of one of Ohio's largest employers, Cedar Point, feared that algae in the lake might force the cancellation of its annual triathlon last September. The event draws 1,500 athletes from around the world and is a showcase for one of the country's top tourist destinations.

John Hildebrandt, Cedar Point's vice president and general manager, told the Port Clinton hearing that if the wind had shifted and brought algae-infested water from Sandusky Bay, it would have cost Cedar Point thousands of dollars and caused it national embarrassment.

For years, Lake Erie algae has been dismissed as a passing nuisance, the sorry end to a rough summer. Even though the western part of the lake's most notorious algae, microcystis, has a toxin that can kill humans, it took until 2010 for the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to test for it near Lake Erie beaches.

Lake Erie's toxic algae only recently has gotten as much attention as the lake's diarrhea-inducing bacteria, which state health and environmental officials have tracked for years.

"It's important that people don't view Lake Erie as a place to stay away from," said Jack Madison, general manager of the Catawba Island Marina. "What they saw in that lake last summer was a crime."

Perhaps silent cash registers can speak loud enough to be heard in Columbus.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com

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