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Rotary tackles algae issue with same fervor as polio

The upcoming Rotary Lake Erie Crisis Conference mirrors several other symposiums held on the topic over the past year with one notable exception: Organizers are motivated by the group’s worldwide efforts to help eradicate polio.

And Rotary isn’t going away. This inaugural conference, scheduled for Oct. 23 and 24, is the first of what organizers envision as a series of Rotary-sponsored annual discussions about Lake Erie water quality for the next several decades.

“The lake is sick with algae. We have to ask ourselves: How can this happen in a civilized society?” Andy Stuart, Rotary Club of Toledo president, said. “I think there will be a conference for the next 20 years focusing on Lake Erie.”

Many people may be surprised to learn that, with 450 members, Rotary Club of Toledo is not only Ohio’s largest rotary club, it’s also the 11th largest in the world.

As of 2013, it had $3.3 million in assets. Back then, Dr. Riaz N. Chaudhary told The Blade on the day he was installed to serve as president that year that it typically distributes $160,000 to $180,000 in grants annually to nonprofits, mostly from endowment proceeds.

The club has a new president each year.

Many people saw its foray into the algae issue — announced at a luncheon on Aug. 3, a year after Toledo was in the midst of its water crisis — as a stronger commitment to water quality by northwest Ohio’s business community and a growing number of influential laymen adding their voices for humanitarian, not political, reasons.

Mr. Stuart, a radio executive, said it’s so important for the group to be seen as apolitical and neutral that it has refused advertising and other financial support from outsiders for the conference.

The local chapter has received solid backing and a long-term commitment for future Lake Erie algae conferences from Rotary District 6600 and Rotary International’s headquarters in Evanston, Ill., he said.

While outsiders may view Rotary as a group of business leaders engaged in ordinary philanthropy, its work is much deeper than that.

Its most famous campaign is the near-eradication of polio, working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to promote global use of the vaccine originally pioneered at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine several decades ago by Dr. Jonas Salk.

Nigeria, one of only three countries that still had polio outbreaks, has now been polio-free for more than a year, meaning the crippling disease may have vanished from the entire 47-nation continent of Africa.

The only places left in the world known to have new cases of polio are Afghanistan and Pakistan, and those are on the decline. According to Time magazine, the polio virus was endemic in 128 countries as recently as 1988, crippling 350,000 children a year.

Rotary International has been involved with water quality and water quantity issues elsewhere, mostly in Third World countries.

Mr. Stuart said the passion of the polio campaign and with water issues elsewhere is being carried over to Rotary Club of Toledo’s commitment to Lake Erie.

“The fact of the matter is the [algae] problem continues to worsen,” he said. “This is a global issue. It’s not getting better.”

Across the world, algae problems abound, with the common denominators being climate change and poor land use, including wasteful agricultural practices, suburban sprawl, and excessive shoreline development. Algal blooms are now found from the Arctic Circle to South America.

“We understand things are difficult,” Mr. Stuart said. “What we want to do is arrive at a plan that benefits everybody.”

Rotary trustee Eric Fankhauser, who has chaired the local chapter’s water committee, said Rotary International has clout through its 1.2 million members throughout the world.

“They’re leaders throughout their communities,” he said.

Mr. Fankhauser, a Toledo Metal Spinning Co. vice president, agreed with Mr. Stuart that the same kind of passion used to address polio on a global scale is now being used to address algae and other water-quality issues on a global basis, including here in western Lake Erie.

He claimed Rotary helped assemble the “biggest army of volunteers in the history of the world” for its polio campaign and hopes to do likewise for global algae issues.

“Our role is to get Rotarians together to solve problems,” Mr. Fankhauser said. “Rotary really wants to take on water initiatives from a global perspective.”

To sign up for the conference, call 419-LAK-ERIE (419-525-3743) or go to www.rotarylakeerieconference. org. Membership in Rotary is not required.

Costs range from $60 for an individual, one-day registration on Oct. 24 to $500 for a corporate group discount package.

The bulk of presentations are on Oct. 24, starting with breakfast keynote presentations by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and Ohio Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green). Rotary International General Secretary John Hewko is the lunch keynote.

There is a separate cost of $65 to attend the keynote dinner and speech at the Grand Plaza Hotel & Conference Center on the evening of Oct. 23, featuring Cameron Davis, senior Great Lakes adviser to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy.

There also is a separate cost of $80 for a tour of the National Museum of the Great Lakes in East Toledo earlier in the day, followed by a cocktail mixer. It includes a 3 p.m. tour of Lake Erie aboard the Jet Express.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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