Making A Lake Great Again: Erie Prospects for Un-fresh Waters

It was 1993 – the year I first really got intimate with Lake Erie. As an aspiring graduate student, our accommodations were meek tents on Pelee Island. Showers were hard to

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Lake Erie off the tip of Fish Point, Pelee Island. May 2017.

come by. The island’s sandy, limestone and broken boulder shorelines were excellent launching pads for some serious and not so serious bathing sessions. We’d float in the calm waters of small inlets to ease the frequent pain of poison ivy blisters.  Wading in the waters would soothe the lashes the brambles had repeatedly incised on our shins. After riding dozens of kilometres on our bikes each day, the water cut the dust and settled the saddle strain.  During days of great winds, we’d feebly body check the ‘big rollers’

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Cooling off my fieldwork legs in the clean waters just off Fish Point, Pelee Island, 1993. Thanks to Ilford Film for the black and white 35mm support. Photo by Bo Porchuk.

– massive waves – that thrashed us like rag dolls onto the soft sandy lake bottom. A video made in the latter half of 1993 indicated that water just off the shore of the Erie islands was ‘near drinking water quality.’ In short, Erie to us was a great lake, in spite of what many of us had heard to the contrary.

Brought back from the brink in the 1970s when a highly contaminated section of the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (1969) in Cleveland, the late 80s early 90s saw the alien Zebra Mussels ratcheting up the water quality through their combined efforts to filter millions of gallons of water per day. The word on the street was that these bivalves were in fact making the water too clean; local fisheries, especially in the shallow section of the lake, the western basin, were suffering from a lack of food particles and increased solar penetration. Wow. One extreme to the other.

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What’s a Porchuk post without a snake? Here, the gentle, yet sometimes curious Endangered Lake Erie Waternsnake awaits her fate based on our  human-induced contamination of her home (dah, dun, dahhhh). Enough learning. Time to clean up our waters for good.

As reptile researchers, we saw good signs for the endangered water snake populations and their prey. Their overall numbers were down from several decades earlier, but they were still abundant.  We had noted occasional evils resurfacing from the dark days past. Extreme winds, with ensuing mega-waves, would stir sediment from the shallow lake bottom, bringing up heavy metals laid down over several decades previous, from careless industrial pollution.

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It is photographs like this that keep us in denial that everything, at least on the surface, is ok. (for the record, this isn’t Lake Erie).

And of course recently, there was yet another rubber flip flop oscillation in the waves of water quality. Was it around 2015 or so? Toxic water returned yet again. You couldn’t even filter the water to drink (did you know, millions of people get their household water from L. Erie?). Thousands of cases of bottled water were handed out in lakeside communities mainly on the southern shores. Algal blooms bloomed big time. Beaches were littered with green. Fish died, washed up smelly. Get out the bell-bottoms. Fire up the Ford Fairlane. The 1970s have returned.

My kids outright refused to beach at Port Stanley, Long Point, and even beautiful Rondeau Provincial Park was struck off the list. Situated with luxurious choice in London, Ontario, selection power was indeed in our favour. Forty-five minutes to Lake Erie or 55 minutes to Lake Huron? The choice was easy and I really felt for the residents, the merchants, the communities, and the entrepreneurs using Erie as a drawing card.

The culprit? Agricultural runoff of nutrients (excess fertilizer); Phosphorus. Simply put, for better yields, farmers/farm corporations flood their fields with fertilizers. Added to this, was excess animal waste from pig, cow and chicken farms. More frequent and intense rain storms (hmmm…., climate change?) then wash it away through the tile drains, into the drainage ditches and canals, into streams, creeks, rivers, and thence into the big water bodies. These nutrients feed algal blooms. Algal blooms suck up the oxygen in the lake, causing huge death zones and deadly, in-consumable (inconceivable! too) waters. Before I go all big and angry against agro-business, I remember how much I

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Perfect pack of peppers; just the way we like ’em…always available, blemish free, bright and big. Changing expectations of ‘perfection’ will go a long way to helping us conserve our landscapes and save our Great Lakes.

appreciate inexpensive food. I have to remember the erroneous, blemish-free high quality produce I (often subconsciously) demand.  I am still a willing member of society that wants high quality, ever present stocks, and low price. Are you one of these people too? I am one tiny but important cog in the wheel that supports efficiency at all costs on our landscape.  An algal bloom in Lake Erie is one of the products of our choices.

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Snapping Turtles are harbingers of bio-accumulation; do you know what water-soluble contaminants may have concentrated within you?

What can be done? At the grassroots level, these are exciting times. Consumers and citizens have power on either side of the drainage basin. With more and more urban communities providing spaces for community-share gardens and food forests, the more our populations are getting reconnected to the wonderful process of growing food and caring for the land. Offering organic and locally grown foods facilitates education and more and more people are becoming aware of the problematic issues and impacts of some larger scale farms. This is one key shift that is happening and will continue to grow.

If you have a hand on the make up of any piece of land, from either a small front or backyard to a larger rural property* of few acres or more, your positive impact can be magnified hugely; put in some native plants. If you don’t have any land at your disposal, volunteer on some land that is looking for the help (www.inthezonegardens.ca). Native plants filter water and clean it. They prevent further erosion. They are glue in the resiliency of ecosystems. I recently learned that most of our southern Ontario streams carry hundreds of thousands of tons of farmland soil with them out to the Great Lakes. This is a new thing (like within the last couple hundred years, new); plants used to hold the soil on the landscape.

And to stop the large scale problem right now? To my knowledge both US and Ontario farmers in the watershed grow mainly cash crops; corn, soybeans, wheat, canola. Many large scale animal farm operations are spread out across the watershed. Not all pollute, but many do. To date, the only real tentative plan that may see Ohio and Ontario to agree to reduce the Phosphorus runoff by 40% by 2025. How does this sit with you? I find it a tough pill to swallow; ‘let’s plan to plan for less than a half reduction in 7 years.’

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The Thames River as it flows through London, Ontario. It not only will end up carrying much Phosphorus with it from the surrounding farmland, but it will carry some raw sewage from London to Lake Erie as after affects from many summer storm events. Gross, yes.

In the meantime, algal blooms will continue. It’s been largely cools so far for late spring and early summer 2017 but the consistent rains have likely carried much Phosphorus to the lake where it resides and waits for warmer water temperatures.

There’s more we can do. We can start or continue to be a voice with your local government. Many politicians are big fans of Simon and Garfunkel (The Sounds of Silence). One doesn’t have to be a radical to mention this story to a councillor, a mayor, an MP, an MPP or a senator. Start a conversation. Connect with them personally first. Then, if the opportunity presents, lay out the plain facts. The more sound bites that come from all different walks of life, the less the message sounds radical and the more it sounds reasonable.

I saw our mayor the other day sitting, having a beer by himself. He waved and said, “Hi there!” to which I replied a friendly greeting. I kicked myself later for not engaging him at least in an introductory conversation about how he’s doing personally and maybe even get to the wet weather we’ve been having lately…

Lastly, spread pieces of writing commentary like this. I’d love to infiltrate this voice in a number of small communities. Do you know anyone rural you couldn’t kindly annoy with this? Please share. We are on the precipice of destroying the world’s 13th largest freshwater lake, or choosing to make it Great again (for real).

* Rural property owners may qualify to get funds for habitat restoration here – https://caroliniancanada.ca/landowner-leaders

Big Impacts Across Small Spaces…Doug Tallamy Photosynthesizes the Case for Native Plants

All photographs by Ben Porchuk.

Tallamy talks nature in Toronto. Toronto… and nature? Yes, Toronto, the city of over 6 million people. It might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of re-building the natural world. But Doug Tallamy,  an entomologist from the University of Delaware, was invited specifically to talk about using native to plants in city gardens and yards to attract insects to create new pockets of teaming wildlife, helping recover the earth’s vastly withered naturescape. With thousands of homes with backyards adjacent to many large natural ravines, Toronto is primed to receive a major ‘nature face-lift’ in all of those front yards.

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A couple of buddies in the native plant garden just hanging out waiting for the insects to move in. The acorn that lies underneath these seven leaves is now responsible for a 12 foot oak tree only five years later. The White Trillium is still alive and keeping great company.

Tallamy  quickly became the visiting celebrity ‘landscape chef’ or as local native plant author Lorraine Johnson introduced him, the ‘rock star’ conservationist we’ve been waiting for all along.

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Man of the Hour: Prof. Doug Tallamy (left) and Jarmo Jalava of Carolinian Canada.

We’ve become more and more aware that especially in our cities, we’ve removed most native plants from the landscape in favour of non-native plants. This has left nature as a mere skeleton of what it once was. Tallamy gave compelling evidence that the loss of diversity has stemmed directly from the loss of native plants and their insect followers.

All we have to do is plant native plants. Let the native insects eat them (little bits of them anyway) and then watch the bigger carnivorous insects feed on the smaller herbivorous guys. And finally, enjoy watching the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals eat the insects. Do this and watch biodiversity roar back before our very eyes.

In short order, after following Tallamy’s advice based on years of research, we “bring(ing) nature home” again to our cities and nearby crumpled natural areas. Crazily simple, I know.

So I’m one of the guys who bought his earth-altering book (http://www.bringingnaturehome.net) the year it came out in 2007. I was already one of the converted (a devoted Evangelical Ecologist). But I quickly embraced this subtly different fuel for fodder (as did nerds-a-like the world over). In the nearly ten years since, I added 180 native species of plants to my highly urban landscape. I also added water (key to most recipes of this nature) in the form of a series of three small ponds and a waterfall.

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Our front yard transformation in about year 3 of 10; native plants and insects have been welcomed back after a 115 year absence.

How did the recipe turn out? Well given that I’m not the most careful cook/designer, I got the ingredients all over my yard (a messy garden at times)! But the end results? I totally channeled Ray Kinsella all the way. I removed the lawn completely in the front yard, and a quarter of it from the back. I built the native garden. The insects came. Lots, and lots of other wildlife followed and we sat back watching in awe, while snacking on popcorn from the Hog Peanut, and chewing on the fruit from the Mayapples (yep, both native).

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar feeding on its host plant, the Hop Tree.

 

In fact, within 20 minutes of planting my first Hop Tree, NA’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail, landed on it and laid her eggs. I have to add that this butterfly is quite rare in Canada and I’d never seen it in my city before this moment. Now, they seem to know my yard as the regional birthing centre.

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Giant Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar disturbed and sending out defense mechanism that accompanies and strong, pungent scent. Of course, note the bird dropping camouflage.

Then, I planted a few Spicebush shrubs. Same story (obviously worth repeating). A Spicebush Swallowtail came not long after. Seldom seen in this hood, this butterfly is now a regular customer too. Are you seeing a trend here? Enter a bit on the lifework of Douglas Tallamy.

Unassuming, quirky, funny, and obviously very smart, this gentlemen assembled tables and tables of facts, figures and fun images (like the caterpillar that strikingly resembles Donald Trump) that made for nerd-entertainment-extraordinaire. Everyone knows nerd is the new cool (don’t they?).

Among many other thousands of complicated tasks and calculations, Doug’s main work has been to perfect the kindergarten-aged skills of watching and counting. He counts the species (not easy to know how to identify thousands of caterpillars) and overall numbers of insects that flock to native plants. Then, at ‘show and tell’ time, he’s like the kid who surprises everyone by bringing in his firefighter mom (in full uniform!). Everyone in attendance is in total awe!

At his talks, Tallamy throws around these overwhelming facts that make you almost fall face first into your rose bush. Plant an oak tree and you’ll get 557 species of moths and butterflies. Chose a non-native Callery Pear tree instead, and you get zero moths, zero butterflies or no other insects. Translation, why not plant a plastic Callery Pear tree instead so you don’t have to rake up the leaves in fall (Doug’s joke, though it’s no joke). The plastic tree will has the same ecological value as the living Callery Pear (zilch). Whereas, the native oak, cherry, birch or pine, will bring life back to the point of healing nature big time.

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After feeding on the host plant Hop Tree as a caterpillar, the Giant Swallowtail metamorphoses into the adult butterfly and then nectars on many different plants. Here one feeds on a native prairie/savanna plant, Wild Bergamot (Orange Coneflower is in the background).

Back to Tallamy’s influence over my garden, say 8 or 9 years ago. After the bewilderment of watching billions (alliteration only, but certainly millions) of bugs hone in on their native host plants that I had seeded in my gardens, I got at the pond construction. Before I could fully install the liner, one of NA’s largest dragonflies, the Swamp Darner, was buzzing all around me frantically finding a water-soaked log on which to lay her eggs.

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Swamp Darner Dragonflies honed in on my urban wetland construction project, seeking out suitable egg-laying sites. I think I heard one say, “Come on! Come on! I could build this pond faster! (which may have been true!)”

A few days later, a hatchling Snapping turtle showed up…toads moved in.. and even a yearling bullfrog barreled into the pond. Madness! All of these animals ‘poofed’ into existence, all in a highly urban-locked place known as Wortley Village. The ‘poof’ of course, was the ‘magic act’ of even the smallest plot of land ramping back into ecosystem status.  The source of magic and thus this ecosystem is the native plant.

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A hatchling Snapping Turtle had to walk about 400m, cross a busy four-lane road, and slip under our fence to join the joy in our backyard pond.

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A female toad sitting all pretty.

What happened next, you must promise you tell no one (X-rated). The toads had sex. Yes, in the backdrop of the symphony of their mood-enhancing trilling calls, in the twilight of the most sensual afternoon delight, I mean lighting, there was literally an orgy of amplexus all over our backyard (thank God the neighbours didn’t take notice). I only write all of this in this manner as it is a well known fact that sex sells, and, well, I really want to spawn this blog all across the nation(s). As such, the word sex is one of the key search terms for this article.

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Kids sitting at our almost completed backyard pond system.

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A couple of years on, the pond system and its 15 + of native wetland plants have hosted thousands of insects for the urban yard ecosystem.

Altruistically speaking though, sex or no sex, Tallamy’s (not meaning Tallamy here, because you know about rock stars and…well,…. yah) message has to get out…native plants must get back in our urban landscapes.

After the adult toads had finally settled down, the moving and shaking of the youth movement hit the back yard by storm. Shedding their sperm-like tadpole tails, tiny little toadlets flooded out onto the dry lawn, into the native gardens, on the back of my idle electric mower, and godforsaken, right onto the back steps of my very house! Even Tallamy would have had a hard time counting them all. It was wonderful. This set the stage for a series of seldom seen observations.

Out of the blue, a hatchling Screech Owl crashed onto the lawn in broad daylight. It was nearing 5pm. Before one of my daughter’s and I could run out there to ‘save it’, one of the parent birds landed beside it and seemed to help it fly up to the side fence. Then one by one, all three of the young owlets continued this, again with their parents landing beside them. Bewilderment set in yet again. Watching more closely (what I now call a Tallamyian trait) we noticed what was going on. The adult owls were teaching the ‘kids’ how to feed on the toadlets in our yard! Word spread quickly and before long many of our family and friends had gathered in our back room to watch the feeding frenzy.

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The owlets (Screech Owls) who fledged and grew up in our yard. They are named after the Three Stooges. Guess who is who.

It’s not surprising and so much fun that those owls picked our backyard as their nesting and feeding site. Interestingly, and again in total Tallamyian fashion (this phrase makes no sense, I know), aside from toadlets, what do the owls eat? Small mammals and birds. What do small mammals and birds eat? Lots and lots of insects.  Further interesting in this case is that Screech Owls are direct insect eaters as well. Suffice it to say, had our backyard been replete with Callery Pears, Lilacs, Burning Bush, Tulips, Daffodils and many other non-native plants, none of these wildlife would have set up shop to co-live with us. Almost every year we’ve had the owls back in our yard, with our growing numbers of native plants attracting more insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

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One of the parent Screech Owls who doesn’t seem to mind the goings on of our family. My friend Pete Burke (bird expert and hockey star wanna be – actually, that was me…) pointed out that this one has a nice mix of the red phase of this species mottled in with the grey. Isn’t she just plainly beautiful?

My family and our home are a living example of how you can transform your little bit into a nature-factory.  Our extended neighbourhood has over 12,000 houses. Can you imagine if a few dozen of them did what we did? What about a couple hundred homes? And therein lies the point of all of this.  Just a few of us could impart “Big Impacts Across Small Spaces,” which, coincidentally, was the title of this Toronto conference. The conference had a surprising announcement; World Wildlife Fund and Carolinian Canada have teamed up to create a program called, “In the Zone” (www.inthezonegardens.ca).  This fun and timely initiative is designed to get more people in cities like Toronto, London and Leamington (core cities where program is launched) to establish native gardens. How fitting. How exciting. How grassroots.

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Dragonflies were thrilled that we provided a wetland for them…and planted native plants to bring in insects for them to catch on the wing.

Your job: please share this, re-post it, maybe tweat it? That would be great. In the meantime, put in some native plants, buy Doug Tallamy’s books, come to Go Wild Grow Wild 2017! (https://caroliniancanada.ca/grow-wild), check out www.inthezonegardens.ca and lastly, engage in a lot of safe _ _ _ (clue: amplexis).

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An Imperial Moth that requires mature, native hardwood trees, like oaks and maple. I savor the day when this species is common again even in cities!

Appendix 1: A Favourite Doug Tallamy Dish (it’s actually a sweet bar)

“Raise the Bar for what we ask our landscapes to do.”
Ingredients:

– Support life
– Sequester carbon
– Clean and manage water
– Enrich soil
– Support pollinators

Preparation Method: All of this is cooked up by using native plants. If you are at all interested in supporting varied forms of life on earth, in reversing climate change, in eating, in having clean drinking water, then take the simple act of establishing native plants where ever you might live or frequent. It’s an act as simple as 1, 2, 3, or whatever it is that you may see!

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One of the most important things you can do to support the recovery of local populations of wildlife is to plant a key insect-loving species such as a native species of oak, cherry, birch or willow. Acorns make magnificent Oak Trees in fewer years that you might think!