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
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’
– 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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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