“When I was a kid growing up in Ontario, Canada, Lake Erie was so polluted, I never thought it would ever, EVER be turned around where they could start cleaning it out in my lifetime!”—Rick Danko, founder of “The Band”
“Even if overnight all of the pollutants now pouring into Lake Erie were stopped, there would still remain the problem of the accumulated mass of pollutants in the lake bottom.”—Barry Commoner, Prominent American Environmentalist
Previously in our three-part Lazarus Lake series, we dove into the collapse and resurrection of Lake Erie’s fishery—but that’s not the end of the story. The challenges water quality engineers and fisheries managers face today are even more complex than fifty years ago when the lake was publicly declared “dead.” With point source pollution more or less under control, the Ohio DNR must now attempt more ambitious goals, like rewilding wetlands, if we want to preserve the most valuable freshwater fishery on the planet.
The Clean Water Act of 1972 Ctd…
In 1969, Time Magazine ran a series of apocalyptic photos depicting the Cuyahoga River aflame. One of Lake Erie’s major tributaries, the Cuyahoga was so polluted with industrial waste and sewage it was aptly described as a river that “oozes rather than flows.” Mercury toxicity levels in Lake Erie were so high that fish were deemed dangerous for human consumption, and both commercial and recreational fishing were banned. The greatest fishing lake of all the Great Lakes became a national symbol of environmental degradation and decay. Even today, when most people hear “Lake Erie,” they conjure a filthy and fiery past.
After the passage of the Clean Water Act and oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency and Great Lakes Commission, the U.S. and Canada clamped down on point source pollution, industrial polluters, and wastewater treatment facilities. Lake Erie’s pollutant levels dropped surprisingly fast, as evidenced by its thriving fishery today.
Not so long ago biologists could not even find one fish in some Lake Erie tributaries. Ohio DNR Fisheries Biologist Travis Hartman views The Clean Water Act as the definitive moment that turned Lake Erie into the fishing powerhouse it is today. “Since then, we have had water quality improvements and reduced the number of contaminants, and we have seen fish populations explode.” The Ohio DNR has seen six straight years of some of the highest angler harvest rates ever recorded. Today is truly the Golden Age of Walleye fishing.
A Whole New World Of Freshwater Challenges
While Lake Erie’s water quality has dramatically improved from fifty years ago, managing pollution has become increasingly complex compared to the 1970s. Hartman states, “The Clean Water Act impacted North America by doing all the quote-unquote easy things that addressed point source pollution. However, now we have a complicated problem with nutrients from farming and non-point sources like runoff pollutants. We are undoubtedly entering a whole different world with brand new challenges.”
Hartman highlights nutrient loading (eutrophication), high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the system from agricultural runoff—as the major hurdle in maintaining water quality. Lake Erie is particularly susceptible to eutrophication for the same reasons that make it such a phenomenal fishery—it’s shallow and warm. Managing nutrients presents a complex equation. On the one hand, excess nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms and nasty amounts of cyanotoxins. On the other, reducing nutrient levels can stunt fishery productivity. Furthermore, storm runoff can spike massive algal blooms making management even more unpredictable and complex.
The Great Black Swamp: Nature’s Perfect Water Filtration System
Before the end of the 19th century, The Great Black Swamp occupied much of Northwest Ohio, “an absolutely terrifying wilderness.” That wilderness seemed more like a barrier to progress than nature’s perfectly designed water filtration system. The massive wetland spanned over 1,500 square miles and acted as a vast inland sieve trapping and removing pollutants and nutrients before they flowed into Lake Erie.
Today, little remains of the once great swamp aside from what one author describes as “flooded front yards, retainment ponds, and miles and miles of roadside ditches.” One-third of the total population of the Great Lakes basin resides in the Lake Erie watershed. An all too familiar story, the United States has lost over half of its original wetlands. Ohio, alongside Indiana and Illinois (both bordering Lake Michigan), leads the way, having lost over 85%. Some estimates are that less than 5% of Lake Erie’s coastal wetlands remain. The loss of wetlands has greatly diminished Erie’s ability to filter nutrients.
A Freshwater Fishery Worth Protecting
Excess nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms. In the summer of 2014, a bloom containing microcystis (a type of cyanobacteria that produces a toxin more lethal than cyanide or antifreeze) shut down the water supply of over 400,000 Toledo residents for three days.
Blooms also cause fish kills by depleting oxygen and creating dead zones where aquatic life cannot survive. Each summer, a 10,000 square-kilometer hypoxic zone develops in Lake Erie, where fish, zooplankton, and other sessile organisms cannot survive. Although the adverse effects of such zones are difficult to measure, they decrease available fish habitat. These blooms are so large they can even be seen from space.
Today, the Ohio State University’s Stone Lab identifies Lake Erie as home to the world’s most valuable freshwater commercial fishery. Lake Erie and its shorelines alone are responsible for an estimated $15.1 billion recreation and tourism industry. In the Port Clinton area alone there are over 10,000 boat slips and 800 licensed charter captains.
Despite containing only 2% of all Great Lakes water, Lake Erie provides the essential habitat for over 50% of all Great Lakes fish and drinking water for over 12 million people. Collectively, The Great Lakes are responsible for employing 75,000 people, with recreational fishing bringing over $7 billion into the economy.
A Wild Approach Towards Protecting Freshwater
With over 140 wetland projects currently being carried out across the state, the Ohio DNR is leading the charge to restore wetlands. Their approach is essentially one of rewilding areas that can effectively filter water and remove phosphorus and nitrogen.
Ohio DNR Director Mary Mertz works to preserve and protect the Great Lakes. In addition to her role with the Ohio DNR, she will chair the Great Lakes Commission next fall. Mertz believes that the DNR’s job is not to “go and recreate the Great Black Swamp,” an impossible suggestion anyhow, but to “site and build wetlands, restoring the landscape in strategic areas.”
In a three-party, multi-pronged approach (H2Ohio), the Ohio DNR, Department of Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency have come together to tackle freshwater problems across the state. In contrast to the EPA, which focuses on improving “harder infrastructures” like septic systems, the DNR is utilizing natural infrastructures for long-term improvements. Their strategy involves heavy investment in wetlands, emphasizing sustainable, natural systems that restore balance for Lake Erie and all of Ohio’s waterways for years to come.
Having grown up in Ohio and fished around the state with her father, Mertz understands what Lake Erie’s fishery means to the state, both intrinsically and economically. “You look out west in the United States and see what is happening with water resources, and it’s not a good story. We are lucky here in Ohio.” Mertz believes that advocacy for freshwater not only belongs to the agencies and government departments but also “to the stewards who live around it, love it, enjoy it, and even those who may not live around it, but appreciate its impact on the state and country.”
We have come a long way since the doomsday photos of a burning Cuyahoga River, and all of us as Americans should feel pride in what we have accomplished in Lake Erie specifically, and the Great Lakes in general, over the past half-century. But the task remains unfinished. We cannot rest on our laurels, pat ourselves on the back, and head out fishing knowing that we’ve accomplished a job well done. We need to bring the same focus and resolve that helped us rise from the failures of the past to the problems of the present and the future. If we can do that, perhaps Lake Erie’s toxic algal blooms will pass into the realm of lessons learned, just like burning rivers have.