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Lake Erie: Southwestern Ontario’s border lake is deteriorating, the only of the Great Lakes doing so, scientists warn

By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press

Fifth generation fisher Brett Martin with some of the 1400 pounds of yellow perch he and his crew harvested from Lake Erie aboard the "Amanda Mae" in Port Burwell Ont. on Thursday October 6, 2016. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)

Fifth generation fisher Brett Martin with some of the 1400 pounds of yellow perch he and his crew harvested from Lake Erie aboard the "Amanda Mae" in Port Burwell Ont. on Thursday October 6, 2016. (DEREK RUTTAN, The London Free Press)

Forty years after it was declared “dead,” only to be resurrected, Lake Erie is again like a patient in the critical care unit.

Southwestern Ontario’s lake — it runs hundreds of kilometres along the region’s underside — is the only of the five Great Lakes that American and Canadian researchers deem to be in poor condition – and deteriorating, a summit on lakes water quality is hearing.

“I wouldn’t say the patient is on life-support. I would say the patient is struggling but moving in the right direction,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a high-level group of policymakers on both sides of the border meeting in Toronto this week.

“We cleaned up Lake Erie once so we know we can do it (again),” Eder said.

“Now, the problems are a little more complex but it can be done.”

The commission meeting is part of a larger Great Lakes Public Forum – a triennial gathering for scientists, environmentalists and policymakers to dive into a range of lakes issues: wetlands, drinking-water quality, climate change, economic development, invasive species, international collaboration and over-all ecosystem health.

The event included a new report on the health of the five lakes, based on the work of hundreds of scientists from more than 30 agencies and organizations.

On average, the lakes’ health isn’t changing much — it’s not good, but not poor either, said Nancy Stadler-Salt, Great Lakes porgram co-ordinator with Environment Canada and Climate Change.

The lone exception: Lake Erie.


(State of the Great Lakes Assessment)

With its perennial algae blooms — one a few years ago grew to the size of Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island — and periodic dead zones, capable of harming aquatic and human life, Erie is listed as “poor and deteriorating.”

Its problem, broadly, is similar to that of the 1960s when phosphorus mostly from industrial and consumer detergents created a huge, oxygen-starved dead zone in the lake. That led to detergent restrictions and improved wastewater treatment, as well as the 1972 water quality agreement between Canada and the U.S. — and a recovered Erie that became a global success story.

Now, phosphorus entering the lakes comes largely from urban sewage outflows and manure and fertilizer running off farms into creeks and rivers, including from Southwestern Ontario’s vast farm belt.

Every rainfall seeds more of these contaminants into the shallow lake, which in summer months grow into toxic algae in Erie’s western basin and larger dead zones in the lake’s central basin.

When the stuff dies and decomposes, it sucks oxygen out of the lake.

One hope for Erie’s turnaround is an agreement by Ontario and Ohio, which borders the lake on its southern shore, to reduce phosphorus entering the lake by 40 per cent by 2025. They pledge to have a comprehensive plan in place by early 2018.

That would mean the annual spring phosphorus load into Erie would have to drop by 3,500 metric tonnes, including 200 metric tonnes from the Ontario side and the rest from the Ohio side.

The toxic algae that phosphorus fuels fouls beaches and harbours and, at times, has been so thick it has choked boat motors.

Two summers ago, algae toxins became a public health hazard for 500,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, and Pelee Island when systems supplying then with drinking water from Erie had to be shut down.

The next year, the monster algae bloom was even larger, even though farther offshore.

But it’s far from the only complex problem facing the lakes and the 40 million people who depend on them for drinking, fishing, swimming, transport and economic development.

The lake-by-lake assessment, with more complete data expected to be published next year, shows beach quality is in fair-to-good shape; invasive species are over-populous and expanding; toxic substances — including mercury, PCBs and banned pesticides — have dropped by more than 90 per cent; and nutrient/algae loading is fair to poor, and deteriorating.

The Great Lakes collectively represents 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water.

The commission is advocating for more federal, state and provincial money to replace and upgrade aging water pipelines and sewage treatment facilities — a cost the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates at $91 billion in the U.S. now, or almost $200 billion if deferred for 20 years.

That’s a big, but not impossible ask, Eder said.

“We’re not poor countires and we do have resources and it is a question of (allocating) resources and (setting) priorities.”

He noted it’s an important time for such discussions, particularly with the U.S. election campaign ramping up.

And he said the Great Lakes is an important economic tool, not so much as an industrial resource, as it once was, but for its parks and other amenities.

Delegates from both the Democrats and Republicans attended a Great Lakes lobbying session last month in Sandusky, Ohio, and offered their support for a healthier Great Lakes, Eder said.

“We are making progress. We are cleaning up the Great Lakes.”

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Algae blooms in Erie

Why the lake is so vulnerable:

— It’s the shallowest, southernmost and warmest of the Great Lakes, making it more ecologically rich and more sensistive to environmental changes

— Its drainage area is the most intensively developed among the lakes, with 60 to 80 per cent used for agriculture and much of the rest in urban use.

— Vastly different agricultural regulations in Ohio, compared with Ontario, leads to high-intensity farming with less stringent nutrient management policies.

— About 80 per cent of the phosphorus entering Erie comes through the Maumee River in Ohio.

— Southwestern Ontario’s Thames River is also a notable source of phosphorus.

— Climate change is prompting wetter springs, heavier rainfalls, warmer summers — all, factors that seed and feed algae.

Source: Susan Humphrey, associate regional director of environment and Climate Change Canada

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Celebrate Lakes

Sure, the Great Lakes have issues. But they’re also glorious, iconic, marvellous sources of bounty and beauty, says a new group that’s looking to celebrate them as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary next year.

“I don’t think people take the Great Lakes to heart and think of them the way we think of the Rockies or the Grand Canyon, even though they’re spectacular,” said Doug Wright, a founder of GREATNESS, the Great Lakes Project, which officially launched Thursday.

The group’s aim is to build, through art and celebration, a Great Lakes identity for residents of the region.

“If the Amazon (River) is the lungs of the planet, then the Great Lakes might be thought of as the heart and arteries of North America,” he said.

The project had its genesis in a series of informal meetings convened by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

The group wants to make the Great Lake the unifying “brand” for the 40 million people who rely on it for sustenance.

Events will include public-commissioned art projects in eight Ontario cities, including Sarnia, in 2017.

Beyond that, the group wants to conserve and preserve the Great Lakes and make them a focal point and destination. It also hopes to generate enough support to bring a lakes-focused cultural and research centre to Hamilton.

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Lake Erie

— Fourth-largest of the Great Lakes in area, smallest in water volume

— Rimmed by Southwestern Ontario and four U.S. states

— Heavy pollution pressures from industrial and agricultural heartland around it

— Persistent problems include toxic algae blooms and so-called ‘dead zones’ depleted of oxygen

— Climate change a new threat to the shallowest of the Great Lakes

dvanbrenk@postmedia.com