On Monday July 9th, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur hosted “Lake Erie Leaders” a roundtable event at Memorial Hall in Rocky River. She invited panelists from four different agencies to bring insight on various issues impacting the environment and economy of Lake Erie. The first to speak was Dr. Jeff Reuter, special advisor and former director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program, followed by Dorothy Baunach, the Water Innovation Cluster Director of the Cleveland Water Alliance. Next up was Charles Wooley, Deputy Regional Director for the Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the presentations were ended with Deborah Lee, director of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Hot topics of the evening included keeping Asian Carp, an invasive fish species found in the Chicago area, out of Lake Erie as well as why algae blooms form, and how to prevent them.
To understand why Lake Erie has these issues, it is important to understand what makes Lake Erie unique. Dr. Reuter stated that Lake Erie has been the “posterchild for pollution problems” because it is the shallowest (average depth cited as 60 feet), southernmost and therefore warmest of the Great Lakes. Lake Erie as a history of pollution dating to the 1960s when national media began proclaiming “Lake Erie is dead” (Cleveland Historical) due to eutrophication from local factory runoff. After the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, mounting pressure helped pass the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, both in 1972. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is a joint commitment between the US and Canada to monitor and act to protect the Great Lakes’ “chemical, physical and biological integrity” (EPA). Congress amended an old act to create what is now the Clean Water Act which addresses water pollution (EPA). Together, these were able to significantly reduce the amount of excess nutrients, including phosphorus, to restore Lake Erie.
Today, Lake Erie receives a significant amount of its water from tributaries near agriculture such as the Maumee River. Farmers that over fertilize their fields, or fertilize at times where nutrients are likely to be swept away, are responsible for excess phosphorus loads in the lake. Excess nutrients lead to increased algae growth, which Sea Grant has shown to be more toxic to humans than cyanide, rendering the water undrinkable. As bacteria break down the huge algae blooms they respire (consuming oxygen) thus causing reduced dissolved oxygen levels, otherwise known as hypoxia, as shown in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources image above. Fish need oxygen to survive and when it is isn’t available we see large numbers of dead fish. It is important to note than some phosphorus does come from point source pollution such as sewage, but this is much more treatable than the non point sources like fertilizer run off which constitute the majority of runoff. To prevent anymore algal crisis, it is recommended that Lake Erie reduce its phosphorus content by 40%, most of which comes from agricultural lands in the watershed.
Another major problem facing the Great Lakes are invasive species. According to the National Invasive Species Council, an invasive species is defined as being “both non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health.” Asian carp refers to a group of cyprinid fish including silver and bighead carp, the two largest threats to Lake Erie. When these fish enter a waterway without natural predators, they multiply rapidly. They have been found in the Chicago area since 2002. Measures have been put in place to monitor where the fish are located using eDNA, as well as electrical barriers to prevent them from migrating through to the Great Lakes (US Army Corp of Engineers). On June 22, a commercial fisherman found an Asian carp past the electric barrier, raising questions whether it was an isolated incident or if new measures need to be put into place further down the channel. Several weeks of intense eDNA sampling showed no signs of other fish.
One technology that has changed the way we look at Lake Erie forever is computer modeling. Deborah Lee from NOAA knows better than just about anyone about the models of Lake Erie. One model NOAA has developed predicts when harmful algal blooms (HABs) form using satellite imagery, field observations, runoff data, public health reports, and buoy data (NOAA). NOAA is also able to advise farmers on the best time to apply fertilizer to avoid fertilizer runoff. This data can then be used to prepare for public health emergencies such as when the water around Toledo was deemed unsafe for human consumption. Another model shows what type of impact Asian Carp could have on Lake Erie. For example, Lee stated that they could reproduce to make up ⅓ of the total fish biomass in the lake.
Knowing what the big problems in Lake Erie are is important, but it’s even more important that people put their minds together and solve them. Dorothy Baunach from the Cleveland Water Alliance talked about the Erie Hack program. This is a “data and engineering competition that unites coders, developers, engineers, and water experts to generate enduring solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest challenges”, according to the Erie Hack website. Up to $100,000 in prizes are available, but Baunach stresses that it’s not all about the winners as many non-winners are still able to market their hack to make Lake Erie better. This year’s standout hacks include a tiny sensor placed on buoys to detect water contaminants developed by a team in Detroit, and a kit for citizen scientists to monitor nitrogen and phosphorus levels as well as report them on an open source database developed by a University of Akron Team (Crain’s Cleveland). Baunach believes that we can both do good work and do well economically, protecting the Great Lakes for years to come.
One question that audience members were left with after these presentations was, “What can I do?” Most of us do not have farms that we can reduce fertilization on to prevent algae blooms, nor do we have the capability to remove Asian Carp from the Chicago area. Dr Reuter encouraged people to pay attention to how much water they put down the drain. If you use low flow toilets and sinks you can reduce your water waste by 50%, which contributes to the 40% recommended reduction in phosphorus runoff. You can also make sure you aren’t fertilizing gardens with flower fertilizers, as this has more phosphorus than needed and contributes to runoff. When purchasing fertilizer, it is good to look at the Nitrogen: Phosphorus: Potassium ratio and choose one with the least amount of Phosphorus. Here at Drink Local Drink Tap, we protect our Great Lakes by choosing to reduce use of disposable single use plastics (like plastic water bottles), conserve water in our homes and volunteer at beach cleanups along Lake Erie.