The man approached the microphone in a jam-packed public hearing of the International Joint Commission (IJC) last September holding a jar of what looked like grungy split pea soup.
“This is the water that came out of my faucet last week just before the city shut down the water treatment plant,” the resident of Carroll Township, Ohio told a crowd of several hundred people including my husband and me.
Carroll Township is thirty-eight miles from Sandusky, the bay in which we kept our boat when careers transferred us from Chicago to Columbus, OH. I remember peering over the lifeline of our 30’ sailboat on its maiden voyage into Lake Erie in 1990.
“I can see the ripples of the sand on the bottom!” I exclaimed joyfully. “It is so clear! So clean!”
And it was. The U.S. and Canadian Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the Clean Water Act, both passed in 1972, brought the shallow lake back to life from the days when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland; days when algal sludge marred the lake’s surface, fouled its smell, and ruined its taste. A success story!
On one hand, the Ohio community is fortunate the water treatment supervisor noticed the potentially lethal toxin from Lake Erie’s blue-green algae spiking to extremely high levels beyond the plant’s ability to provide safe, clean drinking water. This is particularly impressive since monitoring for this toxin is not required and acceptable levels of toxicity have yet to be established by government agencies. On the other hand, it is heartbreaking to hear the quality of Lake Erie water has deteriorated so dramatically, so quickly.
The filtering of the water by the invasive mussels, warmer temperatures, the shallow depth of the lake, and the excessive levels of phosphorus from agricultural and urban runoff have created an algal bloom that threatens all we hold dear in the Great Lakes states. Our drinking water. Our fisheries. Our ecosystem. Our recreation. Our tourism. Our property values. Our health.
In a report just released by the IJC, an organization created by the Canadian and US governments under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, Lake Erie became a priority when the worst algal blooms in the lake’s history were recorded in 2011. The sobering assessment and list of sixteen recommendations for turnaround are outlined in the February 2014 report, “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms.”
Transitioning the split pea soup of today’s Lake Erie back to the clear, clean water of the 1990’s hinges on federal, state, and local intervention, particularly the surrounding states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and the province of Ontario. And it requires the commitment and involvement of the people of the Lake Erie watershed.
“The future of the lakes hinges on good science and political will,” Lana Pollack, U.S. chair of the IJC, told us at the public hearing. Years of research by top engineers and scientists on both sides of the border provide the basis for the IJC recommendations. The science is clear. What is needed now, is the political will.
In a democracy, that means us. We set the priorities. And while there are those who say the political parties are so polarized nothing can be accomplished in 2014, I’d like to think Republicans and Democrats will once again reach across the aisle for the health and future of Great Lakes waters. For that is our history. Especially here in Michigan. We saved Lake Erie before. We can do it again.
Please take a minute and contact your federal and state elected officials, especially if you live in one of the five states mentioned or Ontario. Ask them to make the IJC recommendations a priority. We can live without a lot of things; clean fresh water is not one of them.
As several readers asked for a copy of what I sent to my elected officials, I have posted my letter under the tab marked Lake Michigan. (Click on button below.) Feel free to copy any parts of the letter you find useful.
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