I hear things are just as bad up on Lake Erie

4 Aug

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Put-In-Bay from Perry’s Monument

As I write this my friend Laura is on an adventure kayaking in the Lake Erie Islands. Laura set out on this adventure several reasons, some of them deeply personal, but one goal of her journey is to reconnect to the place she grew up, which incidentally, is also the place I grew up.

So our home was on my mind yesterday when this article came across my newsfeed. A quick summary: The City of Toledo has told about 500,000 residents that they can’t drink their tap water, due to high levels of toxins caused by algal blooms in Lake Erie.

Lake Erie already had a bad reputation when it comes to water quality, and this isn’t completely unfounded. The most famous incident happened in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River became so polluted that it caught fire near it’s confluence with Lake Erie. Although this fire was only one of several that happened on the Cuyahoga, it gained the most public attention. The fire certainly tarnished Cleveland’s reputation. It’s what led Dr. Seuss to include the line “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie,” in the first published editions of the Lorax. I travelled all the way to Germany in 2006, and when one man learned I was from Cleveland the next thing he asked me was “Didn’t your lake catch on fire?”

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Station Road Bridge, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

However, something good did come out of this fire. It sparked river cleanup efforts, both at the local and national level, and was the main cause for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. It also led to the creation of a National Recreation Area (now a National Park) that is very near and dear to my heart; Cuyahoga Valley. Dr. Seuss even removed the line from later editions of the Lorax after Ohio Sea Grant wrote to him to tell him about improvements on Lake Erie.

Even knowing this, I didn’t need the Reuter’s article to remind me that while pollution on Lake Erie has greatly improved, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

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Lake Erie from Kelley’s Island

I remember taking a trip with my family to a beach near Point Pelee on the Canadian side of the lake in the late 90’s. There were dead fish, hundreds of them, floating in the water and washed up on shore. In what has to be one of our more questionable life decisions, we still went swimming. Today the Ohio Department of Health publishes beach advisories based on bacteria levels, and these are reported rather matter-of-factly on local news stations.

Even today Lake Erie is still plagued by a number of environmental problems; combined sewer overflows, invasive species, agricultural runoff, loss of coastal wetlands, and contaminated sediment. A few news sources have also connected climate change with the recent spike in algae related toxins.

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East Harbor State Park

After so many decades, we Ohioans have just become pretty numb to it all. Maybe we just feel like it’s all too hopeless. Maybe it’s because we were hit so hard by the economic recession that we aren’t ready to tackle environmental issues. Maybe we’ve decided that Lake Erie simply isn’t beautiful enough to be worth saving.

The drinking water ban lifted today when tests indicated the toxins were back to lower levels. I hope that, like the Cuyahoga River fires, some positive change can come out of this. Environmental problems, including algal blooms, have gone unnoticed on Lake Erie for so long. I hope this changes. Because Lake Erie is worth saving. It’s where we get our drinking water, where we go to swim and boat and play, and it still has an important part in our economy.

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Lake Erie Sunset, Old Woman Creek

And yes, it is beautiful.

~Robin

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