Water is Life – Protecting the Great Lakes
I am one of the few fortunate people living on the shores of Lake Erie. My grandfather grew up in Dunnville so it was a natural progression to buy land on the lake and then for my parents to retire to that property. I live nearby and the lake is very much a part of my life.
I get to walk my dog on the beach every day. I get to spend summers with friends swimming in the lake. The water that comes out of my tap has been pulled from the lake. I get to watch the colours of the lake change from tropical green to stormy grey depending on the weather passing through. It is beautiful, temperamental, ever-changing and I love it.
Lake Erie is one of the five connected Great Lakes in North America and one of four that share a border with the United States. They form the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. More than 30 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, and the impact of their daily activities, from the water consumed to the waste returned, directly affects the Great Lakes environment.(1)
Despite their importance to humanity, the history of the Lakes one of mismanagement, industrialization, and neglect. For Lake Erie in particular, by the 60s the lake was “perceived to be dying” due to the excessive amounts of phosphorus pouring into the lake from farmland runoff. This produced algae in such quantities that my brothers and I could actually cut it up into rafts and float on it. The algae of my youth was not harmful; algae is a naturally occurring product of sunlight, water, phosphorus, and nitrogen. It was the vast amounts of it that threatened the lake.
The binational agreements that came out of this crisis led to the substantial reduction of phosphorous. However, the lakes continue to need supervision and monitoring. Algae blooms still develop in the western areas of Lake Erie. The decomposition of these blooms can lead to a reduction of oxygen in the water. This creates a dead zone where few species can survive.(2) Blue-green algae blooms are considered toxic and can make humans and animals very sick. This type of bloom has occurred on the western end of Lake Erie, leading to beach closures and drinking water restrictions.
The introduction of zebra muscles to the lake from ocean-going cargo vessels has led to many new challenges. Zebra muscles have multiplied rapidly having no significant predator. They cling to most surfaces and continually filter water through their bodies. The result of this process is the removal of plankton in the water that other fish depend on to survive. Zebra muscles also clog water intakes vital to providing water to the 13 million inhabitants that live around Lake Erie. This leads to constant maintenance and repair. Finally, they wash up on the beach and break apart into tiny, sharp pieces, making beach shoes essential. Zebra muscles have vastly changed the makeup of the Lake and they continue to spread through rivers and streams throughout the watershed area.
Another threat to the lake is the Asian Carp. Introduced into the southern US 20 years ago, they have migrated up the river systems to the Great Lakes region. If they make it into Lake Erie, their ravenous eating habits could mean they could eat other fish out of house and home. This could reduce popular species like walleye and rainbow trout. Efforts to keep the fish from entering Lake Erie takes time, ingenuity and cooperation.
Over the years the Canadian and US governments have worked together to try and fix the mistakes of the past. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) funds the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement whereby “the governments of Canada and the United States have committed to restore and maintain the physical, biological and chemical integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes. The Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) are binational action plans for restoring and protecting the Great Lakes ecosystem.”(3)
But Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes are threatened by the current US Administration’s proposed budget. The budget that has been put forward calls for a 31% cut to the EPA’s annual budget. One of the programs that is under fire from these cuts is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This initiative was put forth to supplement existing budgets allowing for more time and resources to be put toward accelerating projects that deal with areas most threatened.
Protecting the great lakes is essential to not only our survival but also for the wildlife that live in and around the lakes. This cannot be done on one side of the border. The US and Canada need to work together in order to manage existing programs and to discover innovations to tackle new challenges. If the US programs were to have their funding reduced, areas of the lakes that need the most help might not get it in time. I for one, do not want to go back to the days of algae rafts.
The Trump blueprint budget is a high-level view into the larger budget that will be revealed in May. It has already caused much controversy and many have declared they will not support it. So we shall have to see where this goes. All I can do is hope that saner minds will prevail and the Great Lakes projects will be saved.