Quantcast

Should Lake Erie Be Seen as a Model for Resilience or a Toxic Algae Mess?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently predicted another banner year for toxic algae in Lake Erie. Late summer will likely bring blooms of pesto-green scum to Lake Erie. And yet this is the same lake with the notorious reputation for being declared “dead” in the 1970s.

Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, more a saucer than a bowl. It’s warm too, with productive waters that can support a $10 million charter sport-fishing industry each year.

Despite huge investments in “restoration”, images of swirling blue-green algae still stream in from satellite images of its western basin. Photo credit: Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The shallow depths of the lake intensify its productivity. Each year, as the lake warms, it “turns over,” bringing all the nutrients that have settled to its bottom back into the water column, spurring blooms of algae that feast upon the juicy jazzed up waters. This is a natural process, with the sing-song name of eutrophication.

Add even more nutrients and the lake doesn’t die. It becomes more alive.

In the 1960s, years of nutrient pollution caught up with Lake Erie. Sewage treatment plants and farm fields funneled so much phosphorous into the lake that it choked with life. Huge algal blooms filled the basin, ensnaring fishing buoys and cigarette butts in huge gyres. The algae sucked the oxygen from the water, leaving massive fish kills in its wake. Even the trash strewn along the shore was covered in algae.

Billions of dollars were spent by state, federal and Canadian governments on the clean-up. New sewage treatment facilities, a phase-out of combined sewer overflows and regulations on detergents reduced phosphorous loading by at least 60 percent.

An unexpected source of help came from the mighty zebra mussel, an invasive bivalve that snuck into the lake through ballast and then settled right on in … on everything. Clogging water intake pipes and fouling boats and dock pilings, this mussel sucked up that algal soup and began clarifying the lake’s waters. The zebra and its sister mussel, the quagga, now filter the lake’s entire volume every 24 hours, straining out the tiny phytoplankton and algae.

As a restoration ecologist, I try not to see nature as a scrapbook of human error. But, it’s hard to see Lake Erie as anything but a restoration failure. Despite huge investments in “restoration,” images of swirling blue-green algae still stream in from satellite images of its western basin.

Yet, if you sailed out to Kelly’s Island today, you’d also likely find tangles of water snakes resting under the docks. These snakes were recently removed from the Endangered Species list and now thrive in the lake’s rewoven food web.

Lake Erie has been the poster child of environmental catastrophe for decades. It represents the challenges of trying to fix a system that is badly out of sync. It’s going to take a suite of restoration tools—policy, engineering, planting, digging, fishing, etc.—more than decades to return the lake to a naturally dynamic, functioning ecosystem. And some problems, like the mussel infestation, may never be fixed.

Lake Erie gets a lot of bad press—toxic algal blooms haven't done much for its image. But what if we instead considered the lake a model of resilience? For all its woes, the lake shifts, adapts and surprises. Just ask the snakes.

Rebecca L. Vidra is the director of undergraduate studies at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE 

Watch The Yes Men’s Comical Solution to California’s Epic Drought

High Levels of Radium Found in PA Stream Near Drinking Water Supply

Huge Spike in Dead Sturgeon Reported in Hudson River

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Electric towers during golden hour. Pixabay / Pexels

An international group of scientists released a report today detailing how the fossil fuel industry actively campaigned to sow doubt about the climate crisis and what steps need to be taken to undo the damage, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Justin Trudeau delivers remarks during an election rally in Markham, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 15. Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images

By Chloe Farand for Climate Home News

Canadians are voting on Monday in an election observers say will define the country's climate future.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Activists Greta Thunberg (2ndL), Iris Duquesne(C), and Alexandria Villaseñor (3rd R) attend a press conference where 16 children present their official human rights complaint on the climate crisis to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child at the UNICEF Building on Sept. 23 in NYC. KENA BETANCUR / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Taft

Fifteen kids from a dozen countries, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, recently brought a formal complaint to the United Nations. They're arguing that climate change violates children's rights as guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a global agreement.

Read More Show Less
Cleanup costs for abandoned oil and gas wells once the producers have moved on could fall heavily on the public.
Susan Vineyard / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Justin Mikulka

Increasingly, U.S. shale firms appear unable to pay back investors for the money borrowed to fuel the last decade of the fracking boom. In a similar vein, those companies also seem poised to stiff the public on cleanup costs for abandoned oil and gas wells once the producers have moved on.

Read More Show Less
Blue tarps given out by FEMA cover several roofs two years after Hurricane Maria affected the island in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 18. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP / Getty Images

Top officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development confirmed to lawmakers last week that they knowingly — and illegally — stalled hurricane aid to Puerto Rico.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Actress Jane Fonda (C) and actor Sam Waterston (L) participate in a protest in front of the U.S. Capitol during a "Fire Drill Fridays" climate change protest and rally on Capitol Hill, Oct. 18. Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

It appears Jane Fonda is good for her word. The actress and political activist said she would hold demonstrations on Capitol Hill every Friday through January to demand action on the climate crisis. Sure enough, Fonda was arrested for demonstrating a second Friday in a row Oct. 18, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Only this time, her Grace and Frankie co-star Sam Waterston joined her.

Read More Show Less
Visitors look at the Aletsch glacier above Bettmeralp, in the Swiss Alps, on Oct. 1. The mighty Aletsch — the largest glacier in the Alps — could completely disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done to rein in climate change, a study showed on Sept. 12. FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

Switzerland's two Green parties made historic gains in the country's parliamentary elections Sunday, according to projections based on preliminary results reported by The New York Times.

Read More Show Less
A mural in Richwood, West Virginia, a once booming Appalachia coal town, honors the community's history. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

The coal industry is dying. But we can't allow the communities that have been dependent on coal to die along with it.

Read More Show Less