Saving New York's North Coast
Westside News Online
Posted April 24, 2005
While some public officials, eco-skeptics and conservative
pundits like to point out how much improved the water
quality of the Great Lakes is as compared to thirty years
ago when pollution was so bad the surface of Lake Erie
caught on fire, they would only be right to congratulate
themselves over the improvements in water quality off-shore,
the open lake water -- a half to a mile out.
Conditions along Lake Ontario's south and east in-shore
areas -- the embayments as they are called: rivers, creeks,
streams, ponds, bays and wetlands -- are as polluted as
ever, or even more so, and have largely been neglected
and overlooked in the laudable efforts to clean up the
One of the lead environmental researchers studying what
are called the North Coast's embayments is SUNY Brockport's
Distinguished Professor Joseph Makarewicz, chair and founder
of the Environmental Science and Biology department. He
likes to point out how important the conditions of the
near Lake Ontario watershed is to the quality of life
and economic vitality of the region.
"We have been very successful in cleaning the off-shore
regions of Lake Ontario, however the coastal regions and
embayments are still polluted, and continue to be polluted
and the efforts we are making today are beginning to create
the grassroots organization necessary to create the political
will to change these conditions, to improve the condition
of our shoreline and embayments of Lake Ontario in New
York," Makarewicz said.
The SUNY professor is just one of several scientists
scheduled to present research findings at the upcoming
regional conference in Rochester called the Lake Ontario
Coastal Initiative. A partnership of scientists, key federal
and state officials, county, village and city officials,
Makarewicz hopes interested homeowners, lake-based businesses
like marina operators, charter fishing boat captains and
environmentally concerned citizens will also take part.
Governor George Pataki, Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary
Clinton, Representatives Reynolds, Slaughter, Kuhl, Walsh
and McHugh, representing Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, Wayne,
Cayuga, Oswego and Jefferson counties, have been invited
The effort to study and clean up local bodies of water
is funded in large part by federal money Congressman James
Walsh arranged first by a grant of $250,000 from the Department
of State, and this year with $500,000 earmarked for continued
research and monitoring, restoration and remediation of
conditions detrimental to water quality near the shore.
The initiative will take a two pronged approach, research
and remediation. Makarewicz says, "In preliminary
meetings research priorities have been identified. The
top five areas include long term monitoring to identify
problems completely from a scientific perspective, prioritize
watersheds to understand which areas are causing the most
problems, identify and analyze within each segment what
is causing pollution problems, develop a central site
for all information related to coastal water issues, and
lastly, a survey, or quantification of all the natural
resources in the area like geographical mapping. We have
no central location for this information now, nothing
by which we can say, this area is wetland habitat, that
region is sand dunes, here is a (endangered) Black Tern
On the restoration and remediation side, Makarewicz thinks
there'll be less unanimity. Suggestions for what can and
should be done to repair the situation are expected to
be publicly presented for the first time at the conference,
but chances are, efforts will vary from community to community.
He points out, the North Coast stretches 300 miles through
seven counties from Cape Vincent on the St. Lawrence all
the way to the Niagara River. "Each community,"
he says, "will have to develop its own solutions."
"In western New York, concerns are going to tie
up around issues of agricultural runoff and better management
practices that need to be instituted. A restoration issue
is Atlantic salmon. Can a viable Atlantic salmon fishery
be created here? There's also wetland habitat, reductions
of sediment losses from streams, and phosphorous levels.
My research shows phosphorous levels up and down our coastline
at 10 to 100 times higher than New York Department of
Environmental Conservation limits."
Phosphorous comes from two major sources: agricultural
fertilizer and lawn fertilizers.
The major way the open lake was cleaned up starting thirty
years ago was by reduction of phosphorous by reducing
phosphorous in sewage by waste treatment. As a result,
the deep lake waters are much cleaner, but that's not
true in the near shore regions. One of the results is
the summer bloom of toxic algae that closes the beaches
and causes other problems.
One incident in July of last year is particularly telling.
During a hot spell near Fulton, NY's Lake Nehatawanta,
a 60 pound dog took a drink of lake water that was undergoing
a bloom of toxic blue green algae. Within an hour the
dog was dead, poisoned by a toxin known as microcystin.
Over the last two and three summers across the state several
dogs and cows have died from drinking algae-caused toxic
water. Onondaga Lake, in nearby Syracuse is often described
as the most polluted lake in the United States.
Among other studies, Makarewicz and other researchers
are now investigating conditions leading to toxic algae
contamination and ways to prevent them. Their findings
will result in guidelines for water treatment, and prevention
by reducing or altering runoff of fertilizers from farms
"You want to detect these things before you get
a dead dog or a sick child," said Dr. Gregory L.
Boyer, a research chemist at SUNY School of Environmental
Science and Forestry. Toxic blue-green algae can cause
respiratory failure in humans. Over the long term, it
can cause liver damage and cancer.
The solution to the water quality problems of the North
Coast of Lake Ontario lies with the grassroots effort
of voters, homeowners and taxpayers, according to Markarewicz.
"We're in an area that is economically depressed
right now and yet our livelihood depends in many ways
on our water resources. Ontario's waters are a valuable
resource for drinking water, recreation, sport fishing,
boating, tourism and agriculture."
"The problem, as we've come to recognize it, is
the country seems to think we've succeeded in cleaning
up the Great Lakes, and the EPA promotes that idea. They
say, look at this data from Lake Ontario -- and it's true
of the off-shore waters, but they never did get around
to doing anything about the in-shore areas where 98 percent
of the public comes into contact with the water, where
they put their boats in, fish, wade or swim, and walk
along the water. So folks need to get into contact and
involved with those who help steer the funds and ask questions,
like 'Why isn't this being done?"