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Great Lakes Article:

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 Great Lakes.

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 to attend.

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 nursery."

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 and yards.

"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?"

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