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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Erie: Is clearer cleaner?
By John Bartlett
Erie Times-News

From Sam Leo's perspective, Lake Erie has never looked better.

"It's certainly so much better now than when I started up here," said Leo, of J & S Dive Shop, who has been diving in Lake Erie for more than 40 years. "Back then it was dark and dirty."

But he admits appearances can be deceiving, which is why he was not so much surprised as interested in the growing concerns many scientists are now expressing about Lake Erie.

Those concerns were at the forefront of a Lake Erie workshop at the recent International Joint Commission's Great Lakes Conference and Biennial Meeting in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The workshop was titled: "Lake Erie: Déjà vu?"

Herb Gray, chairman of the IJC's Canadian session, bluntly told the attendees that based on the briefings, conditions of Lake Erie are backsliding.

Prompting that dismal assessment are several phenomena that have emerged in recent years. High among them:

n The extensive outbreaks of Type E botulism in Lake Erie beginning in 1999 and continuing every year through 2002, killing thousands of birds and untold numbers of fish, mudpuppies and other aquatic life. Researchers are holding their breath this year, hoping the worst is over with no widespread cases reported so far.

n The enormous "dead zone," an area where oxygen is so depleted that most fish and other aquatic life cannot survive. The dead zone emerged in Lake Erie's central basin in 2001 and 2002.

Oxygen-deprived zones are a regular summertime occurrence in the lake's central basin, where the water separates into two layers with the warmer top layer trapping the colder waters beneath it. The bottom layer is cut off from an oxygen source, and plants, animals and decaying material use up the oxygen in the lower level.

The difference is in the size. Large dead zones were a feature of the lake in the 1960s and early 1970s when heavy loadings of phosphorous and other polluting nutrients created a cycle of plants and decaying material that used up oxygen supplies.

Researchers continue to evaluate this summer's dead zones and whether they again were excessively large and indicative of some larger environmental problem.

n The resurgence of a toxic form of blue-green algae in the western basin in recent summers. It was particularly plentiful this summer and especially in the area of Maumee Bay.

Like the dead zone, the algae was prevalent in the polluted 1960s and 1970s when phosphorous and other nutrients fed its growth.

n The continued loading of the lake with mercury, a toxic metal. Lake Erie has the highest mercury concentration of any of the Great Lakes, much of it carried to the lake on the wind from power plants and other industries.

n The prevalence of invasive species, such as zebra mussels, that have disrupted the ecosystem, and might well be driving some of the less-than-encouraging changes in the lake.

"When I look at it, it seems like we are still seeing improvements, but we're not scientists and they see much more," Leo said. "There are a lot of things going on."

The scientists share that sentiment.

"There are a lot of changes that we don't understand," said John Gannon, a senior research scientist with the International Joint Commission. "Some indicate some backsliding, but at the same time, there are some positive things happening."

Among the most positive has been the phenomenal return of Lake Erie's mayflies, which indicate greatly improved water and sediment quality, he said.

"I think the jury is still out on a lot of this," said Lori Boughton, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of the Great Lakes. "People are raising concerns, but I've not heard the lake is dying again."

Pollution was so prevalent, nutrient loading so high and water quality so poor in the 1960s and early 1970s that many declared Lake Erie dead.

Finding the sources - the cause and effect - of today's emerging problems might prove much more difficult, Gannon said.

"I don't think we have the luxury any more of looking at the factors in isolation - the nutrient loading, toxic contaminants and invasive species," he said. "I think these things are co-occurring and require a much more intense and coordinated research effort to make the linkages and understand what's going on."

Leo, who will only admit to being a senior citizen, said he's always pleased to tell people how clean Lake Erie has become since he first dove into its waters.

"The government has done a good job with pollution control," he said. "I hope they can figure this new stuff out."

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