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Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes are in great trouble once again, as biological pollution takes over where chemical pollution left off, poisoning birds and fish and creating a huge area where nothing can live
Mike Vogel
Buffalo News

Lake Erie is dying. Again.

Oh, sure, the water is clearer than it's been in decades. Racing sailors can see the keels of competing boats as yachts heel over to stiff lake breezes in close-quarter sailing. Divers can see wrecks, where once they had to strain to see a hand held in front of a face mask. Anglers can see the one that got away, just before it does.

But the lake is dying anyway. Biological pollution has set in where chemical pollution once held sway. The very invaders that helped clear the water - zebra mussels, primarily - may have triggered cycles as fatal as the phosphorus loadings of the 1960s. There is a huge "dead zone" in the lake each summer. Even worse, it's growing.

The prognosis is grim. Governments too quick to claim victory in the fight to save the Great Lakes cut back program funding a few years ago. That was a major mistake. Great gains had been made in slowing the flow of poison from the pipes of sewer systems and factories, but that turned out to be only part of the battle.

"People need to understand - we need to understand, commonly - that we're up against something nobody's been up against before, cleaning up this wide and deep industrial legacy," said Margaret Wooster, president of the Buffalo-based Great Lakes United coalition of concerned groups throughout the lakes basin. "What's at stake is the largest freshwater system in the world, one on which we, and all the life around us, depends."

Call it the war on error - a struggle against past sins, commitments eased too soon, threats not fully foreseen, impacts not completely understood. There indeed have been major gains since the federal Clean Water Act was signed in 1970 and the regional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed in 1972 - but this fight is far from over.

"We continue to make progress in a lot of areas that were problems 30 years ago," said Michael J. Donohue, veteran executive director of the Great Lakes Commission and U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission's science advisory board. "In the past 15 years or so, we've been hit by a lot of surprises that are throwing a monkey wrench into the works."

"There's a fair amount of effort going on, but there doesn't seem to be the ability to get past some roadblocks," added IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua.

Every day, unseen poisons still rain down upon the lakes from sources far away, in what is dryly known as "atmospheric deposition." Storm waves and ship propellers stir up toxins long ago washed into the sediments at the bottoms of lakes, harbors and rivers. Fertilizers stream lakeward from farms, rain washes pesticides and petroleum from urban lawns, streets and parking lots, and the shoreline buffer zones known as wetlands vanish beneath the encrustations of civilization.

Lake Erie's problems

The Great Lake that washes against Buffalo's doorstep, Lake Erie, is the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes. The waters - and the pollution - of three upper lakes flow through the Detroit River to reach it, and its own drainage basin is the most intensively farmed and the most densely populated of the Great Lakes region.

Lake Erie bears the strongest impacts of both agriculture and urbanization. It sends its waters into the Niagara River at Buffalo, and the Niagara adds another dose of industrial and landfill poisons before sending the flow of the lakes over the Falls and onward to Lake Ontario.

Lake Erie's death was widely proclaimed in the 1960s, and the nation's
attention was riveted on Cleveland's Cuyahoga River when it caught fire in 1969. The Niagara River's Love Canal landfill became a leaking chemical nightmare in the 1970s.

Lake Erie is the canary in the mine shaft, the sentinel for slower poisonings in deeper and larger Lakes Ontario, Michigan, Huron and Superior. Now, scientists are tracking - and puzzling over - a growing lake-bottom zone in which nothing can live, a "dead zone" that engulfs as much as three-quarters of the lake by the end of each summer. And they're worrying about massive outbreaks of botulism that are killing fish and birds. Add in other changes in the lakes, from climate as well as pollution, and their concern may be spreading.

"Whether it's (voiced by) people who live around this end of the lake and were picking up dead fish and birds all summer, or people in other areas of the lakes where the water levels have gone down to the point that they can no longer fish or boat, I think there's a general sense that things have changed," Wooster said.

A litany of threats

Actually, things have been changing for more than a century, starting with the onset of industrialization and sped by the development of synthetic chemical compounds. It's just that the pace is once again picking up - and the threats are coming from more directions:

* Chemical pollution remains a major concern, although end-of-pipe discharges have slowed. Attempts to seal toxic wastes in shoreline landfills - efforts termed "cleanups" by media, government, industry and even some environmentalists - were merely containments, the encapsulating of pollutants until reliable and affordable destruction technology develops. In Buffalo, Wooster notes, "we have confined disposal facilities all along our harborfront, and they're leaking."

* Airborne pollutants continue to poison the lakes. Some reach this region from vast distances; DDT, now banned, was detected even in the pristine wilderness of Lake Superior's Isle Royale after arriving on toxin-tainted winds from the Deep South. Not all impacts are so distant, though. Smokestack emissions of cancer-causing dioxins from Hamilton's aging waste incinerator almost doubled last year, making it Canada's largest single source of those critical lake pollutants. All told, atmospheric deposition accounts for up to 90 percent of some of today's toxic loadings in the lake basin.

* Recent invasive species, from zebra and quagga mussels to plants such as purple loosestrife to microorganisms and plankton and fishes such as ruffes, round gobies and Asian carp, have stepped up the pace of biological deterioration. There are now 160 non-native species in the lakes. No fisheries expert will admit to a clear understanding of the lakes' changing fish populations, which impact a billion-dollar-plus sport fishery.

* Fish and birds have died by the tens of thousands from type E botulism, a nerve toxin now in its fourth year of a lakes outbreak that's the largest in the United States. New York Department of Environmental Conservation Pathology Laboratory director Ward Stone reported that his staff picked up more than 5,500 dead birds along the Lake Erie shore between Buffalo and Dunkirk in the first two weeks of November alone.

Botulism thrives in the decay of aquatic weeds that flourish from the
penetration of sunlight made possible by clearer, zebra mussel-filtered
water. It invades the food chain, taken in by mussels and foraging gobies and other small creatures that are, in turn, eaten by larger predator fish and birds.

Toxins in the sediment

While the lakes no longer have the record levels of contaminants logged in the 1960s and 1970s, toxins still remain mired in bottom sediments throughout the lakes.

Despite experimentation with electrical-shock destruction, improved dredging techniques to keep poison silt from mixing back into the water and other technologies to battle pollution, there's no single solution. The slow release of toxins from contaminated sediments are a major reason advisories against eating too much lake-caught fish - especially for children and women of child-bearing age - remain fairly common throughout the lakes.

As pollutants move up the food chain from bottom organisms and plankton to increasingly large fish, toxins "bioaccumulate" and "biomagnify" in increasing concentrations in fat and organs. Many of the most persistent pollutants are hormone-disrupting chemicals or neurotoxins affecting human health or behavioral development.

Enhanced by combined storm-sanitary sewer system overflows and agricultural runoff, microbial and microorganism contamination also remains a concern. While municipal water systems tightened their watch after fatal contamination hit Milwaukee's water system a few years ago, less-serious forms of contamination triggered a rash of beach closings throughout the lakes last year. Blooms of cyanotoxic algae also are being reported again in some parts of the lakes.

Only a small fraction of humanity's poisoning of the lakes is actually being tracked. More than 30,000 man-made chemicals are produced in the Great Lakes basin, and 362 of them have been identified as contaminants. Only about a third of those identified contaminants have actually been evaluated for health impacts on wildlife and humans, according to the International Joint Commission. In 1985, 11 of those - some heavy metals, but most of them from a family of compounds known as organochlorines and used extensively as pesticides - were put atop the priority list as "critical pollutants."

It's a short list, but not a complete one. As detection technologies and
practices improve, new toxins are discovered. The latest is BDE, a
flame-retardant cousin of PCBs now being found at increasingly higher levels in some locations.

Toxic hot spots

The IJC also identified the 43 worst toxic hot spots - a list that includes
the Buffalo and Niagara rivers and Niagara County's Eighteenmile Creek - and launched citizen-government planning for remediation. So far, only two Canadian sites have been cleaned enough to be delisted.

Thirty-four "indicators" also have been chosen, aspects of lakes life and
usage that serve as criteria to measure the impacts of toxins on an
ecosystem, rather than identifying pollution on a "hot spot" basis. By this fall's State of the Lakes Ecosystem conference in Cleveland, though, 70 percent of those criteria remained listed as mixed, mixed-deteriorated, or poor - a percentage that mirrors the Great Lakes shoreline assessment of the 2000 New York State Water Quality Report.

While many still consider the indicator process flawed, the message is clear: The state of the lakes is not good.

Worse, the debates center more on how to measure the decline than on whether to once again sound an alarm. The clearest such call came from IJC co-chairman Herb Gray, also Canada's deputy prime minister, who released the commission's 11th Biennial Report recently with the warning that, "We see no evidence, based on the nature and pace of current activities, that restoration will happen within the next generation's lifetime."

This, despite more than $6 billion spent over the last three decades on
sewage treatment and other regulatory measures, and $530 million in Superfund spending to augment even greater amounts of industry investments in Great Lakes pollution curtailment over just the past six years.

The problem is the scope of the work still needed - work that not only will cost another estimated $2 billion to $6 billion on the American side and $2 billion on the Canadian side, but may require fundamental changes in the way land is used and developed, the ways energy is used and electricity is produced or oil and gas are transported throughout the basin, and the way air pollution is controlled for both toxic emissions and its impacts on global warming.

"The containment of "point sources' of pollution has been a huge success story, and I think everyone needs to pause every once in a while and pat themselves on the back," says Donohue of the Great Lakes Commission, stressing the victory over the pollution that used to pour from the ends of sewers and industrial pipelines. But, he admits, that's only part of the
lakes' pollution story.

Governments helped stop the phosphorus discharges, which once "killed" Lake Erie, by banning that chemical in laundry detergents, for example. That was a pipeline, or "point source," victory. It stopped the huge blooms of algae that fed off the phosphorus and other nutrients.

Dead zones

But that problem is now back, perhaps having arrived by a different road. While there are arguments that unreported phosphorus discharges may still continue, one leading theory blames zebra mussels for filtering particles out of vast quantities of water, clearing it and allowing sunlight penetration that encourages algae growth.

The result, eutrophication, is the same: The blooms die and dead algae rains down on the lake bottom. Lake Erie is shallow enough to allow the dead algae to decay, consuming oxygen in the process. It's also just deep enough to form different and distinct layers of water temperatures, blocking the bottom waters where oxygen is being consumed from mixing with warmer surface waters that can take in oxygen from the air.

Anything that can't swim out of the resulting bottom "dead zone" also dies, intensifying the process until early winter storms churn the lake enough to drive oxygen-rich surface water back to the bottom.

Recently, the summer dead zone has been growing, extending into the eastern basin, nearer to Buffalo. People have noticed fish kills. And an even more noticeable bit of looming biological pollution, the threat of four-foot leaping Asian carp entering the lakes and disrupting fish communities, also is drawing attention.

"There have been some huge food web disruptions due to invasive species," Donohue said. "It's almost like the Cuyahoga River catching fire again. The lakes are getting a lot of press because of these very visual problems."

They have not been getting, however, a whole lot more funding. "Funding continues to be an issue across the board, but we are seeing moderately increased funding to some problem areas," Donohue notes. Getting a handful of the toxic waste hot spots actually cleaned up might also encourage continued congressional support, he believes - but even that's not the toughest challenge on his list.

Human impact

"Probably the best thing we can do is turn our back on the lakes," Donohue insists. He doesn't mean ignoring the lakes - he means focusing on the way we live alongside them.

"We're beginning to realize that most of our problems stem from land-use issues," Donohue explains. To keep the lakes from changing for the worse, we need to change to better stewardship of their 10,900 miles of shorelines, and to lesser impacts on the ecosystem we occupy. Given already intensive
shoreline development, and continuing urban sprawl, that won't be easy.

Huge expenses? You bet. Insurmountable challenge? Only if we fail to rise to it.

Is this a battle worth fighting? Consider the future. As the international
Year of Fresh Water dawns this year, a worldwide water shortage looms. Already, Environmental Advocates activist David Higby notes, clean drinking water is beyond the reach of more than a billion people, and more than 3 billion lack basic sanitation water supplies. By 2025, experts predict global water demand will exceed supply by more than 50 percent, and water may rank with oil as an international security concern.

Even in the United States, demand for water is increasing in the United
States as Southwestern river diversions are tapped out and the huge Ogallala aquifer under Midwest farms is drained far faster than water seepage can replenish it.

The Great Lakes, meanwhile, hold about 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water, about 95 percent of America's surface water - more than 6 quadrillion gallons, enough to flood all of North America to an average depth of three feet.

Worth cleaning, preserving, protecting?

You be the judge.

Copyright 1999 - 2003 - The Buffalo News

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