A Cautionary Tale, Twice Over: Surface Water Quality on Lake Erie

Lake Erie, one of the most important sources of freshwater on the planet, has seen its fair share of environmental disasters. What have we learned, and how are we moving forward? This article was produced in collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance in preparation for the 2021 Erie Hack competition. More information can be found at eriehack.io. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary, in search of some water that isn’t so smeary, I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

If you were an avid Dr. Seuss fan growing up, this line from his classic cautionary tale of environmental destruction, “The Lorax,” may seem familiar, albeit with a slight but important edit.

First published in 1971, the last line of this cheeky rhyme was removed after graduate students petitioned Dr. Seuss to help change the perception of Lake Erie; the lake had recovered thanks to reactionary policy after crisis, and Theodore Geisel himself agreed to the revision and even commended the students for the “great Loraxian work” they had been doing.

This happy ending, though, is only part of the story of surface water quality in Lake Erie and surrounding water bodies. 

“I would argue that Lake Erie is one of the best stories of ecosystem recovery. When you have a body of water catch on fire, that’s typically not a good sign,” Christopher Winslow, director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program and Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory, said.

The Cuyahoga River fires (yes, fires with an ‘s’ — it burned at least a dozen times) was a crisis that, while culminating in 1969, was years in the making. According to Dr. Robert McKay, executive director and professor of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, it stemmed from years of industrial pollution.

“This area of North America is called the ‘Rust Belt’ for a reason — it was an area of steel manufacturing and a lot of industrialization. And we see that in places like Buffalo and Cleveland, and Toledo to some extent, [and] Detroit, certainly. And, the thinking of that time [was that] dilution is the solution to pollution. And so you’d have factories, that would [say,] ‘Oh, you know, we can dump our waste into the lakes. And it’s diluted and nobody’s the wiser.’ We had wastewater treatment plants with combined sewer overload systems. So you’d have storm events and you’d have raw sewage being dumped into the receiving waters of the Great Lakes, whether it’s the Detroit River or western Lake Erie.”

Photograph of the Cuyahoga River fire on Nov. 3, 1952. Image courtesy of Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University Library via Ohio History Central.

But out of crisis came progress—a monumental feat of environmental recovery that convinced even Dr. Seuss to change his messaging. Besides contributing a now iconic riverfront photograph and a slightly self-deprecating yet endearing new facet of Cleveland’s identity (the Great Lakes Brewing Company in the city makes a “Burning River Pale Ale”), the series of fires also brought about the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement — a historic agreement between Canada and the U.S. that limited pollution into the Great Lakes. And the results were lauded internationally as one of the most successful cleanups in recent history.

“The Great Lakes and Lake Erie in particular are very resilient. And if we give them a chance, they can often recover,” McKay said.

As McKay points out, the primary sources of pollution at the time were point source, meaning the source of the pollutants could be clearly pinpointed to specific locations—in this case, many of them wastewater treatment plants. This made them relatively more simple to address and mitigate.

Now, it’s been over 50 years since the Cuyahoga last caught on fire, and the algal blooms that had once plagued Lake Erie decreased dramatically for decades. 

By Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“But then, we started seeing the decline again of the lake. They refer to this as the re-eutrophication of Lake Erie,” McKay said.

This time, the source wasn’t so easily pinpointed, and the focus turned from specific factories and plants in Northeast Ohio to the entire watershed of Northwest Ohio. 

“[There was a] high nutrient level in the lake, and a lot of that seems to be aligned with farming. So we move now from point-source pollution — pollution that we can control by targeting a source — to nonpoint-source pollution, pollution more diffuse and much more difficult to target,” McKay said.

The Maumee River watershed is primarily agriculture in what used to be a swamp — one that had the ability to absorb and filter nutrients in the soil, which are the primary feeder of toxic algae in Lake Erie. To make room for settlers and the rich agricultural fields that now feed the nation, pioneers drained the swamp through thousands of miles of ditches and drainage tiles, which to this day continue to prevent the creeping back of the Great Black Swamp — all the while encouraging the Maumee River to escort fertilizer and nutrient runoff to Lake Erie.

“They refer to it as a phosphorus superhighway. It’s this network — it’s just incredible — the network that allows nutrients to move from the field into water in Northwest Ohio,” McKay said.

The majority of the Maumee River watershed is used for agricultural purposes, which leads to excess nutrient runoff into Lake Erie.
Land usage has remained relatively steady over the last 10 years.

So what changed that caused the algal blooms to reappear? McKay points to shifts in farming practices, such as changes in tilling methods, which may affect soil erosion levels, and changes in the types of fertilizers used. But while algal blooms were already reappearing at alarming rates since the 1990s — and scientists were already sounding alarms — it again took a crisis to cause people to pay attention. 

“Certainly, the water crisis in Toledo in 2014 really caused us to pivot and focus on issues related to water quality, and the harmful algal blooms that have really highlighted some of the human impact on especially the lower Great Lakes over the past decade or two,” he said.

A harmful algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie in 2014 left Toledoans without clean drinking water for nearly three days.

Suddenly, surface water quality became an issue not just for scientists or environmentalists, but half a million people in the fourth-largest city in Ohio.

“There was panic that you couldn’t buy bottled water in a 100-mile radius…You expect access to clean, safe drinking water, right? You wake up in the morning, and the first thing you do often is turn the tap on, and you have access to a safe supply of drinking water, and you lose that. And panic ensues,” he said. “But really, this was the event, I think, that shifted focus [and] brought more people in to address this issue — and starting to think, for the first time, having us rather than being reactive to a problem, try to start thinking about the root origins of the harmful algal blooms.”

Both McKay and Winslow saw immediate action — even if the answer isn’t always that easy to implement. 

“It’s one of those things with rivers catching on fire, or algal blooms — you don’t want to waste a good catastrophe. And what we’re seeing with what’s going on now is everybody’s kind of rallying the troops,” Winslow said.

Funding increased, and programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative through Ohio Sea Grant began putting more resources into research and mitigation. As recently as July of 2021, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced five million dollars in H2Ohio grants for Ohio River Basin wetland projects.

And now, as with the precedent set by Northeast Ohio in 1972, Northwest Ohio has become a model not only for the nation, but also internationally. In his work across the border, McKay upholds it as a model even as he works in Ontario, Canada with Lake St. Clair.

“So one of the first things that happened was, with an infusion of funding, this move to start monitoring our water intakes. And because of that, Ohio has this really elaborate scheme of water quality monitoring at our intakes to provide early alerts,” he said. “But Ohio was a leader […] almost entirely because of the scare. The other thing that happened, which I think was really positive, was that the Ohio EPA, they implemented new testing procedures to try to gain competence of the public. And they’re very transparent,” McKay said. 

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Use the arrows above to watch the growth of the algal blooms during the summer of each year from 2015-2020.

But algal blooms aren’t the only issue Lake Erie faces today in terms of water quality. Today, scientists primarily talk about a few “Areas of Concern,” or AOCs: nutrients and Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), invasive species, water levels and climate change, and microplastics and emergent contaminants, like pharmaceuticals or PFAS (manmade chemicals used in industrial processes). According to Winslow, the primary concern remains the biological imbalances — the first three AOCs — but little is known about potential effects of other contaminants, which hold potential harm for human and environmental health alike.

“If you go out in any river in Ohio right now and make a water sample, you’re gonna find nicotine, you’re gonna find caffeine, you’re gonna find antidepressants. And so they’re there. But thankfully, when we go to our water treatment plants that pull that water from the river, clean it up and send it out, those things aren’t there. So even though they’re in our what we call raw water, they’re not in our treated water,” Winslow said.

Numerous water quality problems are now coming to a head — especially because of climate change. 

“We got legacy stuff there. But that’s not what keeps me up at night. It’s more of the biological alterations within the context of climate change. So I think that’s where when I think about preserving a leg for future generations for my children, it’s about getting the biology right,” Winslow said.

And climate change has particularly concerning implications when it comes to the algal bloom issue.

“Climate change is important here. It’s harder to pinpoint the direct effect, but I think there’s consensus that it exacerbates the blooms, and also provides opportunities for the blooms to appear in places we would not expect them,” McKay said.

McKay has worked extensively on Lake Superior, and said it “is the last body of water I would have ever expected there to be an algal bloom” because it has very little phosphorus and is incredibly cold. But climate change has brought about increases in precipitation, especially through 100- or 500-year rain events — storms that used to happen rarely but are now happening every few years in some places. In 2018, a rain event in Duluth, Minnesota left a brown plume of sediment surrounding the entire western arm of Lake Superior that you could literally see from space. Not to mention warming waters and declining ice cover on the Great Lakes; McKay cited a steep decline in ice cover on the Great Lakes in the last 40 years, which could also contribute to quicker warming of waters.

Sediment in Lake Superior after a 2018 rainstorm. Image from MODIS satellite imagery courtesy NOAA.

After recent news of the essentially irreversible state of climate change, it’s easy to be pessimistic about how much can be done to restore the health of the Great Lakes. Actually, much of the science is already there — but it takes more than scientists to solve a problem as big as the Great Lakes (in case you’re wondering, that’s six-quadrillion-gallons big).

“It’s not just a bunch of biologists coming up with an answer, which is actually easy to do, right? It’s then implementing that research science, biology and chemistry solution into the economics of ecosystems and into the behaviors of ecosystems,” Winslow said. 

Take for example, Winslow said, the harmful algal blooms. We know agriculture is the main source of the issue, and scientists and governments have been telling farmers for years to follow best management practices, such as “right time” for fertilizing, using different kinds of fertilizers, doing soil testing, etc. Winslow estimates that about a third of farmers in the Maumee River watershed are already implementing best management practices, a third would like to and about a third say they won’t — but, he says, usually because the practices are out of reach practically or financially.

Take, for example, the best management practice of “right place”: because farmers aren’t tilling, they’re putting fertilizers right on the surface of the soil, which can be easily washed downriver. Plowing isn’t a good answer, either, because it releases sediments into the river. Science tells us that injecting the fertilizer into the soil is an environmentally friendly solution, but the tool to do so can cost $75,000 — a ways off from most farmers’ budgets, even with incentives from the government to move toward more sustainable farming practices. 

“It’s not just the science to inform real change. It’s the economics of the behaviors,” Winslow said.

The phosphorus load into Lake Erie has fluctuated since 2010 due to a number of factors including but not limited to agriculture, precipitation and restoration of swampland.

But efforts toward collaborative problem solving are providing hope in the world of Great Lakes water quality. Initiatives and events like Erie Hack, an annual competition to accelerate innovative solutions to Lake Erie’s most pressing challenges, bring together diverse groups of thinkers to pave the way for solutions.

It’s not just the technical expertise somebody has. You bring this diversity of backgrounds together, and that also can help stimulate new ideas,” McKay said. “I think just this opportunity where you can bring people from different backgrounds who have different priorities…And so these teams form with these varying backgrounds of people, both technical expertise, but also the lived experience they’ve had. And that’s refreshing.”

And new innovations and technologies have economic implications, too.

“In terms of economic growth, some of the innovation that’s coming out of this is going to be marketed and be distributed around the world. Or at least we hope so,” McKay said. “In this system, the Great Lakes are an economic driver. I heard a figure: if you took the watershed, essentially, in both Canada and the US — the two provinces, eight U.S. states. — and, even if you remove the big metro areas like New York City and Philadelphia, places like that, or Chicago, the economy generated in this region would rank third globally if this was its own country.”

And that makes innovation and progress on the Great Lakes a powerful tool that crosses the most entrenched political boundaries. McKay noted the strong support for Great Lakes revitalization across political parties in Ohio.

“Regardless of their political affiliation, they realize how important the Great Lakes are to not just Ohio’s economy, but as an economic engine in the U.S. and in Canada, as well,” he said. 

Ultimately, however, both Winslow and McKay boiled it down to an appreciation for the resource we have the privilege to draw from and care for. So while Lake Erie may no longer find itself a character in “The Lorax,” it’s become a bit of a cautionary tale in and of itself.

“We’re lucky because the Great Lakes are 20% of the freshwater on the planet. But we’re a cautionary tale. We didn’t learn it from some of the lakes over in Russia that are now gone, right?” Winslow said. “And so it’s this idea [that the] human presence can alter — in many cases, permanently — the landscape. And so the issues we’re battling and wrestling [with] here is a cautionary tale of, how do you manage your resource in that utilitarian fashion… I think that that’s what Lake Erie is about: how do we manage a resource for the greatest number of people for the greatest time?”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance in preparation for the 2021 Erie Hack competition. More information can be found below and at eriehack.io.

The Erie Hack event is a bi-annual competition to accelerate innovative solutions to Lake Erie’s most pressing challenges. 

Lake Erie currently faces many challenges that affect not only the wildlife and dependent ecosystems, but also the livelihood and well-being of those that live, play, and work near the lake and its watersheds. This multi-month innovation challenge is one of our most high-profile programs and brings together techies, creative thinkers, and entrepreneurs to develop solutions for problems such as water quality, infrastructure, and social awareness. Erie Hack will take place in the form of several engaging events — a hybrid of virtual and in-person gatherings — that will officially kick off on September 16.

Anyone who is interested to participate should sign up on Erie Hack’s eventornado: https://eventornado.com/event/erie-hack#home 

For more information, check out Erie Hack’s website: eriehack.io and this informational sheet: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RG6Up8SZDu0qVUfZNsdi-dLBdT0Q124Lk44LAu0MpAk/edit 

The official kickoff/info session is 9/16, but individuals can sign up after the kickoff, as well. Here is the link to the Zoom session on 9/16: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85424454391

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