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Lake Erie's issues should trump everything else

TNS Regional News • Jul 21, 2015 at 3:12 PM

My cousin Don just stood there and stared.

On the rocky shoreline of Lake Erie, it was nothing but water as far as he could see, and for a California dairy farmer who goes to sleep worrying about water and wakes up at 3 a.m. worrying about water, all of that fresh water laid out in front of him was a boundless vat of liquid gold.

We have what an increasing number of people in the rest of the country, and a lot of the world, desperately covet — an abundance of clean, fresh water. Folks from the western states, where a lot of what’s green has to have frequent artificial hydration to stay that way, they just marvel at our lake and all that blessed water.

While Lake Erie is a source of pride and our most precious natural resource, it is also a font of worries. Are we the prudent guardians we should be, with something so valuable right here in our backyard? In the confessional, we might have to admit we are not.

The algae issues that choked off Toledo’s water supply last summer are lurking out there, poised to rear their ugly chartreuse countenance when the right combination of temperature and food ignites their growth. Besides looking like fermented pistachio pudding, the stuff is poison.

Steps have been taken to reduce the phosphorus entering the lake and feeding the algae bloom, but we are not certain they will be enough. Farmers seem eager to do their share, and the bottom line is they are too frugal a bunch to watch fertilizer they paid for repeatedly wash into the lake.

Farmers also seem to have taken an inordinate share of the rap for the phosphorus problem, but it seems easier to point the finger at guys who are too busy working to defend themselves than to meter out some of the blame on massive municipal sewage overflows, and the government entities with hands at the controls.

In one recent year, Detroit’s sewage treatment plant dumped billions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into the Detroit River. The Detroit River supplies 80 to 90 percent of the water that flows into western Lake Erie, so those dots seem pretty easy to connect. Add Detroit’s chronic financial chop suey to the mix, and it’s not likely that wastewater treatment plant has had its frequent hemorrhages adequately repaired.

Sediment entering the lake through agricultural runoff and the dumping of dredging material in the open lake exacerbate and complicate our water quality issues. Phosphorus and other materials hidden in that sediment amount to a mass of little time bombs, ready to release their evil charges.

Recent storms likely have stirred up more of the dangers hidden along the lake bottom.

Invasive species are another constantly looming crisis, and a one-strike-and-you-are-out type of demon.

We can cut the amount of phosphorus and pollutants entering the lake, and it quickly heals, but with invasive species, once they are in, we are married to them, and there is no death-do-us-part involved.

Asian carp are the ominous scourge de jour, and after conquering a good portion of the Mississippi River system from Minneapolis to New Orleans, these aggressive and prolific invaders are trying to punch their way into the Great Lakes at its most vulnerable sites.

Every study on the topic has indicated western Lake Erie would be the Asian carp equivalent of nirvana, with its shallow, warm and nutrient-rich waters.

Our government officials have said all of the right things, but they have said them so often, with very little action to follow, that it has turned into a monotonous political parade of sound bites, replayed so often that we can’t tell the large dog from the small pony in this show. It seems like we have endured decades of hearings, meetings, studies, symposiums, speeches, presentations, panel discussions, workshops and conferences, but only the tiniest of baby steps towards a permanent solution.

And with Lake Erie, we have left the barn door open far too many times to believe that soap box rhetoric is going to scare off the carp. Zebra mussels, quagga mussels, round gobies, spiny water fleas, sea lampreys, purple loosestrife and phagmites — those are not the extras from the latest Sharknado movie — those are a few of the invasive species that now call Lake Erie home.

Our lake is both wonderful, and vulnerable. Besides being the southernmost, shallowest, warmest and most life-filled of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is also 116 cubic miles of fresh water, Mother Earth’s most precious commodity.

With the presidential race already in full bloom, and with Gov. John Kasich poised to enter the fray, there is concern along the lake that we might hit the pause button on addressing Erie’s issues, or see the snail’s pace of action grind along even slower. But we can’t afford any loss of momentum on any of these matters — the back burner is no place for such critical matters.

Lake Erie was carved out of the earth by great glaciers tens of thousands of years ago.

The depression left by these incomprehensible masses of moving ice then filled with fresh water, and we now share the guardianship of that lake with three other states and one foreign country.

We can’t bungle this, due to distractions, conflicting agendas, or the malignant lack of political will. And this isn’t just about fish or beaches or tourist dollars.

Clean, fresh water is life, so nothing holds a higher priority than aggressive stewardship of the lake. My cousin Don, and billions of other people around the world, want what we have — water. We should take care of something that prized.

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By Matt Markey - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

©2015 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com

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