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Harmful algae bloom. Lake Erie. July 22, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

Summer, 2011. Lake Erie’s waters are not a healthy blue but a bright green, like pea soup, and with the consistency to match. In some places it’s so thick that even a boat struggles through the muck. It seems like something out of science fiction, but in fact the culprits are some of the oldest forms of life on earth, algae and cyanobacteria.

While algae itself is part of a healthy ecosystem, profuse growth occurs as a result of an imbalance and the resulting blooms pose a significant risk toward human health and wildlife. It’s mind boggling to consider that such a small and seemingly innocuous organism could occur in such an enormous quantity that it can be seen from outer space; hundreds of kilometres from Earth, it’s an eerie, glowing luminescence that is quite chilling to observe. Free floating mats of cyanobacteria produce toxins that put fish, wildlife, and human health at risk, while shoreline blooms of the filamentous algae clog municipal and industrial water intakes, impair water quality, and foul recreational beaches. When algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake, where its subsequent decay depletes the supply of oxygen, creating “dead zones” where aquatic life, including fish, cannot survive.

Sadly, Lake Erie is no stranger to algal blooms. In fact, the lake was brought back from what was deemed to be certain death, as a result of these harmful blooms, in the 1970s. Erie’s warm, shallow waters mean it’s susceptible to this problem; however, excess algal growth only occurs when there is overabundance of phosphorus, which could come from many sources, including lawn and agricultural fertilizers and untreated sewage. In 1972, stirred by public concern, governments on both sides of the border responded to the issue by signing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement; that commitment was followed by massive investments in upgrading municipal wastewater treatment plants and the introduction of phosphate-free detergents.

The achievement was celebrated but quickly faded from public memory until the problem returned this decade, worse than ever. In 2011, a record setting algal bloom covered 5,000 square kilometres—one-fifth of Lake Erie’s surface and three times larger than those experienced in the 1970s. Since the record-setting event of 2011, harmful algal blooms have varied in severity from year to year, and impact certain parts of the lake more than others. “In the 1970s, it was a lot simpler to go from the problem to the solution because the source of the problem could easily be identified—phosphates from detergents and poor treatment of waste water. Now, it’s not a single-source issue. We’re also dealing with dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP)—phosphorus dissolved in water which is more easily and quickly taken up by algae when it reaches the lake,” explains Wendy Cooper, Program Lead, Ontario and National Watersheds, at Tides Canada. Other factors exacerbate the problem; climate change is increasing the frequency of intense weather events like rainstorms and flash floods, which overwhelm sewage systems and deliver big, rapid bursts of phosphorus from agricultural and urban lands into rivers and lakes. To make matters worse, the loss of much of the surrounding wetlands—the kidneys of the earth—means that there’s fewer natural filters for excess nutrients or other contaminants. “The root of the problem is more complex and therefore the solution is more complex,” says Cooper. “That’s why we need a new approach. There’s a role for government to play, but there are also more groups that need to be involved, which necessitates coordination.” This is where Lake Erie Alive comes into the picture.

View of Lake Erie from space in spring 2012. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team.

View of Lake Erie from space in spring 2012. Photo: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team.

In 2012, Cooper published “The Great Lakes Waterscape,” a study assessing the needs of the Great Lakes water community. In the year that followed, Tides Canada co-hosted a meeting with the Ontario Trillium Foundation convening freshwater leaders to review recommendations from the report and establish priorities. Discussions following that meeting focused on the issue of restoring Lake Erie back to health, because there’s a lot at stake if it suffocates. It’s the source of drinking water for 11.6 million people. It provides irrigation for food crops—corn, soybeans, and wheat, among others—and cooling water for electric power plants. Commercial and recreational fishing generates $1.4 billion in total sales, $711.1 million in personal income, and supports more than 14,000 jobs. Raw materials and finished goods are transported across the lake. It also supports the broader tourism industry—locals and visitors alike cherish its white sandy beaches and ocean-like waters, visiting restaurants, wineries, and other businesses during their stay. Lake Erie is not only an ecological treasure, it’s an economic engine. And the harmful blooms put this precious natural resource in critical condition.

“There are pockets of activity happening in the Great Lakes region to address its overall health,” says Cooper. “The International Joint Commission looks at the Great Lakes as a whole and there are plenty of grassroots organizations addressing various issues at the community scale, such as securing land for conservation, developing best management practices on agricultural land, and improving stream and shoreline habitat. But there’s a lack of support for connecting the dots between the smaller activities on the ground and those happening at a watershed scale. People recognize that there is a problem but there isn’t a consistent approach in addressing the algal blooms.” To address these gaps, Tides Canada, Canadian Freshwater Alliance, and Freshwater Future formed Lake Erie Alive to facilitate a comprehensive and lasting solution to the lake’s harmful algal blooms via a collaborative, coordinated effort.

Despite the fact that Erie still supports such a large population and incredible breadth of recreation opportunities and industries, there is a prevailing myth that the “dirtiest” of the Great Lakes is already lost. One fundamental challenge for Lake Erie Alive is to change this unproductive mentality—to rewrite the story and get people to think about Erie differently as a lake that can and should be saved in order to inspire action. “We need to build the constituency that voices its love and pride for Lake Erie, because a heightened sense of responsibility to protect something comes from that,” says Lindsay Telfer, National Project Director at Canadian Freshwater Alliance, a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform that focuses primarily on public engagement and outreach. “This is a lake that the community loves and needs for economic reasons, for health reasons, for personal enjoyment. That’s really all that we’d be asking local residents to do—ensure that voice is being heard.”

For many—especially the growing number of people living in urban centres and buying produce in grocery stores—there is also a huge disconnect from where food actually comes from. “That lack of connection to how our food is grown and what it does to the land and water around us is a big issue. I certainly think that’s the case with Lake Erie where we’re growing food that may not even be eaten in the region—it maybe be shipped far around the world,” says Jill Ryan, Executive Director at Freshwater Future, an organization that has been active in the Great Lakes basin for nearly two decades. With a foot on both sides of the border, they are a key player in ensuring that Canadian and American stakeholders are working in tandem to address the issue.

“I think the biggest challenge is just the scale of the problem,” says Ryan. “This is such a large issue. In Ohio’s Maumee River watershed, the largest watershed to Lake Erie, we have four million acres of agricultural land. That watershed also contributes half the phosphorus load to Lake Erie. So, you have this problem that is concentrated in the lake but begins so much farther out on the land.”

Farmers are a key piece in this puzzle. In April 2015, Lake Erie Alive co-hosted the Water Stewardship Forum with Sustain Ontario—also a project on Tides Canada’s shared platform—to bring together government regulatory agencies, water NGOs, and farm NGOs and farmers in an exploratory dialogue about farm contributions of phosphorus input in the Great Lakes. “We need to ask the difficult questions and help come up with solutions that are amenable to the farm community but also to Lake Erie water, which the farm community needs, too,” says Telfer. “Let’s be honest, if Lake Erie were to die, so to speak, the farm community in that region would be at risk. They have an equal interest in solving the problem.”

There are quite a few options and different tacks to try to mitigate phosphorus loading into Lake Erie in the short and long term, including, but not limited to: incentive and cost-sharing programs; charging for pollution and using the money to support programs reducing nutrient loading; upgrading antiquated sewer systems that are subject to overflowing during heavy rainfall or snowmelt; investing in green infrastructure such as green roofs, engineered wetlands, and trees and vegetation which can capture rainfall and improve the quality of stormwater runoff; conducting year-round monitoring to improve our understanding of the issue; and redesigning policies.

Moving forward, Lake Erie Alive will build on their conversations with people living and working in the watershed and leaders already committed to its protection. Following an inclusive discussion that identifies the levers to affect change, Lake Erie Alive will guide a coordinated approach within Canada and with partners in the U.S. to heal the lake and preserve its ecological and economical function for generations. “The solution to the algal blooms in the 1970s wasn’t adaptive. The idea with Lake Erie Alive is that we’re not just trying to fix the issue now but build in a system that will prevent harmful algal blooms from happening five, 10, 50 years from now,” says Cooper. In addition to being an important part of Canadian identity, the Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system on earth, holding 20% of the world’s supply. It’s a cultural and natural resource we can’t afford to lose.

To learn more about Lake Erie Alive, or to support Tides Canada’s work in the Great Lakes, please contact Wendy Cooper.