Lake Erie Deathwatch

And woe be to the creatures that depend on that oxygen for survival. Yellow perch, which are popular sport and commercial fish, prefer living and feeding in Erie’s bottom waters, says Don Scavia, director of the University of Michigan’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute. When that cold layer goes hypoxic, it forces the perch to Erie’s surface water. There, the temperatures are too warm and their preferred food from near the seabed is unavailable. Driven from their normal habitat, the fish also become easy pickings for predatory walleye and bass. "They’re calling this the squeeze play on the yellow perch," Scavia says.

Poison Harvest

While the mussels and gobies are doing their best to destroy the lake from within, outside forces are also threatening Erie, which "has become a different lake since the ’80s," says Scavia. Not only have zebras and quaggas altered the food web, but climate change appears to have lengthened the hypoxia-prone warm season. Lake temperatures, measured at municipal intake pipes, have increased steadily over the past half-century. So have air temperatures.

On top of that, the amount of phosphorus pouring into the lake is on the rise again -- often in a form that microcystis can easily consume.

Researchers studying where this phosphorus comes from have identified multiple sources, ranging from garden chemicals to sewer overflows containing human waste. But the prime suspect is agriculture. In 1974, 56 percent of Lake Erie’s phosphorus came from "point sources" like wastewater treatment plants, where contaminants run out of a pipe, whereas 35 percent came from "non-point sources" such as agriculture, according to researchers at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. (The rest came from other sources like the atmosphere.)

By 2007 that ratio had inverted: 72 percent of the phosphorus in the lake came from non-point sources and 16 percent from point sources.

Part of the problem is that farmers are using fertilizers in new ways -- applying it in the fall and winter, when there are no crops to absorb the nutrients, and spreading it onto the surface rather than tilling it into the soil. "So it sits there for six months, waiting to be washed away by the rainwater," says Peter Richards, a research scientist at Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research.

The result is more runoff into Lake Erie and its tributaries. While the total amount of phosphorus is lower than 20th century levels, more of today’s phosphorus comes in a chemical form that makes it easier for both crops and algae to absorb. As climate change triggers more extreme weather, adds Scavia, fiercer storms seem to be flushing more of the chemicals into the lake.

"There’s not a whole lot we can do, in the near term, about the changing climate," Scavia says. "It’s baked in. And we can’t do a whole lot about the zebra and quagga mussels. They’re already here. So we have to adjust what we can adjust to compensate -- and that’s reducing the loads from those agricultural sources."

Which is as politically daunting a prospect as one could imagine.

Can We Save Lake Erie Again?

One afternoon I take a ferry to Put-in-Bay, Ohio, a Victorian-style resort town on a Lake Erie island. Built around a waterfront park, it’s packed with vacation amenities like kayak rentals and an old wooden carousel. Children wearing funny hats dodge golf carts on the downtown streets. Pleasure boats bob near the harbor. The scene reminds me of what a clean lake means for the region’s economy, particularly as the Midwest loses manufacturing jobs.

"It’s a driver for being a competitive region," John Hartig had told me. "Progressive cities throughout the world would give their eye teeth to look out and see Lake Erie, to see the fish, to see the bird migrations."

From Put-in-Bay, I hop a smaller vessel to Gibraltar Island, home to Ohio State’s Stone Laboratory. The biological field station is hosting some of the region’s state legislators and congressional staffers, part of a two-day teach-in about lake issues. We meet zebra mussels up close. We watch a trawl pull in round gobies alongside their native competitors. We take in panoramic views of surrounding islands as we learn about the 114,500 tourism jobs and $10 billion a year in visitor spending that Lake Erie generates in Ohio alone. We meet a fearsome (albeit dead) Asian carp and hear about the chaos that would ensue if the exotic fish made it into the Great Lakes from the Illinois River Basin.

Overseeing the event is Reutter, Stone Lab’s director. His job today is convincing these policymakers that the region’s future depends on their swift action. Lake Erie is fixable, he says, because it replenishes itself so quickly. Much like a river flowing downstream, the lake flows from the Detroit River in the west to Niagara Falls in the east. It has a replacement rate of 2.7 years -- meaning that’s how long it would take the last drop to flow over Niagara Falls if its source were somehow plugged. (By contrast, Lake Superior, the largest Great Lake, would take almost two centuries to empty.)

"If we could again reduce the loading of phosphorus by two-thirds -- that’s the same amount that we had to reduce it in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s -- the lake will again respond," the biologist says. "We would probably be done with the harmful forms of algae. And we’d have a great fishery." Reutter is old enough to glean hope from Erie’s first turnaround. "I remember in the ’70s thinking we’d never be able to accomplish that two-thirds reduction," he says. "But we did."

Can we do it again? Or have we lost this sort of can-do spirit of the 20th century? Have we grown so politically and culturally polarized that another Lake Erie rebirth becomes impossible? Among many people I interviewed, a Midwestern optimism prevailed. Not only do technologies improve, they reminded me, but political climates shift. Regionally, Erie’s deterioration has created a consensus that the status quo is no longer acceptable. In June, representatives from the private sector, local governments, regulatory agencies, and civic and environmental groups formed the Lake Erie Improvement Forum, which hopes to develop solutions to specific problems such as agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment.

Still, the obstacles are formidable. The Clean Water Act primarily regulates point sources of pollution from the likes of wastewater treatment facilities and power plants, which can be clearly measured. It takes a less direct approach to non-point sources like agriculture. Regulators, as a result, are forced to rely on voluntary cooperation from farmers. "I don’t have a legal hook on non-point source," says Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally. "So we need to use the tools we have today."

And don’t expect those tools to expand any time soon. "The agricultural community is trying to resist regulation," Reutter says, flatly.

In fact, the current fight is to keep from losing the existing tools. When it returns from summer recess, the U.S. Congress is planning to take up environmental spending. House Republicans declared their priorities in an appropriations bill that would hack funding for the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to about half its 2010 level. The initiative cleans up toxic chemicals, fights invasive species, and protects watersheds from runoff -- many of the things that are necessary to keep Lake Erie from biological collapse.

The bill would also withhold EPA funding from any Great Lakes state that tries to control invasive species with ballast-water standards tougher than the U.S. Coast Guard’s, a provision favored by the shipping industry, which says it’s too hard to comply with a patchwork of state regulations.

"Clearly our economy is suffering," says Reutter. "People can misuse that opportunity to try to reduce regulation and claim the regulations are causing the problem. We know that’s not true on Lake Erie. The improvement in the ecosystem created thousands and thousands of jobs between 1975 and the late 1980s. Charter-fishing businesses increased from 34 to over 800. We now have 300 marinas just on the Ohio shoreline. We have over 12,000 people employed in the boating industry. If we do damage to the system, we’re going to hurt all of those businesses."

When I visited Toledo’s Lake Erie Center, aquatic biologist Thomas Bridgeman gave me a stark political assessment. "I worry that, as a society, we won’t be able to summon the will to change our watershed practices in a way that reduces nutrient loading," he said. "We’ve done all the easy things, and agriculture is a large and entrenched system of economics and politics and all sorts of factors that to me seem hard to budge."

If his fears prove correct, Lake Erie will further deteriorate. Only this time it might not rise from the dead again.

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