Lake Erie is arguably one of the most important lakes in the world. It’s the southernmost, shallowest, and warmest of all the Great Lakes, which makes it the most productive. While power generation is a major use of Lake Erie water, the most important may be that it serves as drinking water for 11 million people. It’s also an unmatched recreational resource for Ohioans as over 30 million people live within a day’s drive.
While fishing is king in the “Walleye Capital of the World,” people come from all over to enjoy boating, beaches, sailing, diving, birding and a variety of other outdoor activities. This amounts to around $11.5 billion and 117,000 jobs annually from the eight Ohio counties bordering Lake Erie. This is more than a quarter of the tourism revenue for the entire state.
In order to keep reaping the benefits of the resource, we need to keep taking care of the resource. With that in mind, Ohio Sea Grant has identified six critical issues that we’re working on to make sure we sustain a healthy Lake Erie.
- Sedimentation and dredging: When we get big rain events, we get a lot of dirt flowing into Lake Erie. Shipping lanes get full and need dredged, which comes at a big cost and can stir up toxins that have settled to the bottom.
- Phosphorus and nutrient loading: With the sediment comes the phosphorus and other nutrients. It can come from agriculture, urban runoff, combined sewer overflows, over fertilized lawns and a handful of other sources. It’s basically fertilizer for algae.
- Harmful algal blooms (HABs): When there’s too much phosphorus and the water gets warm in mid to late summer, we see major blooms of blue green algae, aka cyanobacteria, that can produce very powerful toxins. You shouldn’t swim in the blooms, and definitely don’t ingest it or let your pets drink it. If it gets in drinking water supplies it can be difficult to treat, which was the cause of Toledo’s issues last summer.
- Dead zones: As the algae and other living things die and break down at the bottom of the lake, vital oxygen gets used up. Sometimes this can cause pockets of no oxygen where fish and other aquatic life cannot survive.
- Aquatic Invasive Species: There are dozens of plants and animals that have been introduced to Lake Erie. They often out-compete our native species. This can cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem and cost millions of dollars to try to combat.
- Climate Change: We’ve seen more intense storms more frequently, and warmer temperatures more often. This can make the other issues even worse.
Despite all of these issues, Lake Erie is still Ohio’s greatest natural resource and a great place to visit no matter how you prefer to enjoy the water. So how can you help keep the critical issues in check?
- Use phosphate-free lawn care products.
- Regularly check your septic system. Damaged septic systems can contaminate nearby waters.
- Reduce the amount of water you send to the water treatment plant. Install low-flow toilets and rain barrels.
- Plant native plants along shorelines and ditches. These plants can filter out fertilizers and are essentially maintenance-free.
Check out ohioseagrant.osu.edu for more information, or contact me if you have questions. Enjoy the rest of your summer, and I hope to see you up here on Lake Erie!
(Submitted by Tory Gabriel, Fisheries Outreach Coordinator, Ohio Sea Grant College Program)