The State of Lake Erie

The State of Lake Erie

By Sandy Bihn,Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper

The fire on the Cuyahoga River, a Lake Erie tributary, got needed national attention in the 60’s – some of the same signs and new ones are showing up in the research now. Then, phosphorous from wastewater plants and pollution were the major issues. Great progress was made to bring the lakes back. But Lake Erie is again showing signs of the past.

How serious is it? Why Lake Erie? Lake Erie is the warmest and shallowest of all the Great Lakes with the highest percentage of agricultural and residential development in all the Great Lakes. Lake Erie’s basin is but 21% forested while Lake Superior is 91% forested.

The western basin of Lake Erie, with an average depth of twenty four feet, requires one million cubic yards to be dredged annually from the Maumee River and Maumee Bay (with an average depth of but five feet) to maintain the Toledo shipping channel. It is the most dredged area in the Great Lakes. The root of this problem is the Great Lakes largest watershed – the Maumee with sediments from draining the old Black Swamp pouring into the ditches, creeks, rivers, bays and ultimately the lake. Draining the swamp, dredging, introduction of invasive species, wastewater discharges, nonpoint sources and toxics are all contributing to warning signs for Lake Erie and particularly for the western basin.

What are the issues causing concern? They include algae blooms, growing percentages of phosphorous and nitrates in the waters, nonnative white perch dominating the fish population in the Basin and invasive species. The dominant fish in the western basin of Lake Erie are for the first time, the white perch, which are known to eat walleye larvae. Many believe the white perch will significantly reduce the walleye population. White perch began to overtake Lake Ontario until a cold winter that froze the lake for two months and killed the white perch. Such a scenario in Western Lake Erie to control the white perch population seems unlikely.

Lake Erie is the most biologically productive Great Lake and produces more fish than all of the other Great Lakes combined. It is very important to watch Lake Erie to know whatmay be in store for the other Great Lakes.

Phosphorous was key to turning around Lake Erie in the 60’s. Ongoing studies by Heidelberg College show that dissolved phosphorous has been increasing in western Lake Erie tributaries since 1995. Now ten years later, with the phosphorous problem again growing, Lake Erie is experiencing dead zones (a lack of oxygen) in Sandusky Bay and the central basin of Lake Erie. The source of the phosphorous may be wastewater plants, zebra mussel excretions, and nonpoint sources including ‘factory farms.’

Researchers also believe that Lake Erie’s ‘warning signs,’ in addition to those already mentioned stem from water level fluctuations, global warming, and dredging (increasing flows and decreasing the normal water flow patterns into marshes and wide dispersion patterns). In the extreme western basin there are three coal-fired power plants that use about three billion gallons of water a day. Two of the plants discharge the heated waters into the very shallow Maumee Bay. The three plants entrain an estimated ten billion fish per year and impinge hundreds of thousands fish. The cumulative impacts of heating the water and killing these fish, in the shallowest and warmest area in the Great Lakes are unknown.

Lake Erie is the only Great Lake above sea level with waters turning over every two to three years. The clock is ticking on the Great Lakes and Lake Erie with the ‘warning’ signs: phosphorous, pollution, algae, dead zones, large fish kills, heated waters from power plants, and invasive species. Great Lakes restoration funding was needed yesterday. Every day we wait increases the vulnerability and future of all the Great Lakes, but particularly Lake Erie.The burning of the Cuyahoga will not happen again, but will it take another Lake Erie major event to motivate congress, states, and local governments to provide the resources necessary to clean up and preserve the world’s greatest fresh water supply? The wake-up call is before us.The only question is will we respond quickly enough?

For more information:
Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper
6565 Bayshore Rd. • Oregon, Ohio 43618
PH: 419-691-3788 • E. 



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.