Lake Erie: A Troubled Past

Lake Erie

Lake Erie’s troubled ecological past is a story of how colonization, manufacturing and agriculture destroyed thriving wildlife and contaminated the water. Lake Erie is one of the Great Lakes, which hold a significant percentage of the Earth’s freshwater, and the lake has suffered toxic chemical contamination.

In the early 1800’s colonization around the shores of the lake began, and mills began building dams in the lake’s tributaries that interfered with migratory patterns of the lake’s fish, and the fish died out. Population growth in cities such as Cleveland polluted the lake with human waste, animal carcasses, and agricultural by-products. By the 1970’s Lake Erie was considered a “dead lake” with rivers flowing into the lake becoming choked with pollutants and becoming unsafe to even touch.

One of the lake’s biggest problems was and is the abundance of algae growth, which is caused by too many nutrients being sent into the lake. At one point the large swaths of algae died, and caused the water to lose all its oxygen and killing many aquatic species in the lake.

In an agreement made in April of 1972, President Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pledged to renew and restore the environment of the Great Lakes, setting guidelines to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the lake, and setting standards for sewage treatment. Today, Lake Erie is a cleaner place, with aquatic wildlife making a comeback and tourism renewal as well.

There are more than 50,000 chemicals in the water of the Great Lakes, and they are a part of Lake Erie’s troubled past. It has been said there is no way to test for all these chemicals, so authorities singled out and focused on chemicals which are most likely to cause environmental harm. Yet the problem is still not totally under control, which became clear when the people of Toledo, Ohio were told that their water, which is supplied by Lake Erie was toxic from algae.

The effects of toxicity include birth defects and cancer. Toxins can accumulate in the human body when people consume fish that have accumulated the toxins in their tissues. Some of the most powerful and deadly toxins in Lake Erie include Mercury, Dioxin, PCBs and DDT.

Lake Erie is the benchmark for gauging environmental problems in the Great Lakes as a whole. Lake Erie is the most shallow of the Great Lakes and also the lake surrounded by the highest percentages of population density. Invasive species such as the Asian Carp and Quagga mussels are growing, and causing changes in the ecosystem, and it is suspected that these species may be altering the function of the ecosystem and reacting to the concentration of phosphorus in the water.

Currently, researchers are attempting to identify the causes and influences of algae blooms that have made the lake toxic. The microcystis blooms are a part of Lake Erie’s troubled past that linger into the present, and researchers are working to recognize when, where and how the blooms grow and affect the lake’s water. Scientists are developing a warning system to target and identify these blooms and forecast when they could happen, and then they will issue a bulletin to notify authorities of the matter.

By Adrianne Hill


Observer Reporter
Ohio State University

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