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Saving Lake Erie

Apr 27, 2017

There’s a little-noticed battle going on across the region to save Lake Erie. Now, I know this story can’t possibly compare in interest or importance to a bunch of football players visiting Rome, or which politician might run for something next year.

But you might want to give Lake Erie a little consideration, since it is the most vulnerable of all the Great Lakes, and 11 million people are dependent on it for drinking water. For too long, too many people have allowed fertilizer and manure to run into the lake, with the result that every summer, Lake Erie is home to vast toxic cyanobacteria blooms.

Those poisoned the drinking water in Toledo and portions of Monroe County, Michigan three summers ago, and while more precautions have been taken, it’s likely just a matter of time until it happens again. President Trump wants to completely zero out funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and gut the federal EPA. That would, experts have told me, mean we could no longer ensure that our drinking water is safe.

Erie, especially what’s called the Western Lake Erie basin, is also the shallowest and warmest of the lakes, and the most vulnerable to invasive species. If Asian carp ever do get established in the lakes, it will be here. There are those who get the importance of all this, and are trying to do something about it. Markie Miller, a native of Lambertville, Michigan, is a graduate student studying environmental science at the University of Idaho.

But when she can, she is pounding the pavement in Toledo, trying to collect signatures to force the city council there to enact a Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which would amend the city charter to give the city personhood status in law – something corporations already have.

Her group, Toledoans for Safe Water, believes this would “prevent and end legalized harm,” to the lake and the people, by giving government the power to say no to corporate projects that damage the lake and the community. That’s an admirable effort -- but even if it succeeds, Toledo controls only a very small section of the shoreline.

Four states and the Canadian province of Ontario border Lake Erie, and their governments have very different outlooks. Michigan has officially declared its portion of Lake Erie “impaired.” That legally means that the state has to put in place a plan to restore it. But even though Ohio controls far more of Lake Erie, Governor John Kasich is refusing to designate the lake as impaired.

That caused a coalition of concerned conservation, environmental and even business groups to file a federal lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to act to prevent algal blooms. Sandy Bihn, who heads the Lake Erie Waterkeeper Alliance, noted that “relying on state domestic action plans alone” will not work, which should be obvious.

What’s needed, in my view, is some new version of the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, one with teeth. Ideally, I think a formal treaty between the United States and Canada requiring protection for all the Great Lakes may be the only way to save us from ultimate disaster. There’s not much support for that in Washington these days.

But we need to change that, if we want any kind of future at all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.