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An Erie odyssey

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An Erie odyssey



June 19, 2009

Chip Martin / London Free Press




The year 2009 marks two significant anniversaries for the Great Lakes.


One hundred years ago, Canada and the United States signed the Boundary Waters Treaty to settle disputes about the lakes, banning diversions and calling for an end to cross-boundary pollution. The International Joint Commission (IJC) was established to oversee the boundary waters.


And 50 years ago this month, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. It linked the interior of North America to the major ports of the world, shaving transportation costs and providing a huge boost to the economies of both Canada and the U. S.


As these milestones are marked, a group of 14 journalists from both countries embarked on an eight-day odyssey around Lake Erie, the southernmost of the Great Lakes, to assess its condition today.


The tour, sponsored by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, focused on the environmental health of the shallowest of the Great Lakes and whose shore is the most heavily populated. A wide array of experts




Before we hit Lake Erie we're taken aboard a cadet ship on the St. Clair River, where we're brought up to speed on a lingering issue on the upper lakes that could be a precursor to problems on Lake Erie--water levels.


In faraway Georgian Bay, it's explained, cottagers are looking with alarm at their receding shoreline.


They hired engineers to discover why. The experts attributed lower levels in Lake Huron to dredging work in the St. Clair River south of Sarnia undertaken by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1960s.


The Canadian engineers say the dredging sped the flow of the river, which drained too much water too quickly from the upper lakes. They suggested construction of "speed bumps" to slow its flow.


A long-awaited report issued May 1 and funded by the IJC recommended no remedial action and attributed a temporary increase in river flow to a major ice jam that scoured the river bottom in the mid-1980s.


The report noted a change in climate patterns has resulted in less water being supplied to the upper lakes in recent years. As for the Georgian Bay situation, it said a rebound in the Earth's crust from the weight of ice from the last glaciers was responsible.


These conclusions didn't please Mary Muter of the Georgian Bay Association Foundation.


"We find these findings premature," Muter told environmental writers aboard a cadet ship in the St. Clair River. Ironically, her group pushed for the study to be speeded up and delivered a year ahead of schedule.


"The future is grim once you factor in climate change," Muter said. She conceded that while fluctuation in water levels is good for the lakes, Lake Huron is now 4 cm below its long-term average.


Muter suggested water turconvened at various stops along the way for panel discussions on the challenges facing the lake, once left for dead.


Sun Media was represented on this journey of discovery byLondon Free Pressreporter Chip Martin. For good reason. London, a landlocked city, once viewed Port Stanley as its port and connection to the world of maritime commerce. And London draws on the lake for drinking water as well as Lake Huron.


Lake Erie is home to the greatest freshwater fishery in the world, its relatively warm and nutrient-filled


bines installed in the riverbed might slow the flow and produce green energy.


John Nevin, a strategic policy adviser with the IJC in Washington, conceded further research is needed but the binational agency's position is "no remedial action at this time."


Now, on to Lake Erie itself.




Lake Erie is in trouble.


Don Scavia, director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, puts the situation this way: "The Dead Zone of Lake Erie is back. Big time."


More frequent flooding and intense rainstorms are sweeping phosphorous and other nutrients into the Great Lakes. Once in the lake, phosphorous needs oxygen to decompose, stripping the lake bottom of the oxygen it needs to sustain life.


The Dead Zone is restricted to late in the summer in the central basin of the lake between Point Pelee and Turkey Point. It had all but disappeared after the cleanup that followed the discovery of the lake's poor health in the 1960s and 1970s.


But, since 1996, Scavia said, phosphorous runoff from farms has been on the rise, particularly from the Maumee and Sandusky rivers in Ohio.


He suggested no-till cultivation may have led to high levels of phosphorous in the soil, which is unleashed in torrential downpours.


"We may have to tell farmers to stop no-till cultivation," Scavia said.


Linda Mortsch, a senior researcher with the Meteorological Service of Canada, said "warming of the climate system is unequivocal." There has been a human component in that for the past 50 years.


She predicted average temperatures in the Great Lakes region will be from 1.8 to 4 degrees warmer. That, she said, will reduce lake levels because with less snow cover in winter and hotter summers, evaporation will increase.




Factory farms, known in Midwest States as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are on the rise.


In northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, the trend toward such mega-farms is an environmental concern because they add to already high concentrations of phosphorous, nitrogen and other nutrients. They also produce air emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulphide and fine particulate matter that creates problems for asthmatics.


Dairy farms, which are most problematic, can have 6,000


waters teeming with fish. Its islands and archipelagos are magnets for migratory birds. Cities along its American shore are industrial giants while, across the lake, Ontario's commercial fishery is a $250-million-a-year industry.


Lake Erie and all the Great Lakes are under growing pressure from development, agricultural runoff, invasive species and more recently from thirsty jurisdictions anxious to tap its waters.


All these pressures will increase in coming years with climate change that may alter Lake Erie--and its four sisters--forever.


A trend toward factory farms in states bordering Lake Erie is causing concern among environmentalists because of the huge amount of manure they produce. When spread on farm fields for disposal it overloads streams and rivers running into Lake Erie with oxygen-robbing nutrients. This diary operation near Hudson, Mich., has nearly 5,000 cows and has run afoul of environmental laws for its handling of cow waste


cows or more, each capable of producing as much waste each day as 23 humans. A 6,000- cow herd in one day produces as much waste as the Michigan capital of Lansing. In Michigan, there are 218 CAFOs, one of which -- at Hudson -- has been cited for environmental irregularities.


"These are a large challenge for the state of Michigan," said Steven Chester, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.


The Vreba-Hoff dairy farm in Hudson, which has nearly 6,000 cows, has been fined $220,000. Dairy spokesperson Cecilia Conway concedes the fines were the result of "some mistakes" in handling manure.


Chester said the main concern with CAFOs is the impact on water and groundwater in a state that derives half its drinking water from wells.


He said the Vreba-Hoff farm is likely the largest in the state and it is one of the few that treats its sewage.


Conway said the operation produces 20 million gallons of manure every six months and with new treatment methods has been able to reduce pathogens and nutrients in it by 80%.


"We have moved forward" in better treatment," she said.




The Lake Erie water snake is the comeback kid in Lake Erie's western basin.


Once persecuted as a scourge, the non-poisonous reptile was common on the Lake Erie islands off Ohio, Kelley's and the Bass Islands. A relative, the northern water snake, inhabited Pelee and other Ontario islands to the north.


Widespread extermination reduced the snake to a mere 1,200 by the 1980s and earned it "endangered species" status in Ohio and "threatened" in Ontario.


Since then, a careful plan to protect it -- docks have been changed to make them more snake-friendly, and other measures -- have helped the snake bounce back. About 12,000 can be found in the islands, thanks to research at Ohio State University's Stone Lab on Gibraltar Island.


The islands were first known as the Serpent Islands by French explorers. There has been resistance to the conservation effort but the snakes are once again thriving, a testament to conservation and education efforts and a positive sign for other species considered at risk in the western end of the lake.




The fishery in Lake Erie has rebounded sharply and fishermen on both sides of the border complain about quotas for yellow perch and pickerel (known as walleye on the American side).


At Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, the travelling journalists learn the Americans allocate their quota to sport fishermen while Ontario gives most of it to the commercial fishery.


A trip aboard a fisheries boat shows how abundant fish are when a trap net dragged for just a few moments produces a healthy yield of a great variety of fish.


Researcher Jeff Reutter says the warm water and abundant food sources are responsible for the lake's amazing productivity.


But the Maumee and Sandusky, major Ohio rivers, are significant sources of phosphorous and other nutrients that lead to algal blooms and a loss of oxygen in the lake.




The Port of Cleveland has seen better days. So has shipping on the Great Lakes.


After the failure of many rust-belt industries that once relied on it for iron ore from the Lakehead, the port needs ship traffic. It developed the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame as a tourist attraction and explored container traffic, "heavy lifts" and cold storage. Attempts to start a ferry service to Port Stanley have stalled because the Ontario port is full of silt.


Cleveland also wants to redevelop its portlands, but traffic on the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes is at half its capacity.


About 120 Great Lakes freighters and 150 ocean-going "salties" ply the lakes. But due to invasive species carried in ballast water in the "salties," the future of shipping is uncertain.


The Canadian government has banned discharges of ballast water without treatment by flushing to kill off such pests as zebra and quagga mussels. But on the U.S. side, each state has enacted its own rules that may soon prevent ships calling at such ports as Chicago and those in Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania.


Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, said Washington must set consistent rules: "Our quality of life and jobs are at stake."


Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, which represents "salties," agrees: "State laws on ballast water will kill shipping into some states."


Weakley says lake shipping saves $3.6 billion a year in transportation costs because it's economical compared to rail or highway options.




Climate change is expected to make the U.S. southwest drier and hotter, increasing demand for Great Lakes water. At the same time, some expect lake levels to drop.


In his book, The Great Lakes Water Wars, environmentalist Peter Annin warns the next great struggle for humankind is the demand for water, not oil.


As a result, pressures are mounting on the lakes system, with 18% of the world's supply.


Annin, leader of the Lake Erie odyssey, wonders how strong the Great Lakes Compact, which bans water diversions from the lakes, will remain amid unrelenting pressure from outside the region.




In the hunt for green energy, some folks think they can squeeze even more power out of Lake Erie water as it flows into the Niagara River and over the Falls.


On the Canadian side, a new tunnel is being bored to tap the power of moving water in a $1-billion-plus project.


On the U.S. side, pilot licences are being issued to operators who want to install turbines on the river bottom to tap the energy potential in moving water, a system known as "hydrokinetics."


Houston entrepreneur and businessperson Wayne Krouse, chairperson of Hydro Green Energy, has another idea to tap the energy in the fast-flowing river beneath the falls. He wants to anchor barges in the river and suspend from them an array of five to 10 large turbines apiece.


The Niagara turbines would produce 70 megawatts of power, enough to run 21,000 homes, and cost $140 million.


Krouse said he's not concerned by the Niagara's legendary ice jams, which in the late 1930s took out the Honeymoon Bridge in Niagara Falls.




At Niagara Falls, authorities on both sides of the border are tapping its hydroelectric potential so much, they had to come up with a plan to ensure enough water was still going over the falls to make it attractive for tourists.


At night, in off-peak tourist times, the fall of Lake Erie water over the falls is reduced to 50,000 cubic feet per second. That amount is doubled when tourists are on hand. Balancing the need for electricity and tourism revenue is almost as tricky as the balance demonstrated years ago by tight-rope walkers who used the falls as a backdrop.




Other attempts to harness green energy can be found in the 66-turbine Erie Shores wind farm near Port Burwell and the newer 44-unit Kruger Energy farm near Port Alma.


Ontario hopes to phase out coal generation and replace it with one-third renewable, one- third nuclear and one-third hydro-generated power, a plan American journalists on the Lake Erie tour found startling.


The $200-million, 99-megawatt Erie Wind Farms venture had the American journalists snapping photos and wondering if they were looking at Erie's future on their side, where some proponents have talked of locating similar turbines just offshore.




The commercial fishery on the lake was the focus of a visit to Wheatley and Kingsville.


On the American side, the commercial fishery is tiny, the states having allocated walleye (pickerel) and white perch quotas primarily to sport anglers. In Ontario, the bulk of the quota goes to commercial fishers who operate out of Wheatley, Port Stanley, Kingsville and Erieau in the western section of the lake.


Mike Morencie of the Natural Resources Ministry notes Ontario anglers have 250,000 lakes from which to choose. So commercial fishers have Erie, where they're highly regulated.


There are 208 commercial fishing licences, with 70 tugs in an industry that employs nearly 2,000.


Quotas for the Erie catch are set by the Lake Erie Committee of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and based on scientific monitoring. But Peter Meisenheimer, of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association, said his group wants "open and transparent and accountable management."




Environmentalists have lodged a complaint of discrimination against Parks Canada for its decision to reduce the cormorant colony threatening Middle Island.


Without natural predators and with abundant food supplies, cormorants have thrived on Middle, East Sister and Middle Sister islands. Their excrement, called guano, has killed trees and other vegetation, prompting concerns they may destroy the islands and other species there.


There are some 5,000 nesting pairs on Middle Island, which Parks Canada hopes to reduce by two-thirds or more.


Environmentalists went to court to stop the cull, but failed.


Linda Wires, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, argues the birds are native to the region and should not be touched, pointing out they occupy only 3% of the islands in the Great Lakes.


Liz White, of Cormorant Defenders International, said no cull is justified -- ever. "Government bodies are now promoting persecution," she charged. "And Parks Canada has participated in demonizing these birds."


The journalists aren't allowed to visit Middle Island, but step ashore on nearby East Sister Island, whose vegetation is dying off. The cormorants are nesting, the smell of their guano strong.




We catch up to Marian Stranak, superintendent of Point Pelee National Park, who says: "This is a conservation story, this is about saving an island. Nine "species at risk" could have been wiped out without a cull.


Stranak said parks officials have faced "a drastic and dire situation" on Middle Island, where three cormorant nests were first seen in 1987. Today, there are 5,000 nests.


Parks Canada and other agencies celebrate most birds in the region, a major migratory route. Eco-tourism has been a major driver behind the success of Pelee National Park and nearby Hillman Marsh.




The national park, founded in 1918, once drew 750,000 visitors annually to its beaches and cottages. But by the 1970s, it refocused on preserving the environment after losing several native species.


Today, about 250,000 visitors are drawn to its marshes and its point, the southernmost part of mainland Canada. Of those, 60,000 are birdwatchers.




At Point Pelee, the journalists learn of efforts to return the national park to its native state and enhance the birdwatching experience. We couldn't resist venturing as far south as possible on the southernmost point of mainland Canada, even though we had spent nearly two days on Pelee Island even farther south.


At nearby Hillman Marsh, bird-bander Bob Hall-Brooks of the Essex County Field Naturalists was retrieving migratory birds from nets to record their size and band their legs.


He said the work helps researchers understand the migratory behaviour of birds, many of which travel incredible distances.




The tour of Erie painted a picture of a Great Lake beset by environmental challenges. Since the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the opening of the Seaway 50 years ago, Erie has thrived, died and rebounded. And it may be facing trouble again. Whether the most resilient of the Great Lakes can cope with the worrisome challenges on the horizon, including global warming, remains to be seen.

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