By John Schaffner
In eastern Ottawa County, we are all environmentalists. There is no 2% vs. 98% when the subject is the health of Lake Erie. The recently organized Lake Erie Improvement Association held a meeting at Catawba Island Club on Friday morning to look once again at the challenges facing the lake and also to unveil a strategic plan to address those challenges.
A number of familiar faces took to the podium to discuss the two major issues of harmful algae blooms and invasive species like Asian Carp. Dr. Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant, spoke at length about what is considered the primary cause of the 2011 algae blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie, the loading of contaminates such as phosphorus into the Lake via runoff and other harmful discharges. “We had a very wet spring and summer in 2011, which caused a lot of runoff into the lake, which caused the growth of huge algae blooms in the western basin,” said Dr. Reutter. “If we have a wet sprint in 2013, we are going to be right back were we were in 2011.”
State Representative and State Senator-Elect Randy Gardner joined forces with several other Ohio legislators last year and created the Healthy Lake Erie Fund, which allocated $3-million for Lake Erie improvement. “I think it is necessary for Ohio to get involved in improving Lake Erie,” Gardner stated. “Because the political environment is right, we are now in a much better position than we were 12 months ago.”
Gardner noted that there is tremendous competition for dollars at the State level and that he has been working tirelessly to open doors with essential committee chairpersons. “I’m your hired hand, and I will be there every step of the way,” said Gardner.
Ottawa County’s tourism director Larry Fletcher used the example of Grand Lake St. Marys in west Ohio as an example of what can be accomplished with significant activism. A group was formed after Grand Lake St. Marys was nearly given up for dead due to toxic algae. “They lost 25% of their tourism dollars over two years due to bad publicity about their lake,” said Fletcher. That is when a group of government officials and business leaders got together to work on the problem, and they succeeded to a large extent.
“Ottawa County tourism alone creates over 3,000 jobs and over $83 million in wages. Erie County’s numbers are nearly 4 times that. In Ohio, 25% off all tourism is accounted for by the communities located along the shores of Lake Erie, according to Fletcher. So maintaining a healthy Lake Erie is an economic necessity.
Jenny Cornell of Hull & Associates worked with a local group of collaborators to create the Lake Erie Improvement Association (LEIA). Two key players were Sandy Bihn of Oregon who started Lake Erie Water Keepers and Jim Stouffer, Chairman and CEO of Catawba Island Club. They then went to work on a strategic plan. The goal of the LEIA is “to provide an economically viable plan for the sustainable restoration of Lake Erie and its tributaries through the efforts of the Lake Erie economically dependent businesses and stakeholders.”
Some of their recommendations include:
• Issuing a Lake Erie Annual Report Card
•Upgrade outdated septic systems such as the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant that pours millions of gallons of sludge into the Detroit River every day
• Promote nutrient reduction practices and support research to reduce nutrient loads and algal blooms
• Reduce phosphorus runoff on agricultural land by one pound or more per acre
• Serve as business representative for Lake Erie
There are 21 bullet points in the overall strategic plan. The next step is to come up with strategies for implementing the plan. They include hiring a lobbyist in Columbus, closely monitoring water quality throughout the lake, outreach/education and fundraising.
The attendees were reminded about when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and how bad Lake Erie was environmentally in the late 1960s. A concerted effort saved Lake Erie then which led to a fishing and boating renaissance in the 1980s. But monitoring activities ended in the late 80s, and now Lake Erie is in trouble again. The plan is to re-institute many of those measures to save the lake again. Thousands of jobs are at stake, jobs that can’t be exported.
For more information on the Lake Erie Improvement Association and their activities, you can look them up online at www.lakeerieimprovement.org.