A 94-year-old Harbor View woman told Western Lake Erie water keeper Sandy Bihn she can remember a time when the Toledo area was the place to be for tourists.
“From May to Labor Day, this used to be the most happening place in the United States. It was the fishing and the swimming,” Bihn said.
It was a time in the early 20th Century when this area produced more jobs for recreation than for industry. Bihn interviewed the woman two years ago for a documentary being produced about the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse.
The woman told Bihn that European dignitaries would arrive “just to be here.”
The woman recalled pristine beaches at Presque Isle, and Bihn says Toledo Blade articles would talk about so much fish “you could walk on them.”
That was before pollution began lowering the quality of natural resources at this end of Lake Erie, Bihn alleges. She says we are still not protecting that resource, and the problem continues to worsen.
Bihn noted that the Great Lakes have more U.S. shoreline that the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico combined.
“We have more shoreline here, but the laws don’t work the same for us because it’s not considered a coastline,” Bihn said.
Lake Erie is the 11th largest lake in the world, but because it is shallow with 11 million people living along its shores, it is in vast need of “more wetlands, more foresting, and we don’t have it,” Bihn said.
Now, the lake is facing an even more dangerous foe — an invasive species of algae that she says is increasingly making itself present in Lake Erie, as well as other waterways in the U.S., such as Chesapeake Bay.
Bihn made her presentation to members of Friends of Pearson Park at Macomber Lodge Wednesday. The presentation included photos from Grand Lake St. Mary’s, which has been virtually shut down by algae.
Grand Lake St. Mary’s, in Mercer and Auglaize counties, is Ohio’s largest inland lake. Locals say the shutting down of activity has affected the local economy.
“This poor lake and these poor people have gotten the consequences,” Bihn said.
Signs around the man-made lake warn locals and tourists not to go in the water, fish, take a boat on the water, or touch the water. A dog that got into the water died and a man is suffering from nerve damage after getting into contact with the algae. At least 10 people have gotten sick.
Bihn says the same thing could happen in Lake Erie. Seven people got sick from the algae in Lake Erie this summer, Bihn said.
She says the fish population is nearing numbers from the 1970s, a time it got dangerously low to even allow commercial and recreational fishing. The walleye count has fallen from 80 million five years ago to less than 20 million now, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resource estimates.
She says if you are around Lake Erie and see “dark green algae, don’t touch it because if can make you very ill.”
She says the situation at Grant Lake St. Mary’s developed because of a high concentration of factory farms, which are polluting the ground with manure.
The reason for the algae in Lake Erie — mostly phosphorous in household products and fertilizer from farm runoff the algae feeds on. Bihn said the phosphorous problem in Lake Erie is “still going downhill”.
The primary source is storm water runoff — the water that runs off fields, roads, rooftops, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and lawns and enters lakes and streams without treatment.
“Mainly, its agriculture, but any of us can use it (phosphorous). If we don’t start doing something for our water, we are going to be in trouble. It’s not only here, it’s everywhere,” Bihn said.
She suggests using products that do not contain phosphorous, and being aware of where your rainwater drains.
“We have the shallowest, most vulnerable end of Lake Erie, but also the most sediment,” Bihn said, explaining that drainage systems have gotten so effective, the runoff into the lake takes everything with it. She said it used to take five days for rainwater in the region to reach Lake Erie, but now it takes only one to two days.
“The engineers have done a tremendous job of keeping our yards dry and the fields drain faster, which is good for the farmer,” Bihn said. “But it takes more nutrients with it into the lake, and that’s bad because it will end up in Lake Erie. All water here ends up in Lake Erie.”
Bihn believes water is the “oil of the future,” noting that 97 percent of the earth’s water is unavailable for use because it is not fresh water. The three percent fresh water remaining is only partially available. It is needed for all living organisms, and it composes 75 percent of the human body.
Two-thirds of the fresh water is unavailable because it is frozen, polluted, or too deep to pump. The other one-third is in soils (groundwater), bedrock (aquifers), and in lakes, rivers, and streams (surface water). Lakes, rivers, and streams provide only 0.0091 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, and one-fifth of that is in the Great Lakes.
“There are things you can do to help. It might be small but it can help. If not, it will have an effect on our economy and we’ll make national news,” Bihn said. “If we get like Grand Lake St. Mary’s, when you can’t go into the water and you can’t touch it, it’s going to blight our area.
“It kind of shows the impact of man on the water,” Bihn said. “It’s all about the water. All of these things are about the water.”