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A lake in transition: Erie changes not all bad, or all good

Sunday, January 16, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Burly, bearded John Hageman smiled from the bobbing deck of the MV Biolab as the research vessel began pulling a 16-foot-wide net through the channel off Rattlesnake Island in the western end of Lake Erie.

"OK," said Hageman, manager since 1987 of Ohio State University's F.T. Stone Laboratory. "Now we're fishing."

In fact, what Hageman and a boatload of reporters were angling for -- in addition to the trawl net full of fish -- was a glimpse of a lake in transition.


The latest changes -- some good, some bad, some as yet undetermined -- are the result of many factors: invasions of non-native fish and mollusks; urban sprawl that decimates wetlands while increasing lawn chemical runoff; agricultural pesticide runoff; the rain of toxic emissions from power plants and industry; lake sediment still contaminated from long-ago industrial pollution; rising water temperatures and falling lake levels.

Such flux affects a large and diverse group of lake users, and has refocused interest and concern on Lake Erie and the other four 12,000- to 15,000-year-old glacial divots that mark the United States' northeast border with Canada.

Fishermen are catching fewer walleye, but maybe more smallmouth bass. Pleasure boaters must worry about cracking hulls on rocks because of lower water, but swimmers have wider beaches, erosion is reduced and wetlands benefit. Municipal water companies must worry about zebra mussels clogging intake lines, but those same bivalves are responsible in large part for clearing the lake's water.

"Erie is a wonderful lake with tremendous resources that's going through another period of change," Hageman said. "And there's a lot of concern about those changes."

When the trawl net is pulled in, a number of dripping, flipping examples are dumped on the deck at his feet. The catch includes 11 species, including several young walleye -- the sport fisherman's Holy Grail -- and its equally edible cousin, the yellow perch. There are also gizzard shad, the once-endangered-now-recovered silver chub and non-native white perch. The round goby -- a recent, unwelcome Caspian Sea expatriate -- is tossed by Hageman within easy reach of swooping "avian predators," noisy gulls following the boat.

The species information netted that day was added to the database at Stone Lab, the nation's oldest freshwater biological field station. Situated on Gibraltar Island, five miles north of Toledo, the lab is part of the Ohio Sea Grant Program. Among its more than two dozen research projects is a study of how many zebra mussels a round goby will eat, and one detailing changing land use patterns in lake watersheds.

"A lot of people are looking for sameness," Hageman said, "but the lake's ecosystem evolves all the time, affected by everything from zebra mussels to the weather."

Noticeably low lake

The two most visible, recent and widespread changes to Lake Erie are water level and water clarity. And weather and zebra mussels have a lot to do with both.

Lake levels are down as much as 4 feet from high readings recorded in the mid-1990s. Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers recorded Lake Erie's level at 570.3 feet above sea level, the lowest in 33 years. But that's just 4 inches below the 81-year average.

"Water levels now are not low, they are average," said Scudder Mackey, a geologist with the Lake Erie Geology Group and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

"We've had three decades of higher-than-average levels and the public has gotten used to it, particularly the boating communities. Propeller repair shops are already doing a good business, and most marina owners will have to do some dredging to stay in business."

The water fluctuations are cyclical, and, if the lake's history over the last 150 years is any indication, lake levels are probably headed lower, Mackey said.

The reason is drier weather in the Lake Superior and Lake Huron watersheds, which supply most of Lake Erie's water. Rainfall has been below average in the entire basin for 30 months, the Corps of Engineers recently reported.

At the same time, warmer autumns and winters, possibly the result of climate change, have resulted in a reduced ice cover on the lakes and increased evaporation. The Corps report said Lake Michigan lost about an inch of water a week to evaporation in October.

The lower lake level is very noticeable along Pennsylvania's 43-mile coastline. In the crook of Presque Isle State Park's arm, water has receded 20 to 30 feet in Duck Pond, a shallow marsh along the park road. Nearby, in Sara Cove, tugboat wrecks that have long been underwater are now visible.

Several boat launches near the city of Erie are closed and others are worried about how they'll accommodate boat slip customers this summer. Commercial shipping lines are carrying reduced cargoes so the freighters will ride higher in the water.

In the shallower western end of the lake, where the average depth is 24 feet, marina docks are mired in mud.

Mackey said there had been more dredging permits requested along the lake's western shore, and a lot of questions about where to put the chemically contaminated mud. Boating industry observers say it will cost many millions of dollars over the next few years to keep clear the recreational channels along the 262-mile-long Ohio coast.

"We need to be careful," Mackey said. "Some of that material is getting hauled out and dumped in deep water, and that's a concern."

The sediment contains a variety of toxic chemicals deposited in the lake over the past century. Dumping it in deep water would stir much of it into the water column and back into the food chain, possibly damaging or contaminating lake fisheries.

But there's an upside to low water.

The fisheries and wildlife in and around the Great Lakes depend on fluctuating water levels to maintain balance and diversity. Coastal wetlands, which have been drowned by years of higher water, should see a resurgence, Mackey said. And shoreline erosion, a big problem along the highly developed Erie shoreline, should diminish significantly.

Still, the falling water levels have raised concerns about just how low the lakes can go.

"The big issue this year has been water diversion," said Eric Obert, coastal environmental specialist and associate director of Sea Grant Pennsylvania. "One company wanted to bottle water and send it to China. A couple of other industries want to use lake water and discharge it into another watershed."

Those requests were denied. No one wants to set a precedent of allowing lake water to be taken out of the watershed, Obert said.

"A lot of people, including some Western states, are looking at this vast resource and drooling over it."

Foreign invaders

There may be less water than most people can remember in "La Mer Douce," or the "Sweet Sea," as Samuel de Champlain named the Great Lakes in 1615, but what's there is noticeably clearer.

One reason is the Canadian and American restrictions on the discharge of nutrients in municipal sewage, detergents and chemicals that feed the lake's algae and once turned the water as opaque as green paint.

Another reason for the clarification is the zebra mussel, a less than 2-inch-long bivalve native to the Black, Azov and Caspian seas in southern Russia. The species has filtered out much of the algae growth and plankton from the lake's water. It has so flourished in the absence of natural enemies, however, that mussels clog a number of municipal water intake pipes.

"The first couple of years I was here, there were no zebra mussels," said Hageman, who has managed the Stone Lab since 1987. "After they came, everything's different."

Zebra mussels were inadvertently released into the Great Lakes in the mid- to late 1980s by a ship discharging ballast water taken on in Eastern Europe. They reproduce rapidly and have carpeted the rocky bottom of many sections of the Great Lakes, and have colonized much of the "soft" bottom area. As a result, many of the native clams and mussels have been eliminated.

"I estimate that 40 percent of the soft lake bottom is now covered with zebra mussels," said Fred Snyder, Ohio Sea Grant Extension agent. "People who like clearer water like it, but it's changed ecosystems, changed which species are more or less abundant."

An Eastern European cousin of the zebra mussel, the quagga mussel, was inadvertently introduced into Lake Erie in 1993, again courtesy of ship ballast releases. The quagga, similar in size and striping to the zebra mussel but with a bottom shell that's beveled rather than flat, can live at lower depths and is more durable and prolific. Its effect on lake ecosystems is so far unknown, but is expected to be substantial.

Another ballast traveler from Eastern Europe is the round goby, a perch-sized fish that started showing up in eastern Lake Erie two years ago.

The good news is that it eats zebra and quagga mussels; the bad news is that it raids smallmouth bass nests and is an aggressive predator and competitor with other native fish species.

"It's already impacted a lot of perch fishermen. If they're fishing on the bottom, all they're catching is gobies," Obert said.

A bigger worry is the potential for gobies to transfer toxic chemicals, including PCBs, through the food chain, from zebra and quagga mussels, which are filter feeders, to fish.

"The gobies eat the mussels, then are eaten by smallmouth bass and walleye," Obert said. "There have already been some consumption advisories, and it's possible game fish will be affected. That will have an economic impact on the sport fishery."

Pollution then rebound

It is not the first time that the lakes, which hold one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water, have been stirred by man's hand.

Since the 17th century, human actions -- intentional and unintentional -- have caused a series of ecological waves. Many of them have been more destructive than the infamous 15-foot storm swells that roiled Lake Superior in 1975 and sank the iron ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and her 29-man crew.

French fur traders came first, in the 1650s, stripping the Great Lakes watersheds of pelts for 150 years until most fur-bearing animals were gone.

Beginning in the early 1800s, timber companies took 100 years to cut the once lush hardwood and pine forests to stumps, causing massive erosion that clogged and warmed streams and silted lake beds. With spawning grounds devastated, fish species suffered tremendous declines. Some, such as the Atlantic salmon native to Lake Ontario, vanished.

Mining began digging in around the lakes by the mid-17th century, too. The massive iron and copper industries that developed in the Lake Superior watershed discharged more than 400 million tons of waste into the lake by 1970.

By the middle of the 20th century, all of the lakes were suffering from the effects of population and industrial growth in cities along their shores, plus increased runoff from agricultural pesticides.

Lake Erie was all but toe-tagged at the end of the 1960s because of a nearly lethal level of industrial pollutants, municipal sewage, oil, garbage and agricultural nutrients.

When the Cuyahoga River, which flows into the lake at Cleveland, caught fire in the summer of 1969, it caused local embarrassment and public outrage. The event also triggered a series of corrective actions.

The United States and Canada passed laws to limit pollutants flowing into the lake and signed the International Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The treaty defined cleanup and conservation goals, laid groundwork for cooperative research and pumped up the International Joint Commission to implement new initiatives. Additional lake improvements were pushed by various federal, regional and state agencies.

By the 1970s the lakes began to rebound.

Water quality improved. Swimming prohibitions due to municipal sewage pollution were reduced. Deformed cormorants, visible manifestations of the toxic pollutants that once fouled the lakes, all but disappeared.

Mayflies -- indicators of good water quality -- started hatching in Lake Erie and now descend on lakeshore towns in numbers not seen since the 1950s. Sport fisheries are hooked into thriving walleye, lake trout and steelhead populations, and some fish consumption restrictions have been lifted.

Rough times

But there remain more than enough problems to go around.

The International Joint Commission recently identified 42 "areas of concern" around the Great Lakes, including Presque Isle in Pennsylvania and the Cuyahoga, Black, Maumee and Ashtabula rivers, all in Ohio.

Acknowledging those concerns, the Clinton administration announced last week that it would propose a $50 million grant program, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to help lakefront communities clean up contaminated sediments, control stormwater runoff, restore wetlands, acquire greenways and reduce polluted runoff. State and local governments would be required to provide a least 40 percent in matching grants, resulting in a total investment of more than $80 million.

Another area of continuing concern is the unintentional introduction of aquatic nuisance species. More than 140 nonindigenous species have entered the Great Lakes, with two-thirds coming since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened the lakes to seagoing ships in 1959.

Sea lampreys made the first big splash, then zebra mussels, quaggas and gobies. The ruffe, another European immigrant and member of the perch family, has been caught throughout Lake Superior and could soon begin competing for food with native species in Lake Erie.

"Zebra mussels and sea lampreys cost us millions of dollars each year and have caused huge changes in the ecosystem of Lake Erie," said Jeffrey Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant Program director. "And the system is far from stable."

Mercury rising

Less visible than the lamprey, zebra or its quagga cousin -- and in many ways even tougher to get a net around -- are problems that arise beyond the lake's shorelines.

Urban sprawl, airborne toxic chemicals, pesticide runoff and rising water temperatures caused by climate change are having major effects.

The sprawl problem is especially acute around Lake Erie. While the other Great Lakes watersheds are still dominated by forest ecosystems, Erie's is primarily agricultural and urban.

"When you talk lake problems today, you're talking about sedimentation, nutrients and contaminants resulting from sprawl, farming and industry," Reutter said. "When you're talking about managing Lake Erie ecosystems, you're talking about managing people's activities, and we're just not doing a good job of that."

Sprawl causes loss of wildlife habitat and wetlands and adds lawn chemicals to storm runoff reaching the lakes. It has surpassed industrial pollution as the biggest threat to the lakes, according to Michael J. Donahue, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission.

"Unless sprawl is brought under control," Donahue said, "the tremendous successes we've seen over the last 30 years may be in jeopardy."

Adding spice to the nutrients, pesticides and pollution washed into the lakes are toxic chemicals sprinkled on the lakes from the air. Industrial sources as far away as Mexico and Russia, and coal-burning utilities as close as Ohio, are the culprits.

According to a report by the National Wildlife Federation, utility emissions contain high amounts of mercury, an extremely potent toxin especially harmful to pregnant women and children. Those emissions are falling with rain on the lake. The EPA's human health standard for mercury in lakes and rivers is 1.8 parts per billion, but monitors in Detroit registered 65 times that amount.

Prevailing winds carry polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and the pesticide DDT -- both banned in the United States and Canada -- from foreign countries into the Great Lakes.

Reutter said reduction of PCB contamination -- from as high as 5 parts per million in walleye in 1972, to 0.2 parts per million now -- is one of the lake's biggest success stories, but that there was more work to be done.

"I can't be more pleased with the efforts of this generation, if you look at where we were with the Cuyahoga River burning in 1969," he said. "We've come a long way but it's not good enough.

"We deserve a pat on the back. But we also need a kick in the butt to keep us going."

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