Alan Edmonds November 1 1965


Alan Edmonds November 1 1965


Lake Erie might have outlived the human race. Instead, it’s becoming a 10-thousand-square-mile dead sea. By smothering it with pollution, man is making it an odorous, slime-covered graveyard. And we may have already passed the point of no return

Alan Edmonds

IT ALL TOOK PLACE so slowly it's hard now to reconstruct just when and how it happened. But the first sign of trouble to which anyone paid much attention was the disappearance of the mayfly first, and temporarily, in 1953 and then, for good, in 1956. For a while this was The Great Mayfly Mystery, and when that was solved everyone knew that Fake Erie was in its death throes. Soon now' it may be dead.

It’s hard to talk of the death of a Great l ake when it's patently still there, 9,930 square miles of gleaming inland sea with about a thousand miles of shoreline roughly divided between Ontario in Canada and five states in the U. S. You can still sail a boat on it; bask in the sun by it; buy a cottage alongside it: still drink it (though the cost of purifying its water is increasing), or even swim in it if you choose your spot carefully. You

can, of course, swim in it anywhere, but in a disturbingly large number of otherwise desirable beaches you can only do so if you don't mind the smell or the algal slime or the floating sewage, oil, debris or dead dogs, cats, rats and fish.

But as a lake, a geological entity whose life is measured in the quality of its fish and its natural beauty and splendor, Lake Erie is dying. Indeed. at times and in parts it's already dead in the biologists’ definition of death because for a large part of the year, particularly in high summer, pollution steals the oxygen from twentysix hundred square miles of lakebed, so that only the most primeval forms of life can survive there. This kind of death would have happened anyway in some immeasurably distant tomorrow since Erie was dying to begin with, just as we all start dying at birth. But the lake would have lived

for eons of time — perhaps even survived the human race — if man had not polluted it and speeded up the aging process to the point that Erie today is like a child with Progeria, that rare disease which accelerates the life cycle so the victim may die of old age at ten.

It is a paradox of nature that the lake is dying because its waters are becoming over-rich in mineral nutrients — notably nitrates and phosphates, from wdiich detergents are made — contained in industrial and municipal wastes and in fertilizers washing from farmland to lake. Most pollution comes from the U. S. Erie drainage basin, where some ten million people live; the population of the Canadian basin is more than one million. It is equally a paradox that Erie's illness can largely be blamed on man's otherwise laudable humility in the presence of natural magnitude: faced

with a sea two hundred and fifty miles long and in places fifty-seven miles wide, he has said, in effect, “It’s so big and I'm so small I can't possibly harm it, whatever 1 do!”

But in the past decade even laymen have growm aware that not only Lake PIrie, but all North America’s water resources are being wasted. As scientists worried about Erie dying this summer, New York City suffered an acute water shortage; the rich farmlands of the Ottawa valley suffered a crippling drought; and economists and politicians in the American west pressured Washington for more urgent consideration of plans to divert Canada's Arctic rivers south.

The water shortage is already such that one conservation authority got up at an agriculturalists’ conference in Toronto early this year and suggested that the United States might one day invade Canada to get posses-

sion of our water. And among the assembled experts there was hardly a ripple of surprise. Even laymen can see enough of what is happening to Lake Erie to appreciate what a loss the lake's death can be. The Cuyahoga River, which wriggles through Akron and Cleveland to the lake, became so clogged with logs, rotted pilings. flammable chemicals, oil slicks and garbage it was labeled a fire hazard. White-painted houses near Ottawa, Ohio, on a tributary of the Maumee River, turned black because fumes from hydrogen sulphide poured into the river by a nearby sugar refinery caused a chemical change in the lead-based paint.

Even along the Ontario shore of Erie, where pollution is not as obvious as it is in the U. S.. the economies of small communities largely dependent on an influx of sport fishermen have suffered repeatedly for several summers now. In Rondeau Bay, for instance, which is about a third of the way along the lake from the western end. weeds grew to the surface and, in the words of a local marina owner, made the bay look “like a field of w'heat.” Fertilizer washing off farmland had nourished the weeds to unprecedented growth, and as lake levels also dropped the weeds grew above the surface. (With seven thousand dollars contributed by local residents, floating w'eed cutters were built, and the fishing channels they cut have helped revive sport fishing.)

Meanwhile, beaches along the southern shores closed as they became polluted, clogged with dead fish or animals, covered with slimy algae or so alive with bacteria they were a health hazard. At Cleveland, miles of golden sands on either side of the city are so dirty that municipal signs actually discourage swimmers, and elsewhere beaches are closed, as they are at Euclid to the east of Cleveland.

Late last July, Forrest (Woody) Dadlow, fifty-eight-year-old owner of a boat-rental yard, sat mournfully surveying the empty sands and said. “I bought this place and the twenty-four boats in 1958. figuring 1 could get a good living out of it, like the old guy who had it for years. But look now — high summer, bang in the middle of the school holidays and I’m lucky if I rent two boats a day at two bucks a time. Eight, nine years back the sport fishermen would have rented all these boats by Friday night. Then they’d be out all weekend and come back with a whole mess of hig, beautiful blue pickerel. Now there’s only sheepshead and carp. So what have you got? No fish, no fishermen — no beach, no people.”

1 hough not everybody agrees that pollution is to blame, commercial fishing has been hit hard, too. Twelve years ago a Wheatley. Ont., grocer. Maurice Elsley, bought a fishing boat and retained a half interest in it because. he told his wife Jessie, it would provide them with a comfortable income in their retirement. Today Jessie Elsley is a widow and must w'ork as a waitress to support herself because her share of the profits is less than a thousand / continued on page 42

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Otherwise called Hexagenia (Ephemeroptera): when it first vanished in 1953, then in 1956 disappeared for good, it helped prove Erie was not only dying — in places it was dead.


Coincidentally, the blue and yellow pickerel vanished soon after the mayfly, crippling the fishing industry on the lake. It's likely Erie's polluted water is now fit only for “coarse" fish.


A primitive life form, algae look like green slime. Nourished by pollution, they have Lake Erie in a death lock, some say; they have set up a cancerous life cycle that can’t be broken.


They help make the Erie drainage area a iand of plenty. But when they drain into the lake they fertilize weeds that clog several bays, one of which looks “like a field of wheat.’’


Consumption of soap, which did less damage to lake, is declining; use of detergents, with high phosphate content, is rising. A ton of phosphates can breed 700,000 tons of algae.


Chlorides are salt. Much of Erie's content washes in from roads where it’s used to clear snow. While “enriching,” it is a mounting threat to lake as source of drinking water.







When the mayfly vanished, hope died


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dollars a year. What has happened is that the yellow pickerel, or walleye, commonly found in the western half of the lake, and the blue pickerel, which inhabited the cast, have vanished. Since both fish were the mainstay of what was once the biggest freshwater fishing industry in the world, the blow to local economies has been a hard one. In 1956 (the last consistently good year for blue and yellow pickerel) the industry supported three thousand Canadian fishermen with above-average incomes (and perhaps twice that number in the U. S. ), but this year there are less than half that number working aboard the turtle-decked Erie tugs that sail from the scattering of fishing villages along the ruggedly inhospitable Ontario Erie shore. In 1956 the Canadian fishermen netted fortyfour and a half million pounds of fish, largely blue and yellow pickerel, worth five and a half million dollars. By 1962 the catch was still almost as much — forty-three million pounds — but it was mostly smelt and perch, worth only two and a quarter million dollars.

A good hint of what happens in and around a dying lake to the creatures that depend on it for their existence can be seen in the disappearance of the mayfly, an ugly but innocuous creature whose larva, or nymph, is food for some fish. No one to this day is certain of what chemical interactions and reactions took place beneath the lake surface in the summers of 1953 and 1956. But biologists are reasonably certain that the eflects of

pollution, which apparently reached a high point in the eleven days between August 22 and September 3, 1953, consumed so much of the oxygen in the lower colder levels of the lake that the mayfly nymph could no longer survive. Worse, eggs were apparently rendered sterile.

The few that did survive fought back, and by 1955 the mayfly again plagued lakeside communities. Having mated and laid eggs on the water's surface, from where they sink to the lakebed to reappear as adults two years later, the mayfly headed for shore to end its one-day life fluttering around street lights and house windows until it died, lying in piles sometimes three feet high on sidewalks and house porches. Ohio newspapers again dutifully reported, as they had with painful unoriginality for as long as they’d been in business, that there’d heen another “Invasion by Canadian Soldiers” — a local joke explained only by the fact the mayfly always flew in from the north.

But by 1956 the mayfly had vanished again from the western and shallowest end of the lake, and they’ve never been seen there since, though they're still found in depleted numbers around the lakeshore, mostly in Canada near Niagara. Biologically, the mayfly was perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of what the lake’s death was doing, but there have been many others since.

By I960, the U. S. government had become so alarmed at the condition of the Great Lakes that the Department of Health. Education And Welfare was ordered to conduct a sevenyear. thirteen-million-dollar study ot

pollution in the lakes. More than one hundred experts spent two years on Erie, and their report, published in Jul), leaves many questions still unanswered. It did, however, answer the question "Is Lake Erie dying?” w'ith a qualified “yes.”

C. W. Northington, who headed the Erie study group, says, "The aging process of a lake, called eutrophication. which is in fact the chemical and mineral enrichment of the water, has been immeasurably speeded up by pollution. There is more life in the lake today as a result of this enrichment, but the organisms present do not indicate a healthy body of water. It is still of use for industrial and municipal needs, but to fishermen, commercial and sporting, and to swimmers, boaters, lakefront-property owners and nature lovers the answer is \es, Lake Erie is dying.”

It is dying so fast, in fact, some scientists say Erie soon could become North America’s Dead Sea. Because ol w'hat Dr. Robert Ferguson, the Canadian biologist who studies Lake Erie for the Ontario government, calls "the great gaps in our knowledge we have spent neither time nor money to fill,” there are highly technical disputes among sanitary experts and biologists as to what precisely did kill olf the mayfly and the pickerel and other more “desirable” marine life in Erie. But pollution is the common factor to link, in chronological sequence at least, the disappearance of the mayfly and of the blue and yellow pickerel; the proliferation of other coarser fish; the accelerated despoiling of beaches; the creeping death of the fish industry: the sudden proliferation of sludgeworms, aquatic sowbugs, bloodworms, leeches and other primitive life forms not dissimilar to the nightmarish creatures that first represented the life force on earth.

The most obvious consequence of overenrichment by pollution is the algae which in Erie have become a cancerous growth flourishing at

roughly four times the rate they did a generation ago. They are fertilized by pollution. Alga is a primitive vegetable life most commonly seen as the green slime on a stagnant pond. In Erie it is blown by the wind to cover beaches and fishermen have reported occasions on which the whole western end of the lake was covered with it, fouling their nets, the hulls of all vessels and municipal-water intakes. As it dies, alga drops to the lakebed, where, with other decaying

matter including human and industrial sewage, it decomposes, consuming oxygen as it does so.

If the waters of the lake were constantly mixing so the water on the lakebed was regularly changed, this wouldn't matter. But, except during the spring and fall “turnover” when the waters do mix. the lake is stratified. This means the lower colder layers of water do not mix with the upper warmer layers in summer, and vice versa in the winter. Thus the

decaying alga and other decomposing matter on the lakebed consume irreplaceable oxygen.

The U. S. scientists who spent two years studying Erie say that eightyseven tons of soluble phosphates are poured into Erie each day — and one ton alone is said to be enough to breed seven hundred thousand tons of algae.

Phosphates apart, from the five U. S. states in the Erie drainage area 11,275 tons of chlorine, 5,855 tons of

solid waste and 41 I tons of soluble nitrogen are poured into Erie each day.

Because most of the pollution comes from the U. S.. and because it was the Americans who conducted the only fairly exhaustive study of the lake, there has been no echoing outcry about Erie’s ills in Canada. But Dr. G. B. Langford, who heads the University of Toronto's Great Lakes Institute, says that some rivers on the Canadian side, including the Thames and Grand rivers, “are just as deserving as the American waterways of the description open cesspools.” Pollution is heaviest near the big cities or near the U. S. shore: Detroit, Akron, Toledo and Cleveland in the west and Buffalo at the eastern extremity. And because pollutants tend to settle it is in the western half of the lake that the twenty-six hundred square miles of oxygenless lakebed are situated.

Dr. Langford, condemning Canada's failure even to attempt to match the work of the U. S. in great lakes research, says it is urgent scientists find out all the effects of pollution, and establish both the amounts that Erie has retained and the amounts poured over into Lake Ontario. Erie’s waters flow into Ontario over Niagara Falls at the rate of about one complete change every two and a half years, speeding up that lake’s aging process. The accumulation in Erie is. however, probably enormous: the

survey ship Port Dauphine operated by Dr. Langford’s Great Lakes Institute has taken soundings which show parts of the Erie lakebed as a thick layer of butter-soft sediment so deep in places the ship’s echo-sounder failed to detect bedrock.

"We've cut our throats”

Despite the strong circumstantial evidence, the fishermen I met on a recent tour of the Canadian shore of Erie mostly blamed overfishing, not pollution, for their misfortunes. Typically, Jake Goodhew, sixty-one-yearold one-legged fishing skipper at Erieau, about a third of the way up the lake from Windsor, says, “We’ve cut our own throats. Some fishermen are so damned hungry they’d ca-tch anything, a blue shiner (minnow) even, if they thought it’d sell.”

Wheatley (pop.: 1,400) has been

spared most of the effects of the decline in fishing largely because Leonard Omstead and his six brothers have set up there what is reputedly the biggest freshwater fish-treatment and packaging plant in the world. The Omsteads were largely responsible for creating a market, mostly in the U. S., for perch and smelt when the pickerel disappeared. If they had been unsuccessful it seems likely Canada’s Lake Erie fishing industry would now be long dead.

“The fish in the lake have always been changing,” says Leonard Omstead. "The fishermen have been wringing their hands and saying Erie is finished for as long as I can remember. So the pickerel’s gone — so what else is new? If you adapt, you can market some other fish just as well.”

However, most fishermen and biologist Dr. Robert Ferguson, who has been studying the lake and the fish

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business for ten years the Ontario government’s Lands And Forests Department are more doubtful about the causes. “There’s no doubt the industry has been hard hit,” says Ferguson. “Cleaning up the pollution would undoubtedly help the fish, but I have yet to see it conclusively proved to be responsible for the disappearance of the pickerel. Overfishing is at least as important a factor. Truth is, we've not spent enough money and time studying the lake and the fish to have any hard answers. We can mostly only theorize.”

In doing so. Dr. Ferguson suggests smelt may have killed off pickerel. Smelt were introduced to the lakes in the 1920s, when Crystal Lake, which feeds into Lake Michigan, was seeded with salmon. The smelt were supposed to feed the salmon. But the salmon died and the smelt flourished, and in the mid-fifties they began to proliferate in Erie. Dr. Ferguson suggests they may have lived on a diet of blue pickerel eggs, or freshly spawned fingerlings.

Fishing skipper Ray Getty believes the reverse is true; that young pickerel fed so well on the smelt that they grew fat and were caught before reaching spawning age in nets set for adult fish. It may be so. Donald Murray, thirty - four - year - old skipper of the Stuart B sailing out of Port Dover, was the last man to land a commercial catch of blue pickerel. That was in 1958, and he says, “They were enormous, bigger than anyone could remember seeing, all about twenty inches long and weighing up to four pounds.”

Whatever may have happened to the fish, pollution certainly hasn't helped. And it’s growing steadily worse. Blenheim (pop.: 3.000) on the Ontario lakeshore drains two thirds of its untreated sewage into the bay. Now they’re talking of building a sewage-treatment plant — but only because three of the town's four artesian wells have run dry and they expect provincial government aid to build a water filtration plant if they help install a sewage plant as well. However, their water will have to come from Lake Erie proper, not the nearer bay: water in the bay, which has been the repository of Blenheim’s sewage for the best part of a century, is no longer clean enough. This sort of problem is multiplied a thousandfold on the U. S. lakeshore. In August, armed with the study group’s report on Erie, the federal government set about forcing the five states in the Erie drainage area to clean up their wastes before dumping them into the lake.

However, adequate sewage treatment may do no more than halt the aging of Erie. Some biologists believe that Erie has reached the point of no return; that as algae and other pollution-spawned organisms die and decay, they nourish fresh growths; that now this self-sustaining life cycle has been set in motion it can’t be stopped.

If they are right, then Erie is as good as dead in much the same way as the Great Salt Lake in Utah is dead: the way the Dead Sea is dead. It will always be there for all to see and for ships to sail on. But it will be dead except for the algae and the sludgeworms and the aquatic sowbugs and all. ★