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Lake Erie at crossroads; needs help

Register • Aug 11, 2014 at 4:58 PM

Imagine you are walking along and come across someone who’s been beaten bloody.


The man begs you: “Help me. I’m dying” What do you do? Do you just walk on by, pretending not to notice, leaving the dying man for someone else to deal with?

Or do you offer help, hoping it’s not too late?

I’d like to think most of us would help. But I may be wrong.

There is another, who right now is critically wounded and in dire need of help. This is not the first time. She was ill for years and nearly died in the early ‘70s, but at the last minute received the care she needed and recovered. But now she is ailing again, and though most of us know it, little is being done.

Lake Erie is in mortal danger once again.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, my parents often took the Shoreway in Cleveland to and from my uncle’s home, where we frequently visited. We’d pass close by the lake and I’d look out at the water in amazement. The water inside Cleveland’s harbors was a strange, murky, copper-colored liquid with oily swirls on the surface. Dozens of carp and catfish, notorious for being able to survive in the worst of conditions, floated dead along the shore.

As we approached Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a metal wall erected to protect against erosion caught my attention every time. Painted in huge letters on the rustinfested wall were the words, “Help me. I’m dying. Lake Erie” The paint had run and it looked as though the bottom of each letter was weeping, tears dripping from them. The first time I saw it, I cried.

When I gazed out at the lake, it didn’t look like Lake Erie was dying. It looked like it was dead.

In 1969, Time magazine called Lake Erie “a gigantic cesspool, an apt description. Bacteria-laden beaches, fish unfit to eat due to contamination from industrial waste, raw sewage that dumped into the lake and portions of the lake that were literally devoid of life — that was the story of Lake Erie at that time.

Agricultural runoff dumped so much phosphorus and resulting nitrogen in the water that algal blooms spread like wildfire, creating massive dead zones. And the lake’s tributaries were no better. In 1969, the pollution was so bad that the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire. And I remember my folks driving along Canal Road in Valley View and staring in disbelief at several feet of suds atop the water of the canal. It looked like a giant bubble bath, but I don’t think anyone would have been safe bathing in those suds.

Pollution was everywhere, and its toll was obvious. Worst of all, no one seemed to care.

Amazingly, perhaps spurred on by the national ridicule that ensued after the infamous river blaze, our leaders finally woke from their collective slumber and approved a series of initiatives in the mid-’70s to rescue Lake Erie. There was a crackdown on polluters and farms were regulated so too much phosphorus didn’t enter the lake. And the efforts paid off.

By the mid-1990s, the lake’s water looked like water again — in some parts of the lake, it was clean enough to drink. The lake once again became home to fish and other aquatic life barely seen in decades. Sport fishing exploded, the lake’s beaches became safe and coasts became tourist destinations instead of industrial wasteyards. It was great while it lasted. Even as everyone was congratulating each other on the success of the restoration, the very regulations that had led to that success were being chipped away at, and have been ever since. And now the Great Lake is in trouble again. Don’t take my word for it. Ask the charter captains, those who remain in business, what they think of the lake’s current health.

Take the word of boaters and anglers who have spent a lifetime on the lake. Ask biologists and ecologists their opinion. Don’t trust the opinions of scientists or sportsmen? Then take the word of the citizens of Toledo, who discovered last weekend just how precious — and how fragile — is the water that we so often take for granted. A drive along the Shoreway in Cleveland reveals the old breakwall that filled me with such sadness as a child is long gone, but its message is still pertinent today. “Help me. I’m dying. Lake Erie”

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