Lake Erie A History of Misuse

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					       Lake Erie: A History of Misuse

Zack Glick                     HST 384 Final
Professor Wilson               Due 12/12/06

              Lake Erie has had many problems caused by human since its

discovery and the founding of the first settlements on its shores. When

Cleveland was settled the citizens began to remove the old growth timber and

drain the wetlands surrounding their new town. This caused a runoff of soil into

the lake, but the real problems for Lake Erie would not really begin to happen

until 1820 when the Erie Canal is opened and Lake Erie would become a link in a

major trade route. This would be a trade route that would link the east coast and

the mid west, and it would encourage the creation of industrial settlements along

the lake. The Erie Canal would allow farmers in the Midwest to be able to get

their bulky products to market and allow finished goods to travel west further then

before. With this increased settlement the lake would begin to take an increased

burden as the waste of urban living and human industry would begin to flow into

the lake. This would put the lake in a dangerous; Lake Erie is the smallest by

volume and second smallest in area of the great lakes, it is not invulnerable to

contamination. The abuse by humans in the Lake Erie Basin their mindset that

they could do anything to Lake Erie and with a government that was not

interested in putting any regulations on industry at this time. This Lesse Faire

type thinking would put it in a dangerous position where we pick up the story of

Lake Erie in the late 1960’s.

             Until the 1960’s the prevailing view was that, because of the self

             purifying nature of water and the vastness of their waters, the Great

             Lakes could not be seriously effected by human activities. As

             scientific evidence emerged that would undermine that view, a

             public aroused by its own observations would protest the

             deterioration of Lake Erie (McGucken, 36)

      The preceding quote is a good way to focus a study of Lake Erie since it

contains the three parts that make the story of Lake Erie in the 1965-1975 period.

The story begins with the rampant pollution of the lakes by municipalities and

heavy industry who did not care about the consequences of their actions. Then

as scientific studies begin to emerge identifying the threat and people can

actually see and experience degradation in the lake, a budding grassroots

movement appears. These groups will place pressure on local state and federal

to intervene in the crisis that was developing in the area. These grassroots

movements were not exclusive to the fight to save the great lakes but were a part

of the greater nation wide concern over the environment and humanities effect on


      Lake Erie was on a road to decline before the period I will be talking about

thru this paper, in the beginning of the 20th century Lake Erie had become the

dumping ground for industry and cities that existed within its drainage basin. By

the middle of the 20th century the lake was choking on the residue of industrial

prosperity. In the 1960’s a quarter of a million tons of solid waste and 170,000

tons of oil and grease were spewing into the lake each year from the Cuyahoga

River alone1. In this time many municipalities were not treating their sewage

wastes before they were ejected into the lake and this material was going directly

into the lake.

       In the time prior to the mid 1960’s there was not a lot of public outcry over

the condition of the lake, but there were scientist who were worried about the

possible problems that Lake Erie was going to encounter. One of these warning

signs was a study of a species of mayfly, the Hexagenia limbata. The mayfly is a

short-lived species that used to be able to thrive in the Lake Erie conditions. The

larval Mayfly is only able to survive in the oxygen rich pollution free waters of a

pristine Lake Erie. Scientists during an earlier survey of the species were able to

find five hundred Hexagenia limbata larva per square meter; but in a latter study

preformed in 1961 no station had any more then five and most had no larva

detected at them. The only species that the scientist were able to find were a

species of pollution tolerant worm whose population had exploded from 500 per

square meter in 1930 to 1,000 to 5,000 in the 1961 study2. This is a warning sign

of the increased pollution levels that would begin to be found in Lake Erie.

       This Decrease in mayfly population is an indicator of a problem it is not the

only one that would be seen in the lake. Other species such as Bass and

Walleye numbers were also decreasing. These were fish that were popular with

both sport and commercial fishermen. The reason that they were being lost was

due to a collapse in the food chain of Lake Erie. Diatoms, a species of

 Jon R Luoma, "Biography of a Lake " Audubon (1996).
 William McGucken, Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Control Cultural Eutrophication
(Akron: The University of Akron Press, 2000).

phytoplankton that make up the base of the Lake Erie food chain were

decreasing in numbers and being forced out by another species. Diatoms were

adapted to the conditions of a pristine Lake Erie, water that was relatively cold

with little phosphorus, low nutrients and relative darkness. Increased

phosphorus in the lake was encouraging the explosive growth of green and blue-

green algae. These organisms absorbed other nutrients in the water including

the silicon that these diatoms needed to create their walls. Another problem that

would come from these algae would be the summer bloom. In the summer with

the increased solar radiation available the algae will be able to grow in large

numbers but when it dies at the end of the growing season and sinks to the

bottom of the lake, where it is broken down by bacteria and the bottom of the

lake becomes anoxic. This lack of oxygen at the bottom of the lake would

become critical to the fish species in the area. In a two day study in August of

1959 US and Canadian agencies determined that in a majority of places in Lake

Erie had a concentration of dissolved oxygen of 3 parts per million, which is the

level that fish need to survive and 1/6th of Lake Erie had a dissolved oxygen

concentration of 1 parts per million3. If this algae was causing such problems for

the lake’s species what was causing it to grow at such a quick rate. In 1963 the

Ontario Water Resources Commission study determined that phosphates were

the key fertilizer that was contributing to the growth of algae in Lake Erie 4. One

of the reasons that the amount of phosphates had begun to increase in the lake

was the integration of phosphates into laundry detergent. As the cities in the

    McGucken, 44
    McGucken, 33

Lake Erie basin became more suburbanized the amount of runoff from these


          Along New York’s portion of the Lake Erie basin 78% of homeowners

depended on inadequate sewage processes. The Municipal Plats were not as

helpful as they could have been since they were easily overwhelmed in a storm

and untreated water could flow right over them and ooze directly into the lake5.

This pollution problem was acknowledged by scientist to be a problem but there

was not the outrage of the society. These studies are the scientific evidence that

would begin to undermine the view that Lake Erie was too vast to be affected by

human activity. However it would take the outrage of the community to really get

the pressure building on the government to save Lake Erie.

          The late sixties and early seventies were a time when society in America

thought about environmental issues differently. There was more of a willingness

in the society to get involved in social causes. People were all concerned about

issues that could effect all of humanity. The concern over nuclear fallout from

atomic bomb testing, that something that is tested away from you can be carried

right into your yard. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring invoked concern over DDT,

that it could be sprayed out in nature; but thru biomagnification it can be brought

into your home thru the food that you buy. Also with the increased affluence of

the American people, there was more thinking that efforts should be made to

keep the environment clean to enjoy for recreation purposes.      This is one of the

first times that the government would be pressured to intervene on behalf of the

    "Time for a Transfusion,"

environment. Owners of vacations properties were unable to use their lake front

properties due to the build up of decaying seaweed that would build up on their

beaches. Some residents found the stench to be unbearable. However

preserving nature for the sole use of vacation and recreation was not the only

reason that people had begun to believe that nature would need a little help.

There was a general belief that the planet needed protection. In an article in

Time Magazine article you can see a societies thought process in the beginning

of the article.

                  What ever happened to America the Beautiful? While quite a bit of

                  it is still visible, the recurring question reflects rising and spreading

                  frustration over the nation's increasingly dirty air, filthy streets and

                  malodorous rivers… it reflects something even worse: a dangerous

                  illusion that technological man can build bigger and bigger industrial

                  societies with little regard for the iron laws of nature. (("The Age of


This article is written in a major weekly news publication, most Americans can

read Time Magazine and thru it we can see the thought process that the

American people had for the environment. In fact Time Magazine two years

latter in 1970 would make the environment the issue of the year6. These mass

movements to care about the environment would motivate groups throughout the

Great Lakes Region including in the Lake Erie Basin. These groups were mainly

grassroots in origin, their founders began as members of the community and

    "Issue of the Year: The Environment"

recognized that saving Lake Erie was an issue worth fighting for and they did just

that. David Blauschild an auto dealer and councilman in the Cleveland area

would seek a resolution protesting the pollution in Lake Erie. Another trio of

councilmen in the area, Hennry Sinkiewicz, John Pilch and Edward Katalinas

who were all active in the “Save Lake Erie Now” campaign would travel to

Washington DC in 1964 to see what federal funding there was to help out Lake

Erie. In February of 1965 they would send a petition with 180,000 signatures to

Cleveland Governor Rhodes to prevent further pollution of Lake Erie by enforcing

regulations7. The preservation of Lake Erie was not merely a local Ohio issue

however. 70 individual Leagues of Woman Voters from every state in the Lake

Erie basin, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, would issue a

report expressing an urgent need both to understand the causes of Lake Erie’s

“accelerated evolution and to explore ways of controlling or slowing it”7. Even the

New York Times would transmit the plight of Lake Erie to the national public. In

1963 it would report on the disappearance of the walleye species of fish who had

been the joy of both sport and commercial fishermen in the area. It told the

nation that, “Fishermen’s nets now came up heavy, not with walleye as

previously, but with the slime produced by the surge of plant growth in the over

rich lake.”(McGucken, 52). This local effort in a combination with national press

coverage would make the Great Lake a central front in the battle on water

pollution. Even the US Secretary of the Interior Stewart L Udall would make a

trip to Cleveland to experience the degradation of the lake. He would remark on

    McGucken, 50

his visit in 1966 “The Great Lakes Represent the finest fresh water resource that

this nation has. The lakes are in real trouble and the one that is in the most

trouble in Lake Erie. It seems to me that is we can lick the water pollution

problem in the next few years on Lake Erie, we can lick the problem nation wide.”

        There was a lot of support from local people that they wanted Lake Erie

cleaned up and with that support that federal government would begin the

process of cleaning up the lake. In May 1965 the US Secretary of Health

Education and Welfare James M Quigley would admit before congress that the

algae problem in Lake Erie was a problem and its rapid growth was due to the

phosphate loading of the lake. The phosphates in detergents were a growing

source of phosphates in sewage but not the only one as phosphates also came

from fertilizer runoff from farmlands. In the early attempts to clean up the lake

there would be a focus on phosphates since they were the fertilizer for the algae

hurting the lake. The US and the Canadian governments would both begin to

enforce regulation that would limit the anoint of phosphates that they allowed

people in their respective countries to enter the water. There would be two

agreements about pollution control in Lake Erie between the two countries; one

of the agreements would be completed in 1972 and the second one in 1978.

Though these would be the first formal agreement the two countries had agreed

to follow the International joint commissions recommendation to reduce the

amounts of phosphates that were expelled into the lake8. These agreements

would help the lake begins its road to recovery.

    McGucken, 182

        The agreements in 1972 and 1978 to control eutrophication and

phosphorus were helpful in putting Lake Erie on the road to recovery they began

to encounter some resistance to reform that had not be encounter in the past.

              1975 was a year in which the great lakes region weathered a

              severe economic turndown. For the first time since the birth of the

              new movement, some law makers and industries counter attacked,

              claiming the regulations imposed by national state and provincial

              pollution control laws were restraining needed growth.9

This would be something that the environmental movement as a whole would

have to deal with as it moved forward in time. Some historians have postulated

that environmentalism is a full wallet issue, something that Americans will only be

worried about if everything else is going all right in the world. It was around this

time that the United States was beginning to face intense competition form other

countries in areas that America had once be the dominant player in. The Auto

Steal and their supporting industries were all affected by this economic

slowdown. Unfortunately for the people working hard to preserve Lake Erie this

rust belt that was forming in America’s industrial heartland was right in the area

that they were trying to protect. All of the states in the Great Lakes Basin would

face some type of economic slowdown in this time. The auto industry in Detroit

Michigan, the auto glass industry in Cleveland Ohio, the Bethlehem steal plant in

Buffalo New York would shut down. All of these industries put thousands of

people out of work. With unemployment and the other economic troubles of the

    Dempsey, 171

1970’s it would be difficult for politicians to keep people focused on

environmental protection that was costing these industries money in

environmental protection costs, possibly forcing them to lay off more people.

This struggle between environmental protection and economic struggles is still a

problem in America but Lake Erie has been able to make a recovery but it is still

not in the pristine condition that it once was.

                                     Work Cited

Dempsey, Dave. On the Brink the Great Lakes in the 21st Century East Lansing:
     Michigan State University Press, 2004.

"Issue of the Year: The Environment." Time Magazine January 4 1971 1971.

Luoma, Jon R. "Biography of a Lake " Audubon (1996): 66-72, 96-101.
     McGucken, William. Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Control Cultural
     Eutrophication. Akron: The University of Akron Press, 2000.

"The Age of Effluence." Time Magazine May 10, 1968 1968.

"Time for a Transfusion." Time Magazine August 20 1965 1965.