August 2, 2002
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
Washington D.C. 20510
Re: Field hearing concerning anoxia in Lake Erie
U.S. Coast Guard Moorings Club
1055 East Ninth Street
Dear Committee Members:
I am here as the Lake Erie regional representative on the board of Great Lakes United, an international not-for-profit coalition dedicated to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River ecosystem. Great Lakes United’s 150 member groups represent tens of thousands of people from the eight Great Lakes States and the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
The Great Lakes are the largest surface fresh water supply on earth, representing almost 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. They are irreplaceable and nonrenewable – a gift of the last glacier, renewed at less than 1% annually.
There is no one answer to the question of why anoxia is occurring in the central basin of Lake Erie. We know that it is a historical problem since the 1930s, that it peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that it was largely alleviated at that time by pollutant and discharge regulation measures taken in the 1970s. Specifically, these included phosphorous controls including bans on phosphates in detergents and construction and upgrade of sewage treatment plants around the Great Lakes.
The research performed at that time alone gives us one important clue as to what is happening in Lake Erie. As the shallowest, Lake Erie is the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes to stress. Lake Erie is currently suffering from lower than normal levels and warmer than usual temperatures. At the same time, the sewage treatment infrastructure around the Lake is aging, and bacteria counts along many community shorelines are on the rise. This is indicated by the rising number of beach closings around the Lake after storm events, which cause combined sewer systems to overflow directly into tributary streams or into the Lake itself.
The nutrients in raw sewage fertilize vegetation in the Lake, especially algae, which grows, blooms, dies and decays. Decaying algae consumes oxygen.
The problem may be intensified by lower water levels, warmer water and clearer water. Clearer water allows sunlight to penetrate further, which again contributes to algae growth. Lake Erie waters are clearer since the invasion/colonization of the Lake by zebra and quagga mussels, which consume and filter floating debris. Massive die-offs and decay of exotic species unsuited to ecosystem conditions in the Lake may also be consuming oxygen.
Low water levels, exotic species and aging sewage treatment plants are all likely to be contributing to the anoxic conditions in Lake Erie.
These are large problems requiring large solutions. Great Lakes groups are calling for a new era of investment in sewage treatment. We believe the “dead zone” in Lake Erie and the increased number of beach closings around the Lake are strong indicators that untreated waste inputs are on their way to becoming a health crisis for Lake Erie communities. Great Lakes citizens are advocating an immediate end to combined and sanitary sewer overflows into Great Lakes waters, and mandatory notification of daily bacteria counts at public beaches to increase awareness as well as safety for the region’s population.
We must protect Lake Erie and all the Great Lakes from new influxes of exotic species such as the zebra and quagga mussels which are thought to be linked not only to the anoxia in Lake Erie but also to the botulism outbreak that has devastated fish, amphibian and bird populations in the eastern basin. Great Lakes citizens are calling for invasive species legislation in Canada and the U.S. by 2004 that include ballast water standards that eliminate the risk of exotic specie introductions, or that foreign ships be restricted from discharging the contents of their ballast tanks at any time.
Finally, in terms of protecting Great Lakes water levels from the potential future effects of climate change, we need to greatly reduce CO2 emissions from two major sources: coal-fired power plants and automobile emissions. Great Lakes citizen groups are advocating for mandatory caps on CO2 emissions from the power and transportation sectors that guarantee reductions of CO2 emissions by 60% by 2020.
In closing, we ask the Committee to support research on Lake Erie under the binational Lakewide Management Plan, headed by the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office and Environment Canada’s Great Lakes Program. The LaMP mechanism, set up under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, includes the government partners as well as the public participation that are critical to successfully dealing with the complex set of events that are currently affecting Lake Erie.
We also ask the Committee to support restored funding to the US Fish and Wildlife Service Lower Lakes program to enhance monitoring and oversight of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Lake Erie Region Representative
Great Lakes United
716-886-0142 or firstname.lastname@example.org