Lake ‘Threats’ May Rise Above Waters

Keeping one of Western New York’s greatest natural assets as pristine as can be relies on cooperation and goodwill from neighboring states and cities as well as Canada.

Last week, during a press conference in Erie, Pa., 13 organizations released a blueprint designed to protect the Lake Erie Watershed in Pennsylvania from threats like plastics pollution, climate change, invasive species and surface runoff, among others.

“This Common Agenda is the product of several virtual meetings and multiple emails and phone conversations bringing together a diverse set of voices to identify threats to clean water in the Lake Erie watershed of Pennsylvania,” the study notes. “Partners worked together to determine the impacts of these threats on marginalized communities and to develop solutions that protect water quality while promoting a more equitable and sustainable future for Erie County (Pa.,) residents. Many partner organizations, several additional organizations, and a technical advisory committee developed and prioritized a list of high-priority threats. … Prioritization was based on collective impacts to the economy, human quality of life, ecosystems, and regional sustainability.”

In the 1900s, waterways that included the Erie Canal as well as the Great Lake were the engine that built Buffalo into a Top 10 U.S. metro region. It was in 1901 when the municipality, known as the City of Lights, hosted the notorious Pan-Am Exposition as a World’s Fair where then President William McKinley was assassinated.

Decades later, that major economic boom led to waves of troubles for the natural surroundings. Leading manufacturing companies that built upon the lake’s shores dumped toxic waste into the waters without any consideration for aquatic life.

It set many lakefront communities back for decades.

Today, however, the waters are a shining star — from Michigan to the Niagara River. In northwest Pennsylvania, the lake provides drinking water to more than 240,000 residents and it serves as the centerpiece for a booming tourism industry that brings in more than $1.2 billion annually to the region.

These numbers are no surprise to anyone who has ever attended a summer Lake Erie Experience VIP Fishing Day in Dunkirk that brings together the region’s leaders from across Western New York. COVID-19 wiped out the 12th edition, which would have been held in August.

As part of the day, participants take to the waters on a charter boat to fish for about four hours. They return to the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club for annual updates on the lake’s health as well as a walleye lunch.

If that won’t hook you, nothing will.

During one year of the summer event, Dr. Sherri A. Mason — who then was working at the State University of New York at Fredonia — talked about the dangers of plastics in our waters. Mason, who is now sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend in Erie, was a member of the technical advisory committee for the recent Erie study. In her new position, she continues to conduct research along our waterways to study plastic levels in the area.

Erie resident Sarah Bennett, the Campaign Manager for Clean Water Advocacy for PennFuture and lead author of the Pennsylvania agenda, said clean water needs to be at the center of every policy discussion moving forward.

“This document is meant to call attention to threats and inequities, suggest solutions, and promote collaboration to implement solutions that will lead Erie to a more equitable and sustainable future that protects our most important natural resource — our water,” Bennett said. “Erie needs to carefully consider the impacts of development on its water resources and current residents to ensure that decisions are made that promote long-term transformation rather than short term economic gains.”

One item not addressed in the study, but is a source of controversy in Ohio and the Empire State, is the possibility of windmills being in these waters. Bennett called it “a complicated issue.”

“We certainly support the exploration of such an initiative in order to determine whether or not it will impact water quality and aquatic organisms,” she said. “The Erie region, especially Presque Isle State Park, is an important habitat for migrating birds so any development along the shore would need to be well researched before anything is approved.”

Pennsylvania, at this time, is not making the strong push for renewable energy that we are seeing in New York or Ohio. In fact, the Icebreaker Wind project — which is proposed to be built eight miles off the coast of Cleveland — moved closer to approval this fall after receiving the blessing of the Ohio Power Siting Board.

This could allow for the first freshwater offshore wind farm in North America. After that, the floodgates may open on similar projects across the country that could impact even smaller bodies of water, including Chautauqua Lake.

That threat — though seemingly distant — could be here before we know it.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.


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