Lake Erie could use some love.
So says a trio of environmental groups asking social media users to show their support for Lake Erie and push politicians to address the lake’s failing health.
On Aug. 25, people can post their Lake Erie stories to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #WeAreLakeErie to create what organizers call “a virtual wave of support for the lake.”
The annual #WeAreLakeErie Day was launched in 2017 by Environmental Defence, Freshwater Future Canada and the Canadian Freshwater Alliance, three organizations that rally citizens, governments and industries to safeguard waterways like Lake Erie.
“This is a way to bring the community together to show how many people rely on and care about the lake,” said Raj Gill, Great Lakes program director with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance.
Michelle Woodhouse of Environmental Defence hopes reflecting on what Lake Erie means to them will prompt residents to get involved in protecting the lake from a myriad of problems. “It’s not in great shape,” said Woodhouse, citing toxic algal blooms “plaguing the lake” as the main threat to Lake Erie’s ecosystem.
The blooms are caused by fertilizer and manure that is swept off nearby farms by heavy rains, dumping excess phosphorous and other nutrients into the waterways.
Algal blooms are smaller this year thanks to the dry spring, but looking at the big picture, Woodhouse said the spread of toxic algae in Lake Erie has worsened over the past decade.
“The lake is also facing serious issues with invasive species, forest degradation and wetland loss,” she said.
The stakes of inaction are high.
“Lake Erie is a drinking water source for millions of people in the U.S. and Canada,” Gill said. “It’s one of the biggest freshwater fisheries in the world. You’ve got people relying on the lake for their livelihood.”
Gill noted that algal blooms are toxic to fish and waterfowl, leading to “big fish kills” as fish suffocate in oxygen-depleted water.
While the deadly Asian carp has thus far been kept out of the Great Lakes, invasive plant and animal species such as zebra mussels and phragmites are actively displacing native species, removing food sources for wildlife and “crowding out wetland and natural habitats,” Gill said.
Climate change, she added, “just makes everything worse,” as seen in more severe storms.
Heat waves, on the other hand, contribute to algal blooms by raising the water temperature.
Woodhouse said the farming and development concentrated near Lake Erie — the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes — has turned the basin into what she called a “crisis zone.”
“We don’t have time to be wasting,” she said.
In 2018, Ottawa and Ontario agreed to work together to lower algae levels in Lake Erie by reducing nutrient run-off by 40 per cent within seven years.
“They promised a work plan by 2019 and we still haven’t seen it,” Gill said.
Woodhouse acknowledged that the complex problems facing the lake are still being studied, with environmental efforts sometimes at odds with the interests of farmers and developers. “But we know enough to know there’s certain tangible things we can and should be doing,” she said, listing as examples stricter regulations to force farmers to control nutrient run-off and the need for green infrastructure in cities to keep pollutants out of the lake.
Wednesday’s virtual campaign is part of the broader effort to pressure governments to protect the lake for the benefit of future generations, she added.
“We need to make some noise for Lake Erie,” Woodhouse said.
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator