A Photographer explores the ties between Waterloo Region and Lake Erie

·5 min read

Waterloo Region — Charlie, Nandita, Mat and Melissa all have ties to Waterloo Region. Each of them is also daily connected to Lake Erie.

All of them are subjects in Colin Boyd Shafer’s latest documentary project. Shafer is a Kitchener-based photographer known for his human interest works, like Cosmopolis Toronto, that highlights people from every country in the world now living in Toronto.

The project called “North of Long Tail: A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie,” is a compilation of 20 photo essays to highlight the human connection to Lake Erie.

Nandita Basu researches how people’s land use changes Lake Erie’s water quality. Charlie Lalonde is an agriculturalist finding ways to reduce the amount of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, that makes its way to Lake Erie via run-off. Mat and Melissa Vaughan began their lives together in Kitchener-Waterloo, but moved to Norfolk County to start a vineyard next to Long Point.

Lake Erie has a complicated history.

“I definitely didn’t visit Lake Erie often,” says Shafer. “It’s considered to be not the nicest of the Great Lakes. It’s got that reputation.”

“Through doing this, I understood how that came to be. Lake Erie is an industrial lake and the towns around it are industrial.”

Leading up to the 1960s, Lake Erie was very polluted from industrial pollution, nutrient-loaded sewage from cities and agricultural run-off. The increased phosphorus and nitrogen resulted in algal blooms that used up too much oxygen. Dead fish started to line its shores.

Maclean’s Magazine declared the lake to be nearly dead in 1965, calling it an “odorous, slime-covered graveyard.”

Even Dr. Seuss referenced how polluted Lake Erie was in his book, “The Lorax.”

The United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972 to reduce the pollutants getting into the lake. Governments in both countries worked to improve municipal sewage treatment plants, and to reduce the amount of phosphorus in household detergents.

It worked. By the 1980s, Lake Erie’s phosphorus levels were less than half of 1970s levels, and the water quality was much better, according to the International Joint Commission, the official body of binational Great Lakes governance. One 2014 report states, “Lake Erie’s recovery was a globally recognized success story.”

Dr. Seuss took the Lake Erie reference out of his book.

But today the future of the lake is in question again.

Since the 2000s, severe algal blooms are happening again, and frequently. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring algae blooms in Lake Erie since 2012.

Toxic algae temporarily shut down drinking water for Toledo and Pelee Island in 2014.

Algae blooms “have become the new normal in that lake,” says Keith Brooks, the Program Director for Environmental Defence.

Scientists agree accumulated phosphorus run-off in the Lake Erie Basin, largely from agriculture, is the source of the algal blooms, and deteriorating the lake’s health.

To raise awareness, the Environmental Defence organization commissioned Shafer to highlight the human connection to the lake.

“I’ve learned this lake has an incredible history and its versatile and the people rely on it,” says Shafer. “They refer to it with terms like ‘lifeblood’ or that it’s alive. It’s like it’s their best friend.”

This project highlights how everything is interconnected.

Shafer says he grew up in Kitchener’s Chicopee neighbourhood with the Grand River nearby.

Agriculture, dumping, sewage — if it gets into the Grand River, it ends up in Lake Erie, he says.

Shafer says some of the towns on the lake’s north shore, like Port Stanley, are trying to encourage tourism as a viable source of income.

But, “if the lake’s not nice, then people aren’t going to go there.”

Governments have said they are going to reduce nutrients and phosphorus in the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan, which was released in 2018.

The plan’s outline says it contains 120 actions to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie.

The plan is in keeping with Canada and Ontario’s 2016 agreement with the United States to reduce phosphorus levels by 40 per cent of 2008 levels.

Ontario set itself a goal of reducing the phosphorus loadings to the western and central basins of Lake Erie by 2025 in the Great Lakes Protection Act.

In 2018, Ontario established an implementation team to carry out the Lake Erie Action Plan. The first meeting was held in January of 2019.

Brooks feels the implementation of promises from varying levels of government is too slow.

“The main point we wanted to make [with this project] is to shine a light on Lake Erie, and to get people to stand up for Lake Erie,” says Brooks. “We need to tell our elected officials that we care about our lake.”

“North of Long Tail” contains 20 stories, including the youngest person to swim across the lake, a woman who, after a divorce, began her life again by opening a bed and breakfast near Point Pelee National Park, and a woman whose ancestors crossed Lake Erie to build a new life and leave slavery behind.

Originally the exhibit was planned to show in Toronto’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. For now, anyone can explore the project on Environmental Defence’s website at environmentaldefence.ca/northoflongtail/

“I hope more people will give Lake Erie a thought,” says Shafer. “It’s a gem.”

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record