U.S. Water News Online
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In August 1679, French explorers boarded
a small, two-masted ship christened the Griffin and sailed off into
what would later be named Lake Erie.
The vessel, the first to carry Europeans the length of the lake,
continued north into waters later dubbed Huron and Michigan.
Although the ship disappeared without a trace, the voyage opened
the upper Great Lakes to trade and eventually settlements.
In the three centuries since the Griffin's voyage, Lake Erie has
become a swimming pool, a fishing hole and a boating basin. It's a
highway for cargo ships carrying the world's flags, a supply of
drinking water for 11 million people and an industrial dumping
With the smallest water volume of the five Great Lakes, Erie also
is the most vulnerable.
Scientists have studied the lake for decades, but their research
has been focused on specific areas. Some looked at algae blooms,
pollution or fishing &emdash; others examined non-native species.
Now, armed with a four-year, $1.4 million federal grant, Ohio
State University researchers will examine the whole enchilada
&emdash; how people affect the lake and how it affects people.
OSU biologist David Culver and 15 colleagues at Ohio State and
other universities will create mathematical models based on physics,
biology, chemistry, economics and other research disciplines.
"We want to get at the right questions about the interactions
between humans and natural systems," he said.
Starting with a simple, one-dimensional model, the researchers
plan to add increasingly complex data to describe Erie's behavior.
The goal is to produce a model that can be applied to any large lake
in the world.
"There are lots of lakes like this. Wherever there's a big lake,
people go there," Culver said.
The scientists plan to look at how the lake affects people by
examining issues such as drinking water and the quality of life of
the residents along its shores.
How people affect the lake, however, is more dramatic.
"We're loving it to death," Culver said. "What happens when you
double erosion flowing into the lake or a new chemical enters the
mix? How do lake organisms react to foreign species?
"What if boating or swimming use is doubled? Should you build a
nuclear power plant or a coal-fired plant?"
Something as simple as building a road in a subdivision has an
impact. The more asphalt and concrete, the faster rainfall runs off
into rivers that drain into the lake. More water in streams also
increases erosion and the amount of contaminated sediments that flow
into the lake.
And even our own daily activities can affect the lake, said Tim
Loftus, director of the Water Quality Laboratory at Heidelberg
College in Seneca County.
"In Ohio, you can be 100 miles away in Shelby County and do
something on your land that will have an impact on Lake Erie," he
The lake pays a price when homeowners over-apply lawn chemicals,
spill gasoline or dump paint or household chemicals. Industrial, home
and farm pollution cause beach closings, and fishing and drinking
water advisories. Retired commercial fisherman Lee Stinson started
fishing in 1960 and continues to keep a hand in the business his son
"The lake is changing all the time," Stinson said. "They stopped
phosphorous (from sewage treatment plants). It used to be you'd see
suds knee-deep all the way down the beach."
Controlling phosphorus and other chemicals from farms, however, is
far more difficult.
Culver said something as innocuous as a sale on farm fertilizer
can have an effect. A few years ago, he said, fertilizer
manufacturers began offering winter discounts. Farmers responded by
buying fertilizer early and spreading it on fields.
"This phosphorus fertilizer was sitting on top of the soil and
spring rains come and there could be a lot of runoff," he said.
By the 1930s, pollution had wiped out whitefish and lake herring
Two decades later, sewage and farm and industrial chemicals killed
off the lake's mayfly population, which emerged each spring and
provided food for fish and birds.
Since the 1970s, there have been steady declines in many toxic and
persistent chemicals in the Great Lakes. That, in turn, has meant
lower levels of contaminants, including lead, found in humans.
Overall, pollution has wreaked havoc with birds, including gulls
and cormorants. Reproduction drastically declined as researchers
determined DDT was causing birds to lay eggs with thin shells that
broke too easily. DDT and other chemicals were banned by the 1980s,
but problems persist.
"(Birds) are still being impacted by these pollutants," said Keith
Grasman, a Wright State University environmental toxicologist.
While PCBs and other hazardous chemicals are banned or severely
restricted, newly invented classes of chemicals are showing up in the
food chain. Canadian environmental and health authorities are noting
problems with snapping turtles, mink birds and other wildlife.
Grasman is testing wildlife in western Lake Erie, the Detroit
River and Lake Ontario as part of a Canadian study.
"We see wildlife health problems in most of these locations --
immune suppression in birds, evidence of thyroid problems," he said.
"There are a number of industrial chemicals that have gotten6755
out there. Our society uses 60,000 to 80,0000 chemicals with 1,000
new ones a year."
While some chemical pollution can be controlled, there's little
that can be done about invasive species that have entered the lake.
Every foreign cargo ship that enters the waterway is a threat.
More than 180 foreign species of plants and animals, including
zebra mussels, gobies, river ruffe and white perch, now live in the
lake and along its shores.
"We're the vectors for moving these guys around," said Henry
Vanderploeg, a scientist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research
Lab in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"What are they doing to the lakes? The answer is, we don't know,
and we keep introducing them."
A new species often proliferates because it has no natural
enemies. This alters the biological mix in the lake, which has a
fixed amount of energy that must be divided among all the species
Nothing demonstrates biological complexity like the zebra and
quagga mussels. These thumb-size freshwater clams native to central
Asia arrived in the Great Lakes in a cargo ship's water ballast in
They're still reworking Erie's ecosystem. Because the mussels have
filtered algae from the water and boosted water clarity, more
sunlight penetrates the lake and more vegetation grows in shallow
areas along the shore. This, in turn, has, benefited smallmouth bass.
"They're just booming now," Stinson said.
But the mussels also colonize along hard surfaces -- as many as
200,000 per square yard -- and can drastically reduce the flow
through water intake and outflow pipes of Great Lakes industries.
Keeping the pipes clean is expected to cost the industries
billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Zebras and quaggas also have been linked to the return of toxic
blue-green algae, known as microcystis. Because they don't like the
taste of microcystis, the mussels spit it out, while eating other
One goal of an overall model is to predict how the mussels may
continue to alter the lake.
Eventually, a more complex model would consider a multitude of
land use, industrial and agricultural activities in any part of the
lake and at any depth.
A model must also consider changes that might occur far from the
lake -- perhaps thousands of miles away.
The mix of the chemicals entering Lake Erie changed remarkably
after the 1970s. Part of the reason was that Japan and other foreign
steel producers started to drive domestic iron and steel makers out
of the market.
"If there were a lot of steel mills in Cleveland today, we'd be
doing an entirely different study," Culver said. "The lake has
changed because of something that happened in Japan."
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