For three days in 2014, the city of Toledo, Ohio, banned its 400,000 residents from drinking tap water. It was a stunning move that called national attention to a long-running problem: the city’s water source, Lake Erie, had become so overrun with toxic algae, it overwhelmed water treatment facilities. The algae recur most years at varying levels of severity, fed by fertilizer runoff upstream.
Just an hour east of the city, Matthew Kovach, a coasts and islands project manager at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), is part of a tiny team restoring wetlands on the edge of the lake in the hopes of helping the native fish. Last August he kayaked through Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area with photographer Ariana Lindquist. With nothing but cattails in any direction and bald eagles flying overhead, it was a far cry from muddy waters clouded by sediment washed downstream or the fluorescent green Lake Erie has become notorious for.
“The water is very clean in a lot of these wetland areas. A lot of the sediment falls out,” Kovach says. “For people to have this idea of a Lake Erie that’s muddy or green, to come out here… It’s like it used to be.”
Kovach and his teammate Alexis Sakas, a coastal conservation project coordinator for TNC, brought Lindquist to several wetlands along Lake Erie as she documented restoration and recreation throughout the area for a Nature Conservancy magazine story on the challenges facing the Great Lakes.
The wetlands team is just one of many in a sprawling network of ecologists, biologists, farmers and more working with TNC in the Great Lakes states that touch and affect each of the Great Lakes. Some, like Kovach, are focused on restoration while others are working with coastal cities like Chicago or with farmers across the landscape to reduce fertilizer use. (Read more about that variety of work in the Winter 2017 magazine story.)
All five of the lakes have dealt with the effects of development along their shores, the introduction of invasive species or the loss of wetlands that once filtered water flowing into them. Lake Erie, the shallowest and warmest of the lakes, has arguably been dealt the heaviest blow over the years. A massive wetland known as the Great Black Swamp once stretched the size of Rhode Island near its shores. As settlers moved into the area, they built dikes and drained the water off the land, turning much of the swamp into some of the most fertile farmland in America. About 95 percent of the wetlands are gone, says Amy Brennan, TNC’s Lake Erie program director.
In the 1960s, algae blooms were common on Lake Erie, and the nearby Cuyahoga River caught fire repeatedly—most famously in 1969 when a Time magazine article described how the river “oozed” rather than flowed, where someone decays rather than drowns. In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act helped clean up urban outlets that had let sewage seep into the lakes and rivers. In recent years, a rise in phosphorous levels from farm runoff has correlated with new frequent algae blooms.
“Today, our biggest challenge in the western Lake Erie basin is looking at the amount of nutrients in the water that are excessive and continue to be pulsed in through our tributaries,” Brennan says. “How are any of those nutrients that aren’t being taken up by the crops being managed at the edge of the farm field? We’ve done a number of projects like two-stage ditches and phosphorous filters along the edge that are the next line of defense.”
In other words, some fertilizer, which can fuel the growth of algae, will inevitably run off some farms. So, what are the ways to filter it out before it reaches Lake Erie?
Those are the sorts of questions Kovach and Sakas are hoping to address with new wetlands restoration projects.
“Most of the wetlands we have are isolated hydrologically,” Kovach says, explaining the team’s projects. “They tend to be diked out and isolated…. What we’ve been trying to do is reconnect them to water bodies to benefit wildlife habitat and get more fish in these systems and treat more water with them.”