The State Of Our Lakes: Neglect Them At Our Peril

7:02 AM, Mar 4, 2012   |    comments
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Weatern New York Is One Of The Most Important Freshwater Environments In The World

It is everywhere, water makes up 70% of the Earth's surface. It falls from the skies and its springs from underground. It provides us with sustenance, energy, and solace.

Although Western New York is surrounded by one of the world's most abundant sources of fresh water, we often take it for granted, and that has proven in the past to be a serious mistake.

Margaret Wooster is a local author, and an expert on the state of the Great Lakes.

"In this region, in the Buffalo area, we're less aware of water because we have so much of it," says Wooster. "We do live on 20% of the world's fresh surface water, and it's the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world. We're surrounded by water, and so we do take it for granted."

Life on the lakes also comes with responsibility, the obligation to be caretakers and preserve the great bounties we have . That has not always been so, especially in the case of Lake Erie, which was brought to its knees in the 70's from a combination of pollution and neglect.

"It was called a dead lake in 1970, and that was because the dissolved oxygen in the lake was so low that it could not support life," says Wooster. "It was the assault of, not just farm chemicals and so forth, but phosphates and detergents was a major thing."

The 'Death Of Lake Erie' and the burning of the Cuyahoga River in the western end of the lake were dark moments that spawned a silver lining.

Due in part to the Erie dilemma, the Clean Water Act was signed in 1972, and has had a long reaching effect on the perceived improved health of Erie today.

Although Lake Erie now looks much cleaner, it still faces a number of threats. Some of them, like farm chemical runoff, have persisted for years, while others caused by invasive species have visited a new plague upon the lake and its wildlife.

One of them, Avian Botulism, begins with a toxic algae that is actually dominating the western end of the lake, but has far reaching consequences.

"We've had about 15 years of major bird, primarily, die-offs at this end of Lake Erie, because of the problem with Avian Botulism," says Wooster. "It's this poison that they're ingesting by eating the Quagga Mussels that are ingesting this particular toxic form of algae."

The lower Niagara River, and by extension Lake Ontario and the waters beyond, face challenges of their own. These bodies of water have been afflicted by industry and the resulting chemical pollution.

"The Niagara River really suffered from the same things, basically the same types of chemicals that hit Love Canal," says Wooster. "The tragedy of it is they live really long in the sediments, and so they continue to affect the wildlife.

"There have been clean-up efforts, there's been a lot of landfill remediation along the Niagara River, that's the main activity that's happened to try and address this, but we still haven't completed the job."

Ironically, perhaps the biggest threat to clean water comes from our use of the land, an issue that can be controlled by the individual.

"It's everything from agricultural chemicals to our lawns, and the chemicals we put on them, to just lack of the natural trees and plants to filter out all this stuff," says Wooster. Also the shade and water temperature is very important. So everything we do on land is ultimately going to affect the water."

The choice to keep our water healthy lies with all of us. Ignore history and watch as our rich aquatic heritage declines, or take responsibility as stewards and guard this precious gift as we would our own lives.

"We've been down, and we've come back in many ways, and we should be proud of that, we should be proud of the things we've done, but we've got more to do," says Wooster.

"If people just turn out and look at what's happening around us, and be aware that this is probably the most important water place on earth."


Margaret Wooster is a well known local author, as well as being an influential force in Buffalo Niagara Riverkeepers. Her book, "Living Waters; Reading The Rivers Of The Lower Great Lakes" is available at a number of outlets and is a must read for anyone interested in the state of our waterways.

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