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Lake Erie health rated ‘poor’ in report

OBSERVER Photo by M.J. Stafford On a sunny Lake Erie morning in August, National Walleye Tour Championship boats exit Dunkirk Harbor.

Lake Erie’s status is called “poor and unchanging” in a new report co-sponsored by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The lake “supports a productive walleye fishery, but elevated nutrient concentrations and algal blooms are persistent problems,” according to a page summarizing the findings. Lake Erie is the only one of the five Great Lakes listed as poor. Lakes Huron and Superior are assessed as “good” while Lakes Michigan and Ontario are called “fair.”

The report rates each lake in nine areas: drinking water, beaches, fish consumption, toxic chemicals, habitat and species, nutrients and algae, invasive species, groundwater, and watershed and climate trends.

There’s very few problems across the Great Lakes with treated drinking water, the report states. The beaches are also solid, with safe swimming almost all of the time — though in Lake Erie, the only lake rated as fair and not good, American beaches were swimming-safe 84% of the time during the 2018-19 monitoring period, against 94% for U.S. beaches overall.

Lake Erie’s groundwater is rated as good. An accompanying map shows the waters that run from Chautauqua County into the lake as good, though the rest of Western New York is just fair.

Fish consumption is “fair and improving,” with the report noting that many contaminants in fish filets have declined dramatically across the Great Lakes over the last 40 to 50 years.

The biggest problems with Lake Erie show up in the other categories.

The lake is called poor in the nutrients and algae category, though that’s mostly due to activity in the western and central basins of the lake. Harmful algae blooms are often formed from nutrient concentrations in the western basin.

In habitat and species, coastal wetlands are poor for fish and plants, fair for amphibians and birds. “Most of the wetlands in lakes Erie and Ontario have degraded plant communities as a result of nutrient enrichment, sedimentation, invasive species, past water level regulation or combinations of these factors,” according to the report.

As for the aquatic food web, things are looking up for trout, sturgeon and walleye — their Lake Erie population is said to be improving, though only walleye gets a “good” status for overall current health. Trout is called fair; sturgeon is poor, as it is in every Great Lake. An increase in natural sturgeon spawning is reported, “although changes in lake sturgeon status will take a long time to manifest due to the lifespan of the series.”

There’s bad news about the quality of the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain. It is considered poor and deteriorating in Lake Erie “due to increases in the abundance of harmful cyanobacteria.”

When it comes to invasive, non-native species, the introduction of new ones is way down in recent years, but the impacts of those already introduced get a poor rating in each lake.

The level of toxic chemicals in Lake Erie water and fish is called “fair and unchanging,” while toxicity is fair and improving in sediment. One graph shows how concentrations of one toxic chemical group, polychlorinated biphenyls, have gradually declined off Sturgeon Point in southern Erie County since the early 1990s.

In the watershed category, Lake Erie rated poorly for forest cover, land cover, hardened shorelines and water quality in tributaries. Most of its watershed is in southeastern Michigan and northern Ohio, with significant stresses from population, agriculture and heavy industry.

Lake Erie’s basin has only 21% of natural land cover, compared to 97% of relatively remote Lake Superior.

As far as climate trends, Lake Erie’s precipitation, water levels and surface water temperature are all generally on the rise, while ice cover in winter is decreasing.

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