Lake Erie, Toxic Algae, and Mobilizing to Protect Toledo’s Drinking Water by Declaring the Lake a Person

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

In my slow perambulation through the biosphere, I’ve looked at mangrove swamps. coral reefs, and estuaries. Today, I’ll look at a lake. This lake:

That’s like Erie from the Canadian side. This and the next photo are a little too HDR for my taste, but Lake Erie is very beautiful. From the U.S. side, looking out over Toledo:

Unfortunately, here’s a close-up of Lake Erie water in Toledo:

What that green gunk is, and how Toledo citizens are trying to protect it, is the subject of this post. I’ll look at lakes, Lake Erie, and Toledo’s efforts. (There will be a petitiion for you to sign, at the end. This post does meander a bit, so feel free to jump right to it.)

My Oxford English Dictionary defines lake as “A large body of water entirely surrounded by land,” which is obviously not right, since it leaves no room for rivers and streams flowing in or out. Here is what the USGS has to say:

A lake really is just another component of Earth’s surface water. A lake is where surface-water runoff (and maybe some groundwater seepage) have accumulated in a low spot, relative to the surrounding countryside. It’s not that the water that forms lakes get trapped, but that the water entering a lake comes in faster than it can escape, either via outflow in a river, seepage into the ground, or by evaporation.

Somewhat more formally, from D.K. Branstrator, “Encyclopedia of Inland Waters” (via Science Direct):

Three elements are common to the origin of every lake: (1) an environmental force, (2) a body of terrain reshaped by that force into a closed depression (basin), and (3) a water supply. These three elements have met on the landscape with immense frequency during the Earth’s history and have given rise to an estimated 304 million natural lakes in existence today.

304 million natural lakes! Lake Erie is one of the five Great lakes, and the eleventh largest lake in the world by surface area. Its inflow is the Detroit River, from the “upper lakes” — Superior, Michigan and Huron and precipitation. Its outflow is via the Niagara Rive. Lake Erie’s basin and terrain:

It is the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest by volume of the Great Lakes and therefore also has the shortest average water residence time. At its deepest point Lake Erie is 210 feet (64 metres) deep.

Branstrator also gives us insight in the the classification and life cycle of lakes, in “Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences“:

Lake basins originate through a wide variety of natural and anthropogenic processes. Some of these processes are gradual and usually imperceptible (tectonic movement, fluvial erosion), while others (meteorite impact) are quick and extraordinary. To the human observer, most lakes are permanent features of the landscape. On a geologic time scale, by contrast, most lakes are fleeting and all are ultimately ephemeral.

I am not used to thinking of lakes, except maybe artificial lakes, as ephemeral. More:

The first element in a lake’s origin is an environmental force and is the facet of its natural history most commonly used by scientists to guide the general classification of lake basins. George Evelyn Hutchinson (1903–1991) provided one of the most extensive surveys available on the origins of lake basins in the first chapter of his four-volume series, A Treatise on Limnology (Hutchinson, 1957). There he describes the formation of numerous distinct types of lake basins resulting from 11 principal environmental forces, including glacial, tectonic, volcanic, fluvial, organism behavior, chemical, wind, landslide, shoreline, meteorite, and organic accumulation…. In today’s inventory of larger lakes (Kalff, 2002), those whose surface areas are greater than 0.01 km2 (1 ha), approximately 90% have basin origins that trace to glacial, tectonic, or fluvial forces…. Of these, glacial force far outweighs the importance of all others. This contemporary bias owes to recent and widespread glaciation during the Pleistocene when ice sheets covered nearly 25% of the Earth’s continents.

Lake Erie is a glacial lake. Live Science:

Like all of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is basically a divot formed from a moving glacier and is relatively young — less than 4,000 years old — in its current configuration.

(Lake Erie — “fleeting,” “ephemeral” — is only a little older than the Bible.) Because Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it is also the warmest, and the most biologically active. From Lake Erie Waterkeepers:

Lake Erie is home to one of the world’s largest freshwater commercial fisheries. Lake Erie’s fish populations are the most abundant of the Great Lakes, partially because of the lake’s relatively mild temperatures and plentiful supply of plankton, which is the basic building block of the food chain. The lake’s fish population accounts for an estimated 50% of all fish inhabiting the Great Lakes. The lake is “loaded with superstars” such as steelhead, walleye (American usage) or pickerel (Canadian usage),smallmouth bass, perch, as well as bass, trout, salmon, whitefesh, smelt, and many others.

Birds, as well, once again because of Lake Erie’s unique terrain:

The Lake Erie Marsh Region is recognized as globally important for migratory birds as millions of migratory songbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl stop here to feed and rest every spring and fall during their long-distance migrations. Lake Erie shorelines and attendant inland natural areas are also home to a large number of permanent residents. Nearly 400 bird species have been documented in this region….

Why is Lake Erie such an attractive and important place for birds? Lake Erie represents a barrier to most migrating passerines (perching birds) and raptors. Many birds are reluctant to cross open water when the opposite shoreline cannot be seen, which results in major concentrations along the southwestern shore of Lake Erie in the spring, unparalleled in the Midwest. The opposite phenomenon occurs on the north shore of Lake Erie in autumn, making public areas like Long Point, Point Pelee, Holiday Beach and every private piece of habitat in between extremely valuable for resting and feeding areas for birds in migration.

With the exception of the Gulf coast, no other region of eastern North America can demonstrate concentrations of avian migrants like Lake Erie’s coastline. Important migratory pathways and habitat along Great Lakes shorelines have been identified at more than 60 sites; and 95% of the waterfowl counted on a recent Ohio Division of Wildlife aerial survey occurs in the Lake Erie marsh region.

The landscape along Lake Erie has been dramatically altered from pre-settlement conditions yet the region remains important for birds to rest and feed so they can continue their migration in good physiological condition.

Truly a great lake! But Lake Erie has problems of human origin, to which we now turn, most prominent among them algae blooms. We saw that green gunk in Toledor’s water supply above; here’s an aerial view of the green gunk (“algal bloom”) for the whole lake from last summer, a good year:

In fact, the algal bloom problem is so bad — and so normalized! — that NOAA puts out a regular report:

NOAA provides forecasts of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria blooms, in Lake Erie from July to October. Some cyanobacteria blooms can grow rapidly and produce toxins that cause harm to animal life and humans so scientists describe them as harmful algal blooms (HABs). Coastal communities can use NOAA’s forecasts as a decision making tool.

(“A decision making tool.” This is what neoliberals call “choice.”) More:

NOAA bulletins provide analysis of the location of cyanobacteria blooms, as well as 3-day forecasts of transport, mixing, scum formation, and bloom decline. During the Lake Erie HAB season, which typically begins in July, bulletins are emailed to subscribers twice weekly during a bloom.

(“Scum formation.”) The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes last year’s bloom:

This year’s harmful algal bloom plaguing Lake Erie grew in August to 620 square miles…

Scientists expected the bloom to be a 7.5 on a scale of 1-10, slightly smaller than 2017, which was an 8. The forecast graph showed the bloom could be the worst since 2015, according to the forecast graph..

The blue-green toxic algae is an annual problem in Lake Erie, from Toledo to Sandusky. The algae turns fresh water into pea soup, with thick mats of scum that can close beaches, wreck tourism, endanger pets and contaminate drinking water, as it did in Toledo in 2014.

(Not only do they have regular reports, they have a scale.) The EPA lists the effects:

Harmful algal blooms can:

  • Produce extremely dangerous toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals
  • Create dead zones in the water
  • Raise treatment costs for drinking water
  • Hurt industries that depend on clean water

The cause of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie is phosporus from agricultural runoff. The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

The causes are clear. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the main driver is phosphorus pollution, of which about 90 percent comes from agricultural runoff — excess fertilizer from crops, and manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These CAFOs have thousands of hogs, chickens and cows producing tons of poop that is spread on fields and stored in lagoons, and then runs off into rivers that flow into Lake Erie. This agricultural runoff pollution causes toxic algal outbreaks in the summer heat.

(It’s almost as if Lake Erie’s biological activity is being turned against itself, rather like a cancer.)

Now let’s turn to the way that the citizens of Toledo mobilized to protext Lake Erie. From Vox, “Lake Erie now has legal rights, just like you“:

It started in a pub. A handful of people, hunched over beers in Toledo, Ohio, were talking about a water crisis that had plagued the city in 2014. The pollution of Lake Erie had gotten so bad that it had taken a serious toll on their lives. The government, they felt, wasn’t doing enough to protect the lake. And so they wondered: What if the lake could protect itself?

The idea they hatched that night ultimately resulted in a special election, which had the citizens of Toledo voting February 26 on a very unusual question: Should Lake Erie be granted the legal rights normally reserved for a person?

The measure passed easily, which means citizens will be able to sue on behalf of the lake whenever its right to flourish is being contravened — that is, whenever it’s in danger of major environmental harm.

“There’s a lot of nervous energy,” Tish O’Dell, who was at the pub that fateful night, told me while traveling between different polling places in Toledo on the morning of the vote. She was on tenterhooks as she waited for the election results. “It’s like torture.”

As a sidebar: It is so very, very, very important for to understand and internalize that citizens can mobilize. They can organize, become subject matter experts, work the politicians, get quoted in the press, go on the radio, and do whatever it takes to achieve goals. (NGOs, IMNSHO, can help, but they generally don’t know local conditions and are in the grant-writing business anyhow.) This is what I learned on our landfill efforts. I mean, personhood for Lake Erie is a big, big ask, is it not? Yet these citizens achieved it. Or at least won the first battle. End sidebar.

Here’s how they did it, from MacLeans (on the other side of the lake):

[E]nvironmental groups turned to a new frontier of U.S. law: “the rights of nature.” It’s an idea that has gained currency as local environmental crises mount, says Tish O’Dell, an organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). But it had never been applied to a body of water in America. “I used to get comments like, ‘That’s crazy, do you want the tree to have rights? Is a squirrel going to sit on the witness stand?’ ” says O’Dell, whose group campaigned for the Erie bill. “Now, people’s attitudes have changed dramatically. In Toledo, they didn’t have water for three days. They don’t think it’s so crazy.”

The issue was put to the people in February in a special election ballot. Many of those opposed were area farmers who feared they could face lawsuits due to phosphorous runoff from fertilizer—a major contributor of Lake Erie pollution. And an investigation by the Toledo Blade newspaper found the anti-bill campaign was largely funded by British Petroleum, which owns a refinery on Toledo’s waterfront.

In the end, the proposal passed with 61 per cent in favour—though voter turnout was about nine per cent and the bill has no shortage of critics.

(I would bet that 9% is excellent turnout.) I won’t go into the details of the immediate opposition; farmers immediately filed a lawsuit (“Drewes Farm Partnership”, and the State legislature (while funding run-off mitigation money for farmers), prompted by “inflow” from the Chamber of Commerce, added a line item to a Budget Bill that would seem to pre-empt what the people of Toledo did:

It all started with an email from the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

I like the way this story begins with “It all started,” exactly as Vox’s story above begins with with “It started.” Action, counter-reaction. But notice the speed of the elite reaction. Although surrounded and out-numbered, they have excellent interior lines of communication.)

The chamber’s director of energy and environmental policy, Zack Frymier, wrote to request a meeting with Hoops, the state House representative, on April 11, a few weeks before the vote. (Hoops is chair of the Ohio House Finance Subcommittee on Agriculture, Development, and Natural Resources.)

“I’m hoping to find some time (like everyone else) to run something by Chairman Hoops regarding the Lake Erie Bill of Rights that passed in Toledo in February,” Frymier wrote. “We have some language that we’d request to be considered for the budget. Though obviously it would have to be submitted after tomorrow’s deadline we’d still like to have a conversation.”

A legislative aide replied promptly, arranging a meeting with Hoops for 4:00 p.m. that day. Despite the short notice — it was already nearly 3:00 p.m. — Frymier quickly and enthusiastically responded that he’d be there.

A few weeks later, the aide got back to Frymier with draft text of the amendment, asking if the wording made sense to him. Frymier then asked for the addition of text that would more directly refute the Lake Erie Bill of Rights.

“Language in this amendment stating that [nature and ecosystems] do not have standing is essential to what we’re trying to accomplish,” Frymier wrote on May 2.

The amendment’s final text includes the additional statement Frymier asked for: “Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas.”

Well, I think giving ecosystems standing is an excellent idea, not least because the Chamber of Commerce hates it. If British Petroleum and Cargill have standing, why shouldn’t Lake Erie?

All of which brings me to this petition from Toledoans for Safe Water to which alert reader Carla drew our attention: “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights Deserves to Stand, Should be Enforced“:

On January 28, 2020, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) will be the subject of oral arguments between Drewes Farm Partnership LLC. and the City of Toledo. The State of Ohio has sided with corporate polluters. Please sign in support of LEBOR, the City of Toledo, Rights of Nature, and above all — a thriving, safe Lake Erie.

The Toledoans’ theory of the case:

On February 26, 2019, voters of Toledo, Ohio made history by passing the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). The law was the first in the United States to recognize the rights of a specific ecosystem, representing an exciting step forward for the global Rights of Nature movement.

Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” it reads. “The people of the City of Toledo possess the right to a clean and healthy environment, which shall include the right to a clean and healthy Lake Erie and Lake Erie ecosystem.”

Toledo residents moved beyond conventional modes of change when it became clear no government agency was protecting them or taking proactive steps toward safeguarding the drinking water of millions of people and the continued health of the Lake Erie ecosystem. In 2014, residents were told an algal bloom had made the municipal water, which comes from Lake Erie, poisonous to the touch.

The municipal charter amendment is not an empty declaration of values. Rather, it experiments with new forms of environmental protection and enforcement that transform municipal governments into venues of civic participation and the defenders of basic rights to water and life, for humans and the natural world.

Further, LEBOR takes on the power structure. “Corporations,” it reads, “that violate this law, or that seek to violate this law, shall not be deemed to be ‘persons.’” It envisions a structural power shift within the law.

Hoo boy. That last clause really puts the cat among the pigeons.

If you think declaring ecosystems persons, and giving them rights, will help save that lovely, fleeting, ephemeral thing, Lake Erie, then go sign the petition here (and leave a message of support). You might also pass along the link to your friends, either in real life or on social media. Thanks!

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This entry was posted in Environment, Politics on January 19, 2020 by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered.
To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

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