Our proximity to the Earth’s most precious natural resource, water, is something that makes us very fortunate in northeast Ohio. With the turn of a handle, Lake Erie provides us with a seemingly endless supply of cheap and accessible water. Our geographical location makes us lucky; we never think twice about watering the lawn, washing the car, or flushing the toilet, while many other nations, and even the rest of our country, struggle to find a sustainable source of water. Of course, this is a huge advantage for all inhabitants of northeast Ohio. As a resource vital to life, the convenience of Lake Erie is obvious. However, never having locally faced the issue of water shortages, could it be possible that this benefit provides us with the false illusion of a permanent resource, and is leading us unprepared into the future?
Education is the key if we want to see Lake Erie remain healthy and useable. Until last year’s algal bloom that left cities without potable water for days, undrinkable water seemed inconceivable in our area. But the unfortunate reality set in that Lake Erie’s water quality is not self-improving process, but rather a reflection of how we treat our waterways. Knowledge in this subject is crucial if we truly want to leave behind drinkable water for generations to come. Instead of living unaware of how water reaches our taps, we as a community need to make an effort to improve our understanding of water as well as what we can do to avoid successive water problems. It is time to stop taking our water for granted, and instead learn how we can appreciate and support the lake.
The basis of the hydrologic cycle starts with rivers and rain. Precipitation flows into rivers, which transport the water into larger bodies (Lake Erie in this case). Almost all precipitation will end up in a river or lake after a period of time, but here are many pathways that a drop of water can take before reaching its destination. In an ideal situation, most rain would fall onto land and be absorbed by soil while slowly percolating into the groundwater system. At the same time, a small portion would be poured directly into a stream, causing a slight increase in water level. Long after a precipitation event, the water absorbed by the ground would eventually make its way to a stream to provide base flow. This part of the hydrologic cycle, ground water, is responsible for keeping streams from drying out between precipitation events by contributing a low, constant flow.
This situation above is how the water cycle should function: a slight rise in water stage from direct precipitation, followed by a slow steady flow. However, man-made structures and landscape changes have drastically adjusted this process. A very prominent issue we are facing today is the abundance of impervious surfaces. As humans continue to develop, natural and absorbent surfaces are replaced by impenetrable materials. Roofs, parking lots, and roadways are some of the main culprits here. Instead of hitting soils, precipitation lands on impervious surfaces and is directed into the storm sewer system that dumps directly into our streams. From this, two major problems arise: First of all, flashier streams. Since storm sewers introduce a higher volume of water into streams at a quicker rate, water level is going to peak much sooner and much higher than it would naturally. Consequently, this makes our streams more prone to flooding and increased erosion. Second, this depletes our ground water resources. Water that was once making its way to the subsurface is now quickly swept directly into the stream. Now, there is less water available to provide a low, constant flow into the stream.
The scenario above deals with water distribution in the hydrologic cycle. On a much less visible scale comes the second large issue we are facing today in Lake Erie: water pollution. Many people do not completely understand the sources of water pollution. They may think of water pollution as some sort of chemical spill, or illegal dumping, when in reality, the main causes of water pollution in our area arise more from daily procedures. These sources can range anywhere from plant fertilizers to your dog’s poop! During precipitation events, water picks up these pollutants and adds them straight to our streams via the storm sewer system. On the streets, automotive byproducts are easily swept off into catch basins and poured right into our rivers. The algae bloom that occurred last year in Lake Erie was traced back to too much phosphate in the lake coming from farmers’ fertilization practices. Whether you realize it or not, you are always connected to the stream system, and your actions can have serious consequences.
As a citizen in northeast Ohio, there are a few things you can do to help maintain our lake.
- Education: Read articles about our waterways or contact environmental organizations for literature.
- Look into proper fertilizing procedures for your lawn so that you are not adding more nutrients than necessary.
- Find out which watershed you are located in and discover the specific challenges your watershed is facing. By educating yourself, you empower yourself to help make changes. If you find out that your watershed has a problem with flooding, install a rain barrel to reduce runoff. If your watershed has highly polluted waters, install a rain garden in your yard to filter pollutants out.
- Volunteer for a local organization that promotes stream health. If a few people can do a few small actions, the benefits will show.
We have already seen what can happen if we become careless with our rivers with last year’s algae bloom. If we want to ensure high quality water for upcoming generations, it is vital that the northeast Ohio community acknowledges what is happening around Lake Erie and chooses to take action rather than brushing it aside. Only then will we be prepared for the future.
Blog Author: Blaine Lary, Watershed Intern