The Great Lakes

Fifty Years Ago:

In 1969, Time magazine made the Cuyahoga River notorious nationwide with an article about a river that “oozes rather than flows,” complete with photographs of the surface of the Cuyahoga in flames. The June 22, 1969 fire that finally brought national attention to the river was one of more than a dozen reported conflagrations on the Cuyahoga dating back a century and, thanks to the movement it spurred, was the last. The Cuyahoga did more than bring attention to itself, it highlighted the poor condition of Lake Erie, threats to the other Great Lakes and pollution in U.S. waterways in general. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency the following year and the Clean Water Act led to massive improvements in water quality, especially as “point sources” of pollution, like the pipes discharging industrial wastes and municipal effluent into American waterways, began to be regulated. 


Photo: Tom Archer, SeaGrant

Photo: Tom Archer, SeaGrant

 While the pursuit of making America’s lakes and rivers “swimmable, fishable and drinkable” led to remarkable improvements in water quality, some of those gains are being lost thanks to “non-point source” pollution, or pollutants carried from the land into the lakes during increasingly intense rain events.  Agricultural fertilizer feeds toxic algal blooms that threaten drinking water intakes and lead to massive fish kills, while combined sewer overflows, a product of outdated municipal stormwater systems, contaminate beaches. We propose to conduct a week-long Institute traveling around Lake Erie as we explore the health of the Great Lakes and the communities along their shores 50 years after we got serious about cleaning them up. Potential topics include:

  • What the Clean Water Act fixed – and didn’t fix.

  • Efforts to curb agricultural runoff and prevent toxic algal blooms like the one that shut down Toledo’s drinking water supply in 2014.

  • How Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects have improved the Great Lakes and the precarious political future of its funding. 

  • What climate models tell us – and don’t tell us – about the future of the lakes.

  • Clean-up efforts on Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

  • The ecological and economic health of the Great Lakes’ $7 billion sport fishery. 

  • The Great Lakes Compact and its ability to keep water in the basin as other U.S. states grapple with dwindling water supplies. 

  • The latest research on emerging water quality threats like invasive species and microplastics.

  • Environmental justice and underrepresented communities’ access to the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

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