Its very name originates from the Iroquois word for “lake of shining waters.”
But it’s been difficult for Lake Ontario to live up to that name in recent years. In 2012, a study by the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project classified it as the most threatened of the Great Lakes, due to invasive species like zebra mussels and sea lampreys, nitrogen runoff that feeds harmful algae blooms, and pollution from mercury and PCBs.
Fortunately, we have made a lot of progress in first identifying these problems and then finding solutions to make Lake Ontario and its many tributaries cleaner, safer places. But proposals in President Donald Trump’s federal budget could take that all away.
Part of his proposed $2 billion in cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency includes slashing $300 million that funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was created in 2010 to clean up toxins, combat invasive species, protect watersheds from polluted run-off and restore nearby wetlands. Since then, $2.2 billion has funded more than 2,000 projects across the eight states that border the lakes and the waterways that flow to them, many in New York.
That includes the fight against invasives like the water chestnut in Lake Ontario that has made its way to the Oswego and St. Lawrence rivers. Clumping together, water chestnuts create large floating mats of vegetation that can restrict recreational shoreline and limit penetration of sunlight, affecting the growth of native plants on the lake bottom and disrupting the area ecosystem.
Joseph Chairvolotti, executive director of the Oswego County Soil and Water conservation District, told Oswego News that recent efforts to control the spread of water chestnuts has seen some success and new treatments are beginning this year.
The GLRI also helps aquatic species that are supposed to be here. One project is conducting surveys for bog turtles in approximately 130 wetlands in Wayne and Cayuga counties, which is a federally threatened animal.
Many projects have obviously focused on the safety of all-too-important fish in the lake, like identifying fish pathogens and finding proper remedies, including prevention measures of a new outbreak of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), which killed off a lot of fish in Lake Ontario a few years ago.
The GLRI has allowed the U.S. Geological Survey to take on a mission restoring native fish to Lake Ontario like the Atlantic salmon. At one time, Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario represented the largest freshwater population of salmon in the world. Reintroducing them will help restore a natural balance of the food web. Reintroducing sturgeon, which has been nearly extinct in Lake Ontario for a hundred years, is also softening the blow of invasives like zebra mussels, which sturgeon consume.
More and healthier fish means more fishermen, a sport that contributes significantly to the economies of lake shore towns. In 2011, spending on hunting and fishing related activities totaled over $5 billion in New York state. In Oswego County alone, the overall economic impact of sport fishing is estimated to be around $42 million.
And speaking of local economies, so many small towns and villages depend on the water to be clean not just for fishing, but for other types of recreation like swimming and boating. Areas from the Niagara River to the Thousand Islands depend on summer tourists to take part in these activities. There are more than 100 beaches along Lake Ontario and the GLRI has funded several efforts to improve the water quality of those beaches, which keeps them open. The initiative has put a lot of work into Rochester area beaches, which have one of the thickest green algae beds in the Great Lakes, fed by phosphorus that gets into the water from fertilizers and detergents. The slimy, smelly organism has clogged area beaches in recent years, keeping swimmers away or closing beaches entirely.
The GLRI helps reduce toxic contamination from household cleaning products and supports workshops promoting the use of nontoxic products and sustainable practices in several communities along the lake. It also monitors levels of bacteria in the water from sewage and supports dredging efforts to remove contaminated sediment. Let’s not forget that the Great Lakes is the largest supplier of freshwater drinking water in the world. Lake Ontario alone provides drinking water for nine million people.
Let’s also not forget that, as Gordon Lightfoot said, “further below, Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her.” Many toxins that originate from the shores of Wisconsin and Michigan can make their way here eventually on their way to the ocean. And there’s no border in the middle of the lake either. Our neighbors on the Canadian shore are also concerned about the proposed cuts to the GLRI.
Thankfully, there are many in Congress, which actually determines the budget, who oppose Trump’s cuts, including Rep. John Katko and even Rep. Chris Collins, one of Trump’s earliest supporters. Indeed, funding the GLRI has seen overwhelming bipartisan support over the years.
It’s not difficult to see why. Our Great Lakes are a national treasure and we have to be good stewards to them. The GLRI helps us to be so. Like water itself, its benefits are fluid and apparent on just about every level, from the ecosystem to the economy. GLRI projects help us keep the lake of shining waters shining as best we can.
Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88