Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution

Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania agreed to cooperate with the federal government in a program to halt the severe pollution of Lake Erie. The pollution sped up an organic process called “cultural eutrophication,” whereby the lake began to age prematurely because of wastes from human activities.

Summary of Event

In 1965, Governor James A. Rhodes of Ohio requested an interstate enforcement conference for representatives of all the states within the Lake Erie watershed (Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) and the federal government. Lake Erie had become so polluted that public indignation over its condition had reached Rhodes at the statehouse. A Cleveland automobile dealer named David Blaushild Blaushild, David had instituted a petition campaign called Save Lake Erie that resulted in more than one million signatures. In April, 1965, Blaushild turned the petitions over to Governor Rhodes. In turn, Rhodes sent them to John W. Gardner, U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare (HEW), Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;pollution with a request for the interstate enforcement conference. The conference was held in Cleveland, Ohio, in August, 1965. Pollution;United States
Lake Erie
Environmental policy, U.S.;state governments
[kw]Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution (Aug. 12, 1965)
[kw]States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution, Five (Aug. 12, 1965)
[kw]Lake Erie Pollution, Five States Take Steps to Halt (Aug. 12, 1965)
[kw]Pollution, Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie (Aug. 12, 1965)
Pollution;United States
Lake Erie
Environmental policy, U.S.;state governments
[g]North America;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
[g]United States;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
[c]Environmental issues;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
[c]Government and politics;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
[c]Natural resources;Aug. 12, 1965: Five States Take Steps to Halt Lake Erie Pollution[08510]
Rhodes, James A.
Gardner, John W.

Lake Erie, as one of the Great Lakes of North America, represents a significant source of fresh water for the people of the United States and Canada. As the shallowest and southernmost of these immense lakes, it was the furthest along in the process of eutrophication, or natural aging of the lake, even prior to settlement. In the early 1800’s, humans began accelerating this process, so that by the middle of the twentieth century, the lake had aged alarmingly and in fact was almost dead of “old age.” The early settlers drained a vast coastal wetlands and stripped away much of the natural vegetation that formed a protective cover over the rich upland soils. The watershed tributaries then carried high amounts of sediment to the lake, silting over fish-spawning reefs in the shallow western basin.

Industry followed agriculture along the banks of the lake’s main tributaries, the Detroit, Maumee, Black, Cuyahoga, and Buffalo rivers, giving rise to the cities of Detroit, Toledo, Lorain, Cleveland, and Buffalo, respectively. The increased population, along with the use of artificial fertilizers on farmlands, brought more and more nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) to the lake, which accelerated the aging process (termed cultural eutrophication because the aging process was speeded up by wastes from human activities). The nutrient pollution nourished the algae, creating mats of blue-green plankton that blanketed most of the western basin and long reaches of the central basin’s south shore in the early 1960’s.

By 1965, researchers had identified most of Lake Erie’s pollution problems. One of the greatest problems was overenrichment of the lake’s waters. Each year, approximately 28,000 tons of phosphorus washed into the lake and fostered excessive plant productivity. Profuse algae growths occurred in the western basin of the lake and along the south shore. The obvious disadvantages of this nutrient enrichment were surface algae-scums and algae-littered beaches. Other algae-related problems included taste and odor in drinking water supplies and clogging of water intakes.

Even more serious, overenrichment produced latent problems that disrupted the natural balance of the lake. When the algae dried and sank to the lake bottom in massive amounts, it became incorporated in the sediment. As this organic matter decayed, large amounts of the water’s life-giving oxygen were consumed. During the summer, the lake underwent thermal stratification, which limited the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere to the lake bottom. As a result, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the lake was reduced. Major changes took place in the aquatic food chain when certain bottom-dwelling organisms were suffocated. Eventually, desirable fish stock in the lake were stressed by lack of adequate food, and populations declined.

By the end of the 1960’s, a large portion of the hypolimnion (bottom layer of water in the lake) was anoxic, being totally depleted of oxygen in the late summer months. This circumstance resulted in the extirpation of several cold-water fish species that normally dwelled in the cooler bottom waters of the lake. At the same time, many of the recreational beaches along the lake were closed because of high coliform bacteria counts from sewage discharges, or were unusable because of objectionable algal debris.

At the Cleveland Interstate Enforcement Conference Cleveland Interstate Enforcement Conference (1965) (August 11 and 12, 1965), the deteriorated condition of Lake Erie was documented by state and federal researchers, who predicted a dire future for the lake unless immediate steps were taken to halt pollution and reverse the worsening trends in water quality. Representatives from the states of Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as HEW, established a set of requirements to abate the pollution of Lake Erie. On August 12, the requirements were eventually agreed to and signed by the governors of all the states within the Lake Erie watershed, and by the secretary of HEW.

The key conclusions and recommendations of the conference were the basis for later actions that initiated the recovery of Lake Erie. The conferees concluded that the lake and many of its tributaries were polluted. The main body of the lake had deteriorated in quality at a rate many times greater than its normal aging processes as a result of the inputs of wastes resulting from human activities. Identified pollutants contributing to damages to water uses in Lake Erie were sewage and industrial wastes, oil, silts, sediment, floating solids, and nutrients. Enrichment was caused by human-made contribution and was proceeding at an alarming rate. Pollution in Lake Erie and many of its tributaries caused significant damage to recreation, commercial fishing, sportfishing, navigation, water supply, and aesthetics.

The conferees further concluded that eutrophication of Lake Erie was the major concern and that the reduction of one or more of the nutrients in the lake would be beneficial in controlling algal growths. Also, many sources of waste discharge had inadequate waste treatment facilities. They noted that the lack of such adequate facilities, and the complex municipal, industrial, and biological nature of the problem caused delays in controlling this pollution.

In summary, the conferees confirmed that interstate pollution of Lake Erie existed. Discharges into the lake endangered the health and welfare of persons in states other than those in which such discharges originated. In large measure, this pollution was caused by nutrients that overfertilized the lake. This pollution was, therefore, subject to abatement under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1956) of 1956, and assistance from the federal government was requested.

The conferees went on to make specific recommendations and to adopt schedules for abatement of waste discharges to the U.S. portion of the Lake Erie drainage basin. The recommendations were approved by the secretary of the interior and implemented by the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (a forerunner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Some of the recommendations included secondary treatment of municipal wastes to reduce phosphates and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) as well as other deleterious substances, disinfection of municipal waste effluents to reduce coliform bacteria densities, all new-sewage facilities to be designed to prevent the necessity of bypassing untreated wastewater, and prohibition of combined storm and sanitary sewers.

Additional recommendations dealt with programs to control agricultural runoff, to improve industrial practices in waste management, to prevent accidental spillage of pollutants, and to report discharges of waste to Lake Erie and its tributaries. A series of water-pollution surveillance stations was also proposed for Lake Erie, and a technical committee was established to evaluate water-quality problems and to recommend further abatement measures. In addition to regulation of the states and the federal government, binding pollution abatement agreements and remedial schedules were established for 118 units of municipal government and 146 industries for compliance within five years.


The deteriorating conditions of Lake Erie concerned state agencies and private citizens in the early 1960’s, and gradually this concern translated into action. The agreement reached at the Cleveland conference in August, 1965, was a major turning point in the fight against Lake Erie pollution. For the first time, all of the states in the lake’s drainage basin decided to work together with the federal government to solve an interstate problem.

The passage of the Water Quality Act Water Quality Act (1965) in 1965 gave new urgency and support to the cooperative work already under way. The establishment of interstate water-quality standards was required by this act. These standards, developed through a joint effort by the states and the federal government, constituted a focal point for even greater effort. The 1966 Clear Water Restoration amendments Clear Water Restoration amendments (1966) secured the adoption of a uniform policy of standards to interstate water. The amendments also called for much larger federal expenditures in water-pollution control.

In the 1970’s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established, and a joint U.S.-Canadian campaign was initiated for all of the Great Lakes. Tough new amendments were passed, such as the Clean Water Act (1972), which fostered renewed cooperative efforts by the states, EPA, Canada, industry, and private citizens to restore Lake Erie.

The first signs that the conditions of the open waters of Lake Erie were improving appeared in the mid-1970’s. Airline pilots noted that the sheets of shimmering blue-green algae were receding. Clear-water game fish stocked in the lake survived, when only a decade earlier they would have perished. Some beaches that had been closed for years were safe enough to be reopened.

The maximum size of the area without sufficient oxygen to support fish is difficult to measure in Lake Erie and is highly dependent on meteorological conditions from year to year. From 1966 to 1975, however, the area of anoxia declined from nearly 70 percent of the central basin’s bottom to less than 10 percent. The trend indicated this change was typical of general improvement in water quality during the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Other encouraging signs included a decline in the amount of salts dissolved in the lake. For example, chloride showed a dramatic improvement, falling 26 percent from 1966 to 1979.

The improvement that began in the 1970’s continued into the 1980’s. Nutrient-loading decreased, phosphorus concentrations in Lake Erie dropped, sources of contamination by several toxic substances were checked, levels of certain metallic and organic contaminants in lake sediments and the biota subsided, clear-water forms of plankton and bottom animals showed signs of recovery, and fish populations rebounded. Cause-and-effect relationships of all these changes were not clear, most of the improvements were modest, and conclusive trends were difficult to establish with certainty. Evidence of the lake’s recovery mounted, however, and by the early 1990’s, most scientists agreed that Lake Erie had improved and that the lake no longer manifested the serious effects of overenrichment. The lake continues to age, but at a much slower and more natural rate. Pollution;United States
Lake Erie
Environmental policy, U.S.;state governments

Further Reading

  • Ashworth, William. The Late, Great Lakes: An Environmental History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. An account of the environmental degradation that has occurred in the Great Lakes and the attempts that have been made to restore them. The devastating effects of toxic contaminants, such as chromium, DDT, mercury, oil, and PCBs are discussed in historic perspective.
  • Barry, James P. The Fate of the Lakes: A Portrait of the Great Lakes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1972. This abundantly illustrated book documents the vital ecological concerns faced by Canada and the United States in managing the Great Lakes. Pollution problems such as untreated sewage, mercury contamination in fish, nutrient enrichment, and oxygen depletion are discussed for Lake Erie.
  • Bolsenga, Stanley J., and Charles E. Herdendorf. Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair Handbook. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1993. This highly illustrated book describes the conditions, processes, and natural features of the coastal and offshore waters of Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. Presents a comprehensive view of environmental quality, including a discussion of eutrophication and oxygen depletion that have resulted from excessive phosphorus enrichment.
  • Burns, Noel M. Erie: The Lake That Survived. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985. Traces the impact of human presence on Lake Erie from precolonial times to the present. This book graphically illustrates how indiscriminate dumping of waste into the waters of the lake made it one of the worst cases of environmental degradation. Describes the measures taken to save the lake.
  • Fortner, Rosanne W., and Victor J. Mayer, eds. The Great Lake Erie. Columbus: Ohio State University Research Foundation, 1993. This book was designed as a reference text for educators. Contains several chapters on the effects of human activities on the lake.
  • McGucken, William. Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Controlling Cultural Eutrophication, 1960’s-1990’s. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2000. Part of the Technology and the Environment series, this work provides analyses of Lake Erie’s pollution and pollution-control history, programs to reverse overenrichment, international and national cooperation to save the lake, and the damages caused by detergents.
  • Panek, Jennifer, David M. Dolan, and John H. Hartig. “Detroit’s Role in Reversing Cultural Eutrophication of Lake Erie.” In Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home, edited by John H. Hartig. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 2003. Tells the story of how Detroit residents answered the call to care for Lake Erie and one of its tributaries, the Detroit River. Also includes an essay on public response to Detroit River pollutants, namely oil.
  • Stoermer, Eugene F. “Bloom and Crash: Algae in the Lakes.” In The Enduring Great Lakes: A Natural Book, edited by John Rousmaniere. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. Discusses the concept of a dead Lake Erie in terms of the production of living organisms. Identifies the sources of phosphorus and other nutrients that have stimulated the overgrowth of algae in the lake and explains the undesirable results.

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