Great triumphs, worries for lake

Former New York state Assemblyman Dick Smith from Hamburg looked back on one of his first boating experiences as a youngster in the 1960s. He remembered being on a lake that was dying and troubled.

“Orange water,” he said, recalling the shocking color that was caused by runoff from the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna into the waters off Woodlawn Beach. “Algae was so bad along the Lake Erie shoreline that the fish were dying and the stench was so terrible that you couldn’t drive a car down Route 5 with the windows down.”

Since then, Lake Erie has made a comeback due to a greater environmental awareness by industry and the Western New York population.

Smith was the first of many speakers on Wednesday afternoon at the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club in Dunkirk during the annual fishing and learning experience regarding the lake that was put together by the Erie and Chautauqua counties Fishery Advisory Boards.

With the assistance of charter boat captains, local elected leaders and others tied to the Great Lake took a boating excursion in the morning and concluded the day with an update on the lake’s condition and a walleye fish luncheon.

Don Einhouse of the Department of Environmental Conservation in Dunkirk, noted the natural power of Lake Erie produces more fish than all the Great Lakes combined. He said the lake is the most populated and “most productive fresh water fishery on the planet.”

But concerns to the west have made international headlines. Last weekend, an emergency in Toledo, Ohio, was caused by a toxic algal bloom that threatened that area’s water supply. “This year was not expected to be a severe bloom ironically,” said Helen Domske, coastal educational specialist with the New York Sea Grant program.

The two-day crisis caught a city and region unprepared and set off alarms nationwide in regard to our water systems. Nearly 500,000 residents there were forced to use bottled water due to the toxic nature of the bloom, which subsided Monday.

While Domske does caution that an algal bloom could happen here – it was as close as Presque Isle near Erie, Pa., in August last year – it is less likely on the eastern portion of the lake.

“The western basin is very, very shallow with an average depth of about 33 feet so it is much much shallower than our 210 feet deep basin,” she said. “Also our water is colder and our water is moving more because it is moving from here over the Niagara River to Lake Ontario.”

There were no algal bloom concerns on the boat Looney Tunes, which included myself, T.J Pignataro of The Buffalo News and Brian Hayden of Visit Buffalo Niagara. On a calm morning, that included some rain and unexpected waterspouts, we were treated to an educational four hours by Captain Jim Tunney, who received assistance from Ed Schintzius. Both are residents of Sunset Bay and both understand the lake’s importance to their community.

Rich Davenport of the Erie County Fish Advisory Council said Sunset Bay is a big winner when it comes to its economy driven by the lake. Over a nine-month period in 2013, the community brought in $6.7 million thanks to tourism and fishing.

“No other place in the world has two Great Lakes … the upper and lower river, phenomenal tributaries with steelhead and salmon,” Davenport said. “No one else has that but Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties. It speaks volumes for a regional approach that we can all take … to promote it from Pennsylvania to Lewiston.

“Just imagine what the benefits are. There’s nothing we can do but go up.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.