The Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper


One of the leading voices in the campaign to rescue Lake Erie from dying again is a persistent, thoughtful, dedicated water protector promoting awareness of the Lake’s benefits, supporting lighthouse restoration, fighting resurgent algae and proposed new pollution sources, and seeking funding to restore all of the Great Lakes. She’s an example of the citizen action that has a fighting chance of fending off multiple threats to the Lakes and renewing their beauty and productivity.

Sandy Bihn, also a newly-elected council member in Oregon, Ohio, describes her beloved western Lake Erie as the “warmest, shallowest, fishiest” zone of the entire five-lake Great Lakes system. The western basin of the lake averages 40 feet or less in depth and as a result is typically warmer than other areas of the Lakes. But it is also one of the most productive, supporting an abundant fishery and attracting multitudes of sport anglers. “The Maumee is probably the best spawning grounds anywhere — and the spring walleye run brings lots of fishermen and money to the local economy,” says Bihn.

Historically fed in part by a clean Maumee River and a giant wetland known as the Black Swamp, the western land basin of the lake is now largely drained, characterized by intensive agricultural and urban uses, and suffers from large volumes of runoff and a large population of non-native aquatic species.  The Detroit River, which drains large areas of eastern Michigan, western Ontario and the Upper Great Lakes, supplies approximately 90% of the flow for Lake Erie. One writer this year said the lake’s problems for the first time cause her to be “embarrassed to say I live on Lake Erie.”

“The bottom line is that the green in western Lake Erie is back and the source, most say, is phosphorous — whatever the form,” Bihn says.  “Sadly, the green algal blooms in 2009 after a cold winter and cool summer look like what many observed in the 1960s and 70s and into the 80’s.  The dead zones follow the algal blooms.”

“Lake Erie is in my heart,” says Bihn, dubbed “Lady of the Lake” by a local magazine, who helped organize the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper organization in association with the national Riverkeeper movement.

Bihn regularly pops up in Great Lakes news media for raising questions about open-lake disposal of dredged silt, a new Toledo-area coke plant that would generate new air and water pollution emissions, and the warm water discharges of nuclear and electric power plants. She has done much to promote awareness of large-scale outbreaks of algae in the western lake, reminiscent of severe pollution in the 1950s and 1960s, including a fire on the Cuyahoga River that helped galvanize support for the Clean Water Act.

But not all of her work is aimed at defending against threats to western Lake Erie. She is excited about the tourism potential of the area, including restoration of an historic local lighthouse. She works alongside the Toledo Lighthouse Preservation Society.

“There are great opportunities here,” she says, “and I want to make sure they happen.”

Photo credit:  Waterkeeper Alliance.

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