The flow of water through Earth’s rivers, lakes and wetlands has nurtured and sustained life since time immemorial. Beneath the surface and along shores, across floodplains and in wetlands, an abundance of life gathers wherever fresh water is found.
From village wells to irrigated farms and hydroelectric power, we are all dependent on water. But in our efforts to grow crops, expand cities and generate electricity, we have disrupted the natural cycles that sustain life. Freshwater ecosystems and species are declining at an unprecedented rate.
But with this crisis comes an unprecedented opportunity.
Ohio harbors some of the world’s most remarkable freshwater resources, from the shores of Lake Erie in the north, to the banks of the Ohio River that define the state’s southern border, to the wetlands and tributaries in between.
The Lake Effect
Containing 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and 95 percent of North America’s, the Great Lakes are of global importance. They shape our culture and economy, supply drinking water and food to millions of people, and provide flood and drought mitigation.
The shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, is also the most bountiful. It provides more fish for human consumption than the other four lakes combined and draws millions of tourists and sports fishermen each year, generating nearly $9 billion in revenue.
But algae blooms, fish consumption advisories and beach closings are the warning signs of potentially devastating ecological problems in Lake Erie. Changes in water flow patterns, invasive species, unsustainable resource extraction and climate change are taking their toll. The ecological health of Lake Erie is in danger, and that puts the quality of life and economy of many communities at risk.
The Nature Conservancy in Ohio is working hard to restore and protect Lake Erie, utilizing strategies that reach beyond the lake’s shores and islands to the wetlands and tributary rivers that nourish it. Using an array of tools and strategies, from promoting innovative land management practices in river corridors and coastal areas, to tackling invasive species, to advocating for conservation-friendly policies like the Great Lakes Compact, the Conservancy is working to ensure that Lake Erie thrives.
Charting the Course of a River's Future
Defining the southern border of the state, the Ohio River snakes its way through the heart of the country. Along the way, it picks up tributary waters from 14 states, where topography ushers highland waters down a diverse gradient of forest, grassland, farmland and development.
But this land fragmentation poses serious threats to the river’s health and creates tremendous conservation obstacles in a drainage basin that covers about 200,000 square miles. Development, unsustainable forest management and agriculture have chopped up large, well-functioning landscapes into pieces, leaving the river system and its associated forests with few and fewer opportunities to regenerate, and causing sedimentation and bank erosion problems. Dams are also are a serious concern. They restrict flooding, which provides nutrients to forests and agricultural lands alongside a river, and create an obstacle for migrating fish.
For the Conservancy, protection efforts for a landscape of this size require not only strengthening the bonds of scientists from within the organization, but also forging partnerships outside. A team of Conservancy scientists recently teamed up with state and federal agencies, as well as a host of nonprofits, as part of The Ohio River Basin Fish Habitat Partnership, whose members are creating a conservation plan of action for the region.