The Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) project encompasses 8.3 million acres, and focuses on mitigating the harmful nutrients that drain from the basin into Western Lake Erie. Most of this project’s focus has been on mitigating the runoff from developed lands that leads to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the basin. This overabundance of harmful nutrients ultimately drains into the Maumee River and into Western Lake Erie. Since the WLEB project began, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies have worked with farmers and policy-makers to slow the flow of water in and around the basin and improve the quality of the soil.
This incredibly expansive project has its roots in a much earlier effort, however, and one that is considered a historic benchmark in cooperation between farmers, environmentalists, and various agencies across county and state borders.
In early 1994, work began on a project that centered around a 110-mile watershed covering parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The goal of this effort was to protect the clear waters of Fish Creek, a stream that flows into the St. Joseph River in Ohio and is home to 42 species of fish and 31 species of mussels. Part of our strategy has been to reforest hundreds of acres along Fish Creek, most notably at Douglas Woods Nature Preserve.
The Nature Conservancy’s interest in Fish Creek began with a focus on three federally-endangered species of mussels, one of which is found nowhere else in the world: the White Cat’s Paw pearly mussel. This filter-feeding mollusk is extremely sensitive to pesticide-runoff and sediment-rich waters, and is able to survive in Fish Creek alone due to the creek’s extremely high water quality.
In order to protect the only surviving population of White Cat’s Paw mussels, The Nature Conservancy partnered with several environmental and agricultural agencies that each sought to protect the soils that drain into Fish Creek. By providing incentives to farmers to adopt a no-till policy and by re-establishing forests that act as buffers to the watershed, these efforts have proven successful in the 20 years since the project initially began. The project has also grown immensely - and has now expanded to include the entire Western Lake Erie basin.
The ongoing success of these projects demonstrates the interconnected nature of all the lands we seek to protect. By promoting an increased awareness of nutrient-runoff into the waters we use on a daily basis, we have taken a significant step toward improving water quality everywhere. And by successfully cooperating with a wide range of organizations, farmers, and policy-makers, we have set new standards in combined environmental efforts toward a cleaner, healthier future.