As the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is also the most fertile, producing more fish than the other Great Lakes combined. The lake's western basin, which averages just 24 feet, is where Lake Erie's productivity reaches its zenith. It is a hot spot for sport fishing enthusiasts chasing trophy walleye, boating and sailing, waterfowl hunting, bird-watching and other recreational pursuits.
Spanning just over seven million acres in the U.S., the Western Lake Erie Basin encompasses parts of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Historically this area included the Great Black Swamp, which covered nearly a million acres of Northwest Ohio with wetlands.
Over the past 150 years people, drained this vast wetland, altering land throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin to create places for us to live, work and grow our food. In the process, we developed many of our coastal areas and unique ecosystems.
Just five percent of the basin’s wetlands remain today, and most are diked to protect them from the erosive forces of wind and waves. Very little of the basin is still forested. Threats to the basin’s health include:
- Excess levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which have led to massive algae blooms that are causing toxins in drinking water supplies, fish kills, fouled beaches and unsafe swimming conditions.
- Changes in land use, which have altered water flow, making catastrophic flooding in the tributaries more common as severe storm events increase.
- Invasive species such as Phragmites, or common reed, are outcompeting native plants, thereby reducing food and shelter for wildlife and changing water flow.
The Nature Conservancy is working with a wide variety of partners to find a balance between protecting important natural areas for wildlife like migratory birds, maintaining agricultural productivity, ensuring safe drinking water supplies and securing world-class recreational opportunities. We have a long history in the region, and are building and expanding on that work to encompass the entire basin from headwaters to river mouths and Lake Erie.
Working with Agriculture: We are working with farmers and using science to target conservation practices where they will most effectively reduce nutrient and soil loss and improve drainage, through programs such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program.
Restoring and Reconnecting Coastal Wetlands: We are collaborating with multiple partners to protect, restore and expand the remaining coastal wetlands and, where feasible and most beneficial, reconnect them to the open waters of Lake Erie. In addition to the restoration of these unique coastal wetlands, The Nature Conservancy is working to identify upstream areas where we can assist to restore streams, floodplains and wetlands to better manage nutrients, flooding and wildlife.
Preserving Great Places and Inspiring Support: We are protecting and restoring critical natural areas in the Western Lake Erie watershed, such as at our Great Egret Marsh Preserve and Kitty Todd Preserve. Through partnerships like the Green Ribbon Initiative, we’re educating and inspiring people, most visibly with our support of outreach efforts like Blue Week and the Biggest Week in American Birding.
The Nature Conservancy has a long history of land protection and restoration in Western Lake Erie Basin. We are building on that work and expanding it to encompass the entire basin from headwaters to open water. In this working landscape, we are collaborating with others to restore a dynamic, functioning system that meets the needs of people while maintaining its health and resilience.
Using the 4Rs helps achieve sustainable plant nutrition management while also considering water quality.
Learn how we're finding solutions to a toxic problem.
Meet the team working to protect the health of the Western Lake Erie Basin.