"The view from a kayak’s cockpit is the best possible way to get to know a river."
— Amy Brennan, Lake Erie Conservation Director
Late in the summer of 2014, staff from The Nature Conservancy in Ohio visited parts of the Sandusky River, Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie to meet with local people affected by the water quality problems in the Western Lake Erie Basin. We chose the best way to experience the issues up close—by kayak and canoe. Coming on the heels of the loss of drinking water for 500,000 Toledo residents for almost three days, we witnessed more than we expected in terms of challenges and achievements.
From the obsolete Ballville dam near Fremont to stream banks overrun by invasive weeds to blooms of harmful blue-green algae along the shores of Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge, the visit reaffirmed the importance of the work that our supporters and partners make possible. Staff on the trip share their reflections on what they saw and why there is hope to solve many of the challenges.
“We launched our boats from a golf course just below the Ballville Dam. About 70 miles of the Sandusky River above the dam is a state scenic river. But the dam prevents walleye and other fish from moving upstream to spawn, and so hampers both the ecology and recreation of the river. The Conservancy has joined the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission and others in urging the city of Fremont to remove the dam, restoring the connection between the river and Lake Erie.”
—Anthony Sasson, Freshwater Conservation Manager
“By the time it spills over the dam, the Sandusky River drains thousands of acres of farm land. Fertilizers that wash off those farms contribute to the harmful algae blooms that threaten water quality in Lake Erie. And if those nutrients are washing off the fields they’re not helping the farmers, who want to grow food, not algae. We want to help them do that by working with those who apply the fertilizer for the farmer. People like John Fritz, manager of The Andersons Fremont retail outlet, who visited us as we prepared to launch. We thanked John for his participation in the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification program. The Conservancy has worked in partnership with agricultural leaders like John in developing this voluntary program, which is aimed at reducing excess fertilizer by encouraging best practices among farm retailers.”
—Josh Knights, Executive Director
“The view from a kayak’s cockpit is the best possible way to get to know a river and this trip proved to be no exception. We saw plenty of nature: longnose gar below our boats, bald eagles soaring against robin’s-egg skies, great egrets stalking frogs in the shallows. And we witnessed plenty of threats to nature: combined sewer overflows, concrete-clad riverbanks and miles of phragmites, a non-native grass that forms impenetrable thickets in the floodplain and chokes out native plants. And as we neared Sandusky Bay, we checked our smart phones for news of the summer’s harmful algae blooms.”
—Amy Brennan, Lake Erie Conservation Director
“But for the actions of waterfowl hunters more than a century ago, there wouldn’t be many marshes left along Lake Erie’s coast. Hunt clubs conserved thousands of acres of wetland, while the rest were drained for farmland or vanished under shoreline development. High winds stymied our plan to paddle across Sandusky Bay to the 150-year-old Winous Point Shooting Club, but the Winous staff helped keep us on the water by loading us into shallow draft boats for a tour of their marshes. Winous and other private land owners have worked with the Conservancy, with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, to wipe out hundreds of acres of phragmites, giving nature a second chance.”
—Tara Baranowski, Lake Erie Coast and Islands Project Manager
“We wrapped up our second day with a stunning sunset paddle at the Conservancy’s Great Egret Marsh, a new preserve on Lake Erie’s coast in Ottawa County. But the next day, events kept us off the water. A sobering public health advisory wanted us that harmful algae blooms made the water unfit to touch. We were not surprised. Two weeks before we embarked on our journey, toxins created by harmful algae blooms shut down the city’s water supply for three days and brought national attention to Lake Erie. Instead of paddling across Maumee Bay to the Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge, we attended a public meeting where Toledo-area residents poured out their frustration to Ohio lawmakers. Afterwards, we visited the wildlife refuge, where the water along the shore was an iridescent green."
—Randy Edwards, senior media relations manager
We had spent much of three days enjoying the beauty of Lake Erie and one of its largest tributaries, but the emotional meeting at Maumee State Park was a sobering reminder that it was time to get back to work. The Nature Conservancy is working on multiple fronts to address the many threats to Lake Erie – invasive species, habitat loss, agricultural runoff and harmful algae blooms. And we do it because we have your support.