Protecting the quality of Lake Erie is not only an ecological challenge but a financial one with long-term economic ramifications that will require a great deal of intermunicipal cooperation, according to speakers at a forum Monday.
“Our beaches are closed nearly half of the season. Yet when you look across the lake into Canada, they’re flourishing,” said Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, who arranged the forum of environmental groups and government agencies in the County Legislature Chambers.
Burke noted that Lake Erie this summer has experienced high levels of contaminants, such as E. coli bacteria.
“We are seeing a renaissance in this region, but I can’t see how it can truly move forward until the issue of pollutants in the water is solved,” he added.
Frederick Floss, a professor of economics and finance at SUNY Buffalo State, contrasted the short-term benefits of not holding large-scale polluters of the lake financially accountable with the long-term peril to the lake.
“If we charge people to pollute, it may cost us some jobs today. It may look like we’re slowing down our economy,” Floss said. “But over time, as pollution become more and more (of a problem), the economy stops growing, and people stop coming to Western New York.
“So the real key here is, are we, as a community, willing to pay the price now to have strong economic development later? We need to get the word out that this is just like a savings account. If we pollute the water in the Great Lakes, we pollute our waterfront so that we can’t bring it back,” he added.
Floss and other participants talked about various pollution abatement projects, including controlling runoff from upstream projects, replacing and repairing infrastructure, stopping sprawl and promoting more regional discussions and intermunicipal agreements on protecting the lake.
Nate Drag of the Alliance for the Great Lakes said a holistic approach is required, especially on the regional level.
“Here in Erie County, we’re not going to stop Asian carp from coming in from Chicago ourselves, but we need to be a part of that discussion,” Drag said.
“A lot of the issues that we’re fighting in Erie County aren’t unique to us. Communities across the Great Lakes are dealing with these things from Milwaukee to Rochester to Chicago. So, if we’re part of that regional discussion, I think we can learn a lot,” he added.
Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said that while the scope of the problem might seem intimidating, some comfort can be taken in the fact that there already are efforts at collaboration.
“A lot of the preventative measures that can happen immediately don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to collaborate and to coordinate … across municipalities. At the end of the day, we can’t afford not to. This is our drinking water that we’re talking about. It’s an investment in our resources and an investment in our own health,” Jedlicka said.
Also participating were the Citizens Campaign for the Environment and representatives from the Erie County Department of Health, Erie County Sewers, Erie County Division of Soil and Water and the county Department of Environment and Planning.