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Residents voice concern over poor quality of Great Lakes

There was not a plastic water bottle in sight, when more than 100 people attended a public meeting on Great Lakes Water Quality on Tuesday night.

And that, intentional or not, was suitable for the gathering.

That's because 80 percent of the debris in the Great Lakes is caused by micro-plastics like water bottles and lids, microbeads and fibers from clothes, said one of the experts who spoke at the daylong seminar on water quality sponsored by the International Joint Commission and conducted in six cities across the Great Lakes region.

Audience members drank water from paper cups as they participated in the event, held at WNED-TV studios on Lower Terrace in downtown Buffalo.

The meeting was one of six taking place across the Great Lakes region this month. Commissioners wanted to hear from residents about its draft report documenting the last three years of Great Lakes cleanup progress and its report card of the Canadian and United States governments under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

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Newfane resident Charles Henderson knew firsthand the blight that plastics can create in a body of fresh water.

Henderson, who lives by Olcott Beach, took part in a recent cleanup of the shoreline and was appalled by the plastic heaped at water's edge.

"Lake Ontario is the cesspool of the Great Lakes," Henderson told the audience and the board of commissioners tasked with monitoring water quality.

Capt. Larry D. Jones, who operates a charter fishing company, complained about access to the water and the increasing buildup of algae.

"The algae forces fisherman to move to our end of Lake Erie," Jones said. "The problem is access. We're getting bottlenecked. There is nowhere to launch, and it's a circus."

Gordon Walker, the Canadian chairman for the commission, attributed much of the algae problem to agriculture runoff.

"Is it too much corn growing near the water?" Walker asked. "Or too much fertilizer and runoff from factory farms close to the water."

There is no option when it comes to restoring the waters of the Great Lakes, experts stressed.

Volunteers clean up during the 31st annual Great Lakes Beach Sweep on Sept. 17, 2016, at Woodlawn Beach State Park in Blasdell. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"We're not looking for answers just from the Ph.D. scientists," said Lana Pollack, a commissioner who represents the U.S. on the IJC. "We are listening to the voices of people. It's an informed, engaged and vocal public."

Audience members spoke of topics including radioactive waste in Lockport that drained into the Erie Canal and the Niagara River; erosion of stream and creek banks in West Seneca that often causes flooding; nuclear waste in West Valley 30 miles away; and a change in lake water depth in Olcott that could increase the flow of waste water.

Later, Pollack would give the Buffalo audience good marks for its concise and deliberate statements. Most of the statements were well short of the three-minute limit set for each speaker.

That was not the case recently in Toledo, Ohio, the site of another water quality public meeting, where an overflow crowd of 170 people vocalized their concerns to the commission.

A panel of three water experts started the night session with five-minute presentations each.

Krystyn Tully, vice president of Swim Drink Fish Canada and co-founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, showed the audience a photo taken two years ago of Toronto's harbor with sewage overflow. It pictured a student kayaker near shore who could have been practicing a rollover. Wastewater overflows are one of the chief problems that must be addressed immediately, Tully insisted.

"You get to the water, but you can't touch it, you can't go into it," Tully said. "Eighty-six percent of people in the Great Lakes basin believe the water must be safe for recreation. There are people who used to think this does not carry weight.

"We disagree," Tully said. "Economy is important, but the lakes offer more. Swimmable and clean water make the lakes a place to be, yet 400,000 people per year will get sick from swimming in the water of the Great Lakes.", a guide to water quality standards of 7,000 beaches in four countries, is a product of her group's attention to recreational water use.

Tully also directed audience members to the Watermark Project located outside the studio near the entrance of WNED. There, booths were set up so stories about people's experiences on the water could be recorded. The stories would be presented to members of the IJC for inclusion in their assessment report.

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Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, says community support played a big role in completing restoration of the Buffalo River. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, spoke of the power of community collaboration in water restoration. It played a huge role in finishing up restoration of 2.5 miles of the once-dead Buffalo River.

"The river was called a 'repulsive holding basin,' " Jedlicka said, showing one old newspaper headline. "The river's surface is not supposed to be a 'boundless mosaic of color,'" she said of another headline.

"Long ago, the answer was to bury Scajaquada Creek," Jedlicka said. "In the 1900s, 3.5 miles of the creek was buried, and we're still living with the ramifications today."

Public comments will become part of the commission's final progress report, which is expected to be submitted to the U.S. and Canadian governments later this year.

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