Lake Erie

By the 1960s, Lake Erie had become extremely polluted, in part due to the heavy industry that lined its shores in Cleveland and other cities. Factories dumped pollutants into the lake and the waterways that flowed into it (like the Cuyahoga River) without much government oversight. Waste from city sewers made its way into the lake too, as did fertilizer and pesticides from agricultural runoff.

As a result of these pollutants, Lake Erie contained increased levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which contributed to eutrophication - a process that encourages the development of algal blooms. Dead fish littered the shoreline as a lack of oxygen in the water led to massive fish kills. Episodes like this led to the coining of the phrase - more sensational than factual - "Lake Erie is dead," which started to appear in national publications in the late 1960s.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, bringing more negative national publicity to Cleveland and its polluted waterways. Even though pollution in Lake Erie was a regional problem, Cleveland bore the brunt of the negative publicity.

The burning river and the "dead" lake were major impetuses for the Federal government to step in and deal with water pollution in Cleveland and across the nation. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a measure that tightened regulations on industrial dumping. That same year, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in an attempt to lower the amount of pollutants entering the Great Lakes.

Locally, the city took steps to improve its sewer system and better monitor water quality. Mayor Carl Stokes led the way, pledging to clean up Cleveland's waterways. He appeared before Congress (and his brother, United States Representative Louis Stokes) in 1970 to discuss the issue and seek federal aid. Carl's involvement brought significant media attention to the problem and contributed to the national movement against water pollution.

Images

"Pollution Tidal Wave"

"Pollution Tidal Wave"

This editorial cartoon by Bill Roberts appeared in the Cleveland Press in 1970. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

"Lake Erie, the Dead Seaz"

"Lake Erie, the Dead Seaz"

This editorial cartoon by Bill Roberts appeared in the Cleveland Press on June 3, 1968 Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Algae in Lake Erie

Algae in Lake Erie

Algae grows in the waters of Lake Erie off Cleveland. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Protestors, 1968

Protestors, 1968

Anti-pollution protestors hold signs outside of the water pollution hearings in Cleveland, 1968. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Warning Sign, 1971

Warning Sign, 1971

A sign posted near a Lake Erie beach in Cleveland, 1971 Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Pollution, 1964

Pollution, 1964

A man takes a sample of Lake Erie water polluted with a milky discharge in 1964. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

River Enters Lake, 1966

River Enters Lake, 1966

The brown, polluted waters of the Cuyahoga River enter Lake Erie in this 1966 photo. Image courtesy of Cleveland State Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Video

Lake Erie

"Lake Erie Is Dead" View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Michael Rotman, “Lake Erie ,” Cleveland Historical, accessed March 27, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/58.

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