December 2, 2020

PennFuture Op Ed in the Erie Times-News

Take action now to protect our Lake Erie watershed

Clean water is at the heart of our regional economy and is central to public health, tourism and our shared future. However, our waterways face a variety of threats that will worsen over time if we fail to address them. 

To that end, PennFuture and a dozen other Erie organizations spent the last several months crafting a document called "Our Water, Our Future: A Common Agenda for Protecting Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Watershed." This agenda is the product of months of collaboration to determine the highest priority threats facing the Lake Erie watershed, as well as recommended solutions to those threats. 

The result is a comprehensive list of actions that can be taken at the municipal, county, state and federal levels and by local community organizations to protect the region’s most valuable natural resource.

It is past time that Erie regional residents, businesses and policy makers accept the responsibility of caring for the water resources we so heavily rely upon. Our $1.2 billion tourism, $40 million fishing, and $20 million agriculture industries can only be sustained by abundant clean water. We should continue to use these water assets and celebrate the successes they support, but we also need to recognize that our actions cause negative impacts to these important resources. 

Look no further than Presque Isle State Park, which saw an estimated one million extra visitors this year as people flocked outside amidst the ongoing pandemic. The results of this increased use demonstrates the negative impacts that we can have on these resources. With increased visitors, the park also saw increased litter and additional strain on its limited capital and human resources. 

Another example can be found in lawn fertilization. The fertilizers we apply to our properties run off directly into our waterways and contribute to harmful algal blooms, which then cause harm to aquatic life and lead to beach closures. If this happens more frequently, as is predicted in the future with warming temperatures and increased rainfall, our tourism and fishing industries will suffer the consequences.

The good news is that we can take steps now to protect our water resources, improve our resilience to future changes and ensure that the region has a vibrant future. 

The Common Agenda for Protecting Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Watershed plan includes many recommendations for sustainable development that better protects water resources. For starters, we recommend that municipalities increase protection for existing wetlands and open spaces while implementing more green stormwater infrastructure. This will reduce runoff, which is one of the largest sources of water pollution, and will allow water to be filtered naturally while reducing flooding. 

On the other hand, if we increase impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete that prevent water from being absorbed, we set the stage for more pollution due to runoff and increased flooding. The Erie region has already seen the impacts that heavy rainfall and high water levels can have on infrastructure and property, as well as our cherished Presque Isle State Park. We should do everything we can to prevent future detrimental impacts before they become more commonplace.

We also recommend municipal and county solutions to improve equitable and inclusive decision-making, and to ensure equal access to water resources. Environmental degradation often disproportionately impacts people of color and other vulnerable populations. Protocols that elevate those voices will allow better decision making and better protection for the environment. 

For example, municipalities should implement community advisory committees comprised of people elected by their neighborhoods. The committees can serve as liaisons between municipal governments and residents and allow municipal decisions to better reflect residents’ needs. 

At the county level, an Erie County Council Environmental Justice committee should be established. The council identified racism as a public health crisis this summer and noted many health discrepancies between the county’s Black and white residents in its resolution. A county Environmental Justice committee would monitor environmental violations and concerns in the county, evaluate potential new environmental threats and determine whether or not they have disproportionate impacts on people of color or other vulnerable populations.

It’s clear that many people who live and work in our region have a deep connection to our waterways. From those who grew up playing in creeks to those who enjoy summer concerts on the bay, to avid fishermen and women who seek every opportunity to get out on the water, Erie is a water community and our policies and decisions need to reflect this. 

PennFuture and our local partners encourage you to join the conversation and help make decisions for how we can best protect our water and our future.

Sarah Bennett is the campaign manager for Clean Water Advocacy at PennFuture. The Lake Erie watershed action plan can be reviewed at: