June 10, 2020

PennFuture Op-Ed in the Erie Times-News

Opinion: Erie’s water resources must be at heart of planning: Sarah Bennett

The shores of Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay offer us a chance to enjoy what the world has to offer, even in times of great uncertainty. Memorial Day marked the official beginning of the tourist season and, despite the pandemic, Presque Isle State Park officials expected higher-than-average attendance during the holiday weekend. We take comfort in the fact that these water resources are a constant presence in our lives.

Water is the lifeblood of the Erie region, and we must do everything in our power to protect it.

Our abundant aquatic resources provide drinking water to more than 200,000 people, but they also provide recreation for residents and tourists alike, directly and indirectly supporting thousands of jobs across the region. In addition, Lake Erie acts as an ever-present and beautiful backdrop to our daily lives.

Despite its importance to the region, it is easy to take our vast water resources for granted.

Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay and their tributaries are part of every conversation about revitalizing our region and attracting people to live, work and recreate here. However, these conversations focus on how we can use the lake, bay or streams, and they rarely include any substantive talk about how our actions impact the water.

We use the lake to our advantage at every opportunity, and rightfully so, but we need to move conversations about Erie’s development to a more sophisticated level that includes caring for this great resource so it can continue to provide for us well into the future.

For example, there are at least two major projects planned for the Erie bayfront — dock wall renovations and the Bayfront Parkway improvement project—that are much-needed, multi-million-dollar projects, and both address problems that have plagued the area for years. The proper studies have or will be done, and current environmental regulations will be followed.

In artists’ renditions of these projects, green space is included because it will make the area more attractive and draw people to the bayfront. At first glance you may think, “Great! Progress! Erie needs this!” And you’d be right. We do. But we also need these projects to serve us well into the future. If Erie is serious about revitalization that lasts and is sustainable, we need to have more holistic conversations about projects like these.

The bayfront corridor is a sea of concrete and buildings. We want to build there because of the beautiful bay and we need functional roads to get there. However, all of these hard surfaces like roads and buildings increase our negative impact on the bay because they increase the amount and rate of pollution running off into the bay. Litter, fertilizer, pet waste and leaked oil all flow into the bay and the lake through runoff when it rains or when snow melts.

This situation seems like a Catch-22, but there is a compromise. Incorporating green stormwater infrastructure and functional green spaces into these plans would allow us to develop the corridor while mitigating our impacts on the water that makes the area so valuable. These implementations would slow down and filter runoff before it reaches the bay.

Now is the time to implement sophisticated solutions to protect our water resources. Precipitation has increased by at least 10 percent since 1986 and is expected to continue to increase in the future. Extreme weather events are expected to be more common.

When these events occur, they increase runoff and, therefore, pollution. They also dramatically increase the erosion of streams, which are needed to support the fisheries we rely on. If we don’t start taking these threats seriously, we are going to be faced with reduced water quality, reduced tourism, increased property damage due to flooding, and very expensive fixes.

These are serious issues that need serious attention, which is why PennFuture has opened a new office in Erie. PennFuture is a leading environmental advocacy organization and is active across Pennsylvania on issues ranging from air and water quality to climate and clean energy.

We work in the halls of Harrisburg and local communities to protect the great waters of Pennsylvania, from the Delaware River to the three rivers in Pittsburgh, to the local streams that comprise the mighty Susquehanna watershed, and now the beautiful shores of Lake Erie.

Here in Erie, PennFuture’s Our Water, Our Future campaign aspires to build a new clean-water coalition to address threats and increase opportunities to improve and conserve water quality.

There are dozens of organizations, agencies and municipalities in the Erie region working on issues related to water. By bringing everyone together, we can promote sustainable development while protecting the most precious resource that connects us all, and build capacity to address emerging threats.

Erie’s water resources are the greatest assets we have. We know this. We rely on this. Let’s fully accept the responsibility of this and take care of those assets so Erie can have a vibrant, sustainable future.

Sarah Bennett is an Erie resident and the Clean Water Advocacy campaign manager for PennFuture, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.