Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay support fishing, boating, swimming and even a craft beer industry, but there are threats to these resources. The Lake Erie watershed in Pennsylvania is small, but the lake supplies drinking water to a quarter of a million people in the state, and is part of the largest freshwater system in the world. 

A new report, Our Water, Our Future: A Common Agenda for Protecting Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Watershed was released by PennFuture with the help of a dozen environmental and community groups and advisors.

“The common agenda is a common document that’s created through collaboration,” said Sarah Bennett, lead author of the report and campaign manager for clean water advocacy in PennFuture’s Erie office.  

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Bennett about their efforts.

LISTEN  to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: What are the threats to water quality in the Lake Erie watershed, and how do you prioritize them?

Sarah Bennett: We have five direct threats. The prioritization was based on impacts to the environment and aquatic organisms, impacts to our economy, and impacts to public health. 

[The direct threats] are surface runoff, including stormwater, agricultural runoff and sewage; climate change and extreme weather events; fossil fuels and plastics; invasive species, and the legacy pollution based on our industrial past. 

Then we have some more indirect threats. We considered environmental justice and lack of racial equity an indirect threat to water quality. At the state level, cuts to our state agencies that are tasked with protecting our water resources undermine their capacity to do their jobs. 

Holsopple: Let’s talk about the special focus on equity and inclusion. Erie County has declared racism a public health crisis. How was that worked into this document, and how does it show up in the solutions?

Bennett: We really think that moving forward, any new initiative needs to address this. Across the country, Pennsylvania and Erie included, we know that environmental degradation and pollution disproportionately impacts people of color. That’s well-established, and there’s a lot of evidence to support that. 

In Erie, if you take a look at the county resolution, they have stark disparities in health outcomes between Black people and people of color and white people in Erie County. We did have three local organizations — Green New Deal Coalition of Erie and Meadville, Erie County United and U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants in Erie — review the document after we had put it together to make sure we were making the strongest calls that we could. 

Specific recommendations that we’ve made for this include establishing an Erie County Council Environmental Justice Committee. We also recommend an environmental advisory council to Erie County Council and to have a major focus of those bodies be examining violations to environmental regulations, and whether or not those are disproportionately impacting our marginalized communities. 

At the municipal level, we recommend community advisory committees. The goal is to have representation from neighborhoods elected by neighborhoods and that the people who are on those committees live in those neighborhoods, so that we improve communication between government and people living in the neighborhoods. 

Everyone is part of the decision making process. It will take longer, and it probably will be a little bit messier to do things that way, but if we want real change that’s sustainable and raises all boats, that’s the way we have to do it.

Holsopple: How is climate change specifically impacting the watershed?

Bennett: First of all, Erie has been recognized by Climate Central as the eighth fastest warming city in the country. I’m sure they looked at cities of certain sizes. 

We’ve also seen extremely high water levels. That is expected to happen more in the future. But we may also see extremely low water levels, because the climate changing means that the pattern is going to change. So you’re going to have extended periods of either really wet weather or really dry weather, and that’s going to impact the lake.

Holsopple: What are some of the proposals for solutions? 

Bennett: Among our calls for addressing causes of climate change include developing a really strong urban tree management program, planting more trees and managing those trees so that we have the mature trees that can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That will help. 

We call for supporting community solar at the state level. There’s some legislation that needs to be passed if we want to be more resilient to climate change.

[For] things like torrential downpours and the flooding that they cause, we call for increased protection of wetlands and implementing riparian zones, which are native plants that surround streams and implementing green stormwater infrastructure that basically mimics a wetland and can hold more water. These things also address that number one threat of surface runoff.

Holsopple: How does the petrochemical industry and the oil and gas industry impact the watershed?

Bennett: The Erie region, especially the Lake Erie watershed, doesn’t see the same impacts than other parts of the state do. We don’t have fracking happening in the Lake Erie watershed. 

What we do have are several abandoned and orphaned wells. Those leak into groundwater. They also emit methane and volatile organic compounds, and so can also contribute to air pollution. 

Our biggest issue here in Erie is plastic. We see huge amounts of plastic litter getting into our streams and into Lake Erie. We also have a thriving plastic molding industry up here in Lake Erie. Plastic molding requires plastic pellets, also called nurdles. That’s the virgin plastic that comes into the county. We know that those pellets are escaping.  

As far as the pellets go, there is a program called Operation Clean Sweep. That’s a series of things that these companies can do to keep the pellets from escaping from their plants. Also at the state level, we’d like to see legislation that better controls pellet pollution from the time that it’s produced through transportation and transfer.

Holsopple: Reading this plan, it looks like a response to economic development plans taking shape in Erie right now to try to get the economy back.

Bennett:: One of the things that happens in a place like Erie, which has been economically depressed for so long, is that people desperately need jobs. They need family-sustaining jobs that pay a prevailing wage, and so there’s a tendency to accept anything at any cost. 

What we’re calling for is for Erie decision makers to push back against that tendency, and to instead say, ‘The residents come first, human health comes first.’ The future of this region depends on our water resources. We need to protect them as much as we possibly can, and to be really careful about who gets to do business here and what impact are they going to have on the people and the water.

Holsopple: What’s next? How will you try to get some of these ideas implemented, and how will they be funded? 

Bennett: We’ll be briefing our elected officials and government departments through the new year. It’s going to be a collaborative effort to figure out what are the next steps and really make the case for water protection at all levels of decision-making. 

As far as funding goes, we are fortunate that we are a Great Lakes community. There are federal funds called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that we have utilized, but that I think we could utilize more fully to pay for things like green stormwater infrastructure and climate change resilience. 

At the state level, PennFuture and many of the water coalitions across Pennsylvania have been advocating for a state water project fund to be established. PennFuture published a document called the Green Stimulus and Recovery Platform for Pennsylvania this summer, and that has a number of changes or implementations that could be made to help fund a program like that. 

I think sometimes if we think about things differently, that will open up new funding opportunities that we never even knew existed because we weren’t thinking along those lines. For example, if you needed to upgrade stormwater infrastructure, and you wanted to put in new pipes, you’re going to have certain funding avenues for that. But if now you’re going to incorporate green stormwater infrastructure into those upgrades, that’s going to open up a whole new avenue of funding.