Conference touts importance of water-human relationship

Douglas M. Kafury

Water Resources Research Institute Director Robert Heath compared humans in the Lake Erie Watershed ecosystem to elephants in the Serengeti’s ecosystem at the institute’s 13th annual conference, “Large Lake Ecosystems: Balancing Human Needs and Ecosystem Services.”

The purpose of the conference was to re-envision ecosystems in a human context, Heath said.

“Most conferences on ecosystems would look at the bio-physical aspects only, or they would be social scientists and they would look at human behavior only,” Heath said. “This conference is an attempt to bring those two together.”

Heath said people tend to consider ecosystems as being devoid from human influence, but with the Lake Erie watershed, humans are an integral part of the ecosystem.

“It’s attempting to put a human face on ecosystems,” Heath said. “Often people look at the effects of humans as being entirely detrimental to ecosystems. As it turns out, that isn’t the way it is at all, especially ecosystems such as the one here.”

The conference featured 12 presentations from land-use planners, biologists, geographers, ecosystem ecologists, geologists, economists and mathematical modelers. Participants and attendees came from universities such as Heidelberg, Mount Union, Ohio University and Ohio State as well as non-governmental organizations.

The participants in this year’s conference looked at the human influence on the ecosystems. The conference focused mainly on the Lake Erie watershed, which is an area that drains into the lake. Kent is located in the outlying portion of that ecosystem.

Peter Richards, of the Water Quality Laboratory at Heidelberg College, gave a bit of a history lesson regarding nutrient flow into Lake Erie from the Cuyahoga River when it was on fire. Richards said that an influx of nutrients got into the river, which caused it to burn, and the river was carrying those nutrients, especially phosphorus, into Lake Erie. Mandates were made to alleviate the problem.

Keynote speaker David Culver, from the department of zoology at Ohio State, echoed some of Richards’ remarks.

Richards said people began to change their habits with regards to what was entering the river, and the water quality improved greatly. However, the nutrients in the river that ultimately enter the lake, are again rising.

Melinda Huntley, executive director of Lake Erie Coastal Inc., took a different approach to looking at humans in ecosystems. She spoke about tourism and the economic impact on Lake Erie. Because the lake was perceived as dirty, tourism dropped off.

“Can we carve out another Lake Erie?” Huntley said. “No. Those are resources that are inherent to where we live, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Huntley said spending money to preserve the natural integrity of the lake would in turn bring more money back to the area.

Contact science reporter Douglas M. Kafury at [email protected].