Another excerpt from "The Beautiful Lake" a case study of how Lake Ontario became the most polluted Great Lake, what's being done, and what more we can do about it- book to be published later this year
“Ontario” is said to mean “beautiful lake” in the language of the people who lived here before us. The smallest great lake is still beautiful even after nearly two centuries of abuse and thoughtless exploitation. Bald eagles and ospreys fish its waters and naturalized West Coast salmon and steelhead trout still run up its streams. Even the ancient and storied sturgeon has made a bit of a comeback. Clouds of midges still rise above the willows and cottonwoods of Main Duck Island on summer evenings and the indomitable ringbill and herring gulls soar on winter gales over fields of ice. And each summer tens of thousands of people enjoy fishing and boating on its wide waters, this writer among them.
I have sailed on and written about Lake Ontario for forty years. Recently I circumnavigated the lake with two shipmates. We sailed aboard the Sara B, an elderly small schooner, latest of various floating observation platforms employed to support my sailing and writing endeavors. On this cruise I sought insight as to how Lake Ontario had become the most polluted of the five Great Lakes and what we could do about it.
Not long after our cruise began I started noticing the power plants. Not just the landmark vapor plume from the top of the Nine Mile 2 nuclear station's massive cooling tower, visible for thirty miles on a clear day, but all the other plants- Ginna, Sommerset, the lofty chimneys of the Oswego and Lennox stations and the various nukes on the densely populated Canadian shore.
After we passed our 7th large generating station it sort of dawned on me-the utter dependence of our current power production on water was glaringly evident here on an inland sea.
The connection between energy and water has been called the most under reported story in the nation. And nowhere is there a better place to see a few aspects of that nexus than on Lake Ontario.
Possibly no other body of water in North America is beset by as many varied and complex forms of impairment and degradation than Lake Ontario. Many are related to the long standing connection between energy and water. Even as life hangs on in this magnificent sometimes mysterious and always interesting Great Lake, I ponder its future while reviewing its past along with my own.
I did not know as we began our cruise that twenty percent of America's water supplies are currently consumed by coal, gas, oil, or nuclear fueled power plants. Only agriculture in the U.S. uses more water.
More power production takes place on Lake Ontario than on any of the other Great Lakes. Eight thermoelectric power generation sites including a dozen operating nuclear reactors, the least water efficient thermoelectric plant type, depend on Lake Ontario for water, while two of North America's biggest hydro power installations lie at either end of the lake. Together the U.S. and Canadian stations at Niagara Falls plus the jointly owned St. Lawrence river power dam produce almost four times as much electricity as Hoover Dam's peak potential output. Niagara Falls is the largest hydro electric power source in North America.
Hydro electric production at each end of the lake has left a legacy of industrial pollution and Manhattan era nuclear waste that ranks among the worst in the nation. One polluted site of national fame, Love Canal, was in large part responsible for passage of the federal legislation known as the Superfund Act. We can at least be thankful for that.
Long before the world's first successful large scale hydro electric plant began sending AC current from Niagara Falls to Buffalo in 1895, Lake Ontario was providing a major energy subsidy to the region. In these times of terrestrial transport via Interstate and railroad, it's easy for landlubbers to forget the importance of waterways to early transport and trade, the determination of national borders, and the rise of the industrial age in North America. A ship buoyed by water can carry a hundred tons of cargo with less energy than that expended by two oxen moving one ton over the same distance.
Ships brought the first European colonizers to the continent along with influenza measles and small pox viruses that colonized and decimated the native populations. Early explorers penetrated deep into the heart of North America by way of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes seeking the riches of Cathy and the Spice Islands. In 1534 Jacques Cartier used the St. Lawrence to sail his carrack the Grande Hermine as far as Montreal. Today the La Chine (The China) Rapids commemorate his misdirected effort to find that elusive Northwest Passage to oriental treasure.
One of our destinations with Sara B was the small port city of Oswego, said to be America's oldest freshwater port. I first visited this run down little rustbelt city in the 1960s aboard a boat thirty years ago. It was a dark and somewhat stormy night. It was raining pretty hard, anyway.
Oswego in the days of commercial sail was the most dangerous port on the lake. Its harbor entrance lies near Ontario's southeastern corner. Huge waves roll down upon it during westerly gales. When an engineless sailing vessel entering the harbor with fifteen foot seas astern encountered the out flow of Oswego River current over the harbor bar, all too often it ended up smashed by the breakers against the stone breakwater.
It wasn't rough the night I entered the harbor, but I almost piled up on the short jetty that protects the river entrance. Peering through rain streaked eye glasses, I mistook the red and green warning lights on each end for channel markers in the river and steered right for the middle. I sheered off from the dimly seen wall of boulders in front of me just in time. But almost every summer nocturnal navigators with faster boats than mine still manage to pile up on the rocks at Oswego.
The city's local economy depends heavily on the production of electricity and energy hungry aluminum products and on a college. Now a state university, the college was founded in 1861 as The Normal School for teachers during the city's glory days by a progressive thinker named Edward Austin Sheldon who believed in active experiential learning rather than rote memorization. I like to think he would have approved of my fact finding cruise.