WHEN the publicity of Earth Day shined the environmental spotlight on Lake Erie 20 years ago, the public was shocked. Americans were disgusted and outraged when they:
Saw a cesspool reeking with partially decomposed fecal waste and industrial effluent.
Heard about Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, which emptied into the lake - a river whose oil-sodden surface refuse had repeatedly caught fire during this century.
Read about a major ``fresh water'' lake in a eutrophic (lacking oxygen) condition brought on largely by phosphate-laden farmland runoff that was causing massive algae growth each summer and sucking the oxygen from the lake. Fish were dying, and even treated drinking water from the lake often tasted foul.
So, when Ohio's Department of Health reported in 1970 that Lake Erie was ``dead,'' environmentalists took up the challenge to clean up the 9,900-square-mile lake.
Today, two decades and hundreds of millions of dollars later, officials in Ontario, Canada, and in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan are encouraged at the progress that has been made. And in some ways, it's tempting to dub Lake Erie the major ``success story'' of Earth Day.
``The raw water quality has improved greatly in the past 20 years,'' says John Kniepper, director of utilities for Avon Lake, a lake-shore community in northern Ohio. ``The number of chemicals needed to treat the water is down by about one-half. In 1970 we used to use 370 pounds [of chemicals] per million gallons of of water. Now we use 190 pounds.''
Mr. Kniepper says the growth in the number of secondary waste-water treatment plants in the past two decades is primarily responsible for the improved quality of the lake's water.
But most experts say that further improvements to the lake will be difficult, since Lake Erie now looks, smells, and tastes better than it has at any time since Earth Day. Thus, it is unlikely that the nearly 11 million people living near the lake will demand stepped-up efforts to clean it up, these experts say.
``People no longer see the mats of algae. It's no longer the oozing, stinking mess it once was. They're catching fish they didn't before,'' says says Erwin O'Deal, the director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. ``Now, it's difficult to convince the public that problems still exist,'' he adds.
Last week the International Joint Commission (IJC), which oversees major water bodies shared by the US and Canada, issued its strongest warning to date. It said that toxic pollution of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is endangering human health.
``Despite the significance of the Great Lakes and our collective rhetoric to restore and enhance them, we as a society continue to mortgage their future by poisoning, suffocating, and otherwise threatening them,'' the IJC report said.
Lake Erie is unique among the five Great Lakes. With an average depth of 62 feet, it is the shallowest of the lakes. Also, it has the ability to ``flush'' itself out at a rapid rate. It takes a drop of water an estimated 200 years to travel the distance of both Lakes Superior and Michigan, 30 years to flow through Lake Huron, and 10 years to pass through Lake Ontario. But a drop of water entering the west end of Lake Erie in Detroit or Toledo, Ohio, will cascade over Niagara Falls at the east end in less than three years.
TECHNICALLY, then, if all pollution on and around Lake Erie were to stop today, the lake would be pristine by Arbor Day in April 1993. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple.
There has been significant progress in addressing the problems of phosphates and nitrates and in combatting the late-summer algae growth. Pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) concentrations are declining, most experts say. But now that what Steve Sedam of the Ohio Environmental Council calls the ``lumps, chunks, and colors'' have mostly been eliminated from the lake, toxic pollution is a major problem.
``The goal of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 [redrafted in 1978 to include toxics] is to obtain a zero discharge of persistent toxic substances in the entire Great Lakes Basin,'' says Sally Cole-Misch, an IJC representative.
Robert Wysenski, environmental manager for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, counters that a zero-discharge goal is ``unrealistic'' in his lifetime. ``You can't write a `zero' [goal] if you don't have the technology to achieve it.''
While technology may not yet be available to eliminate the sources of pollution, devices to detect the pollution are becoming commonplace. ``Until the last few years,'' says Avon Lake's Kniepper, ``you were unable to measure these [toxic] contaminants. Now we have modern measuring devices.''
Such measuring devices today are so sophisticated that ``part per billion and quadra billion anaylses are now possible,'' agrees Mr. O'Deal.
Ms. Cole-Misch says that with 1,000 toxics in the basin - 362 of them in significant amounts - cutting off the flow of toxics into the lake any time soon is unlikely. Toxic contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, and lead are particularly worrisome. Evidence of toxic-induced genetic defects has shown up in fish, birds, turtles, and other organisms. And the intensity of the toxic is magnified 1,000-fold with each organism as one moves up the food chain.
As a result, various agencies recommend that pregnant women, the elderly, and the young avoid eating certain types of Lake Erie fish. A ``once per human lifetime'' dinner of lake trout is recommended. And some fish species are simply labeled ``unsafe to eat'' under any circumstances.
Also compounding the problem of cleaning up Lake Erie is the problem of sediment - both on the lake's bottom and on the bottom of rivers feeding into the lake. This sediment - sometimes up to nine feet deep - can contain hundreds of toxics that can gradually seep into the water. In particular, the IJC lists eight rivers emptying into Lake Erie as continuing ``areas of concern,'' because of both sediment and existing pollution.
A few experts agree that further laws are needed to monitor farmers' use of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers - chemicals that make their way into and further contaminate Lake Erie. But in general, there is nearly total agreement that more regulations are unnecessary.
``I'd like to see a moratorium on regulations to let us catch up. Many of the regulations are rather esoteric when there are broken sewers that need fixing, but there is too little staff to fix them all,'' says Jim Webber, manager of the industrial waste section of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
Companies are subject to as much as $10,000 a day in fines for discharging industrial waste into the lake or lake tributaries. Both the threat of such fines and companies' fears of adverse publicity have helped prevent discharges, water-quality experts say.
Oil and gas spills are reported now, and cleanup usually occurs within a day, Mr. Wysenski says.
ENVIRONMENTALISTS and state and regional governmental officials are in near total agreement that the Reagan administration's environmental program cuts are beginning to take their toll. And there is widespread concern that the consequences of what one official called ``federal environmental abandonment of the environment'' will end up having devastating effects.
According to one official, ``What's lacking is research and development - and monitoring. Manpower training is needed, too. The responsibility of the federal government to underwrite research is no longer there because of a lack of funding.''
This is the last year of 75 percent matching federal funds for the construction of waste-water treatment plants. Thus, any such additional plants will paid for on the local level.
As a result, hundreds of times each year - usually in times of heavy rain - raw municipal sewage is discharged into Lake Erie. The cost of preventing such discharges is astronomical. For Cleveland alone, constructing a system to prevent sewage overflow would take 10 to 15 years - and cost an estimated $1 billion. Few experts are optimistic that money-strapped rust-belt cities such as Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Toledo; or Detroit - to say nothing of dozens of other smaller communities ringing Lake Erie - can address this problem any time soon.
Thus, many beaches likely will continue to be closed part of the year and fish bans will remain in force.
The Council of Great Lakes Governors took steps last year to funnel more money into the cleanup of the Great Lakes. According to Bonnie Koenig, the organization's executive director, steps are being taken to raise $100 million to be used for regional water-quality protection. Ms. Koenig estimates that $40 million already has been set aside.
Such an ambitious project, however, seems the exception rather than the rule. Increasingly, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the continued contamination of Lake Erie. Most of the pollution is not ``point specific.'' And in fact, 60 to 80 percent of Lake Erie's pollution is now estimated to be airborne. And the pollution is not only from Canada or the US.
Pesticides banned in the United States, for example, continue to show up in Lake Erie water samples. It is suspected that the pesticide DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane) found in the lake is in part carried by winds from crop dusting in Latin America, where DDT use is legal.
As a result, water-quality experts saym cleaning up Lake Erie will take a global effort. ``In the past we have looked at one [pollution] medium at a time. A `multi' approach now is needed,'' Koenig says.
But unless action is demanded by the public, federal funding is increased, and global steps are taken, most experts agree that the water quality of this 210-mile-long lake in the heartland of the US will deteriorate in coming years.