North of Long Tail

A documentary photo series celebrating Lake Erie

Gregary – Niagara

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In 2001, TerriAnn, Gregary’s mom and avid explorer took her two boys Gregary (eight) and Geoff (six), on an epic camping trip to each of the Great Lakes. Gregary remembers camping on every lake's shore and swimming the days away with his brother. He also recalls how cold each lake was. Lake Erie was the last lake on their road trip — particularly memorable because of how warm the water was.

“Lake Ontario was popular and busy; Huron was sandy with dunes; Superior was cold and impressive; Michigan was choppy and wild; Erie was warm and accommodating. I was amazed by all of the lakes, but the warm, clear waters of Lake Erie held a special place in my heart.”

Caption: Gregary and his brother on their camping trip with mom to see all of the Great Lakes.

Gregary and his brother on their camping trip with mom to see all of the Great Lakes.

While camping and swimming his childhood summers away, Gregary had no idea about the environmental issues facing these incredible bodies of water or that he would dedicate his life to the preservation of these lakes.

A deep connection to these lakes has been a constant in Gregary’s life. In 2011, the same year Gregary planned on going to university, Lake Erie experienced a massive toxic algae bloom.

Gregary wanted to learn more about how to mitigate this dire situation. Hence, as an architecture student at the University of Guelph, Gregary focused his studies on how low-impact development techniques could improve water quality in the Great Lakes.

Photo by NASA of 2011 algae bloom, the worst Lake Erie had experienced in decades.

Photo by NASA of 2011 algae bloom, the worst Lake Erie had experienced in decades.

In 2015, as Gregary finished his undergraduate degree, Lake Erie faced another year of enormous toxic algae blooms. This event inspired Gregary to pursue a Masters in Environmental Planning, focusing on the harmful toxic blue-green algae affecting the western basin of the lake.

After finishing his Masters, and feeling a deep commitment to improving Lake Erie, Gregary moved to the Niagara Region to work on a post-grad certificate in ecosystem restoration.

Most of Gregary’s prior experience with Lake Erie focused on the western basin and “harmful algae” (like Cyanobacteria, a form of toxic blue-green algae). In the eastern basin, toxic algae blooms aren’t the issue, but Cladophora, a non-toxic “nuisance algae,” is causing real problems.

Gregary lifts a massive pile of dry Cladophora algae washed up on the shore Lorraine Bay in Port Colborne.

Gregary lifts a massive pile of dry Cladophora algae washed up on the shore Lorraine Bay in Port Colborne.

"Cladophora is beyond excessive and renders the shoreline unusable. It is also a breeding zone for bacteria like E.coli."  

Gregary was tired of studying the theory and wanted to try and enact real hands-on change. While at Niagara College, Gregary learned of the Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative (NCCC), an organization that maintains healthy shorelines on Lake Erie and in 2018, Gregary joined them as the Coastal Stewardship Coordinator.

Gregary takes a sample, at Sugarloaf Marina in Port Colborne, a regular test site for his work with Swim Drink Fish. In 2019, NCCC agreed to host the Niagara hub of Swim Drink Fish, an environmental charity’s, water quality monitoring program. As the Niagara Hub Coordinator, Gregary is in charge of helping citizen scientists monitor the recreational water quality at normally unmonitored locations, and then sharing this data with the public.

Gregary takes a sample, at Sugarloaf Marina in Port Colborne, a regular test site for his work with Swim Drink Fish. In 2019, NCCC agreed to host the Niagara hub of Swim Drink Fish, an environmental charity’s, water quality monitoring program. As the Niagara Hub Coordinator, Gregary is in charge of helping citizen scientists monitor the recreational water quality at normally unmonitored locations, and then sharing this data with the public.

Gregary’s test measures how saturated the water is with dissolved oxygen, something aquatic life relies on. Algae blooms, and their decomposition, create hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in the water.) You also don’t want the levels to be too high with dissolved oxygen, indicating an excessive growth of a particular flora.
Gregary holds the test for bacteria, specifically E.coli (Escherichia coli) levels.

(left) Gregary’s test measures how saturated the water is with dissolved oxygen, something aquatic life relies on. Algae blooms, and their decomposition, create hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in the water). You also don’t want the levels to be too high with dissolved oxygen, indicating an excessive growth of a particular flora. (right) Gregary holds the test for bacteria, specifically E.coli (Escherichia coli) levels.

In his work as the Coastal Stewardship Coordinator with the NCCC, Gregary and a team of citizen scientist volunteers monitor algae and bacteria levels at 13 sites along 70 kilometres of shoreline — from Wainfleet to Fort Erie. The information gathered is used by Environment Canada to set targets on nutrient reduction and better understand the driving factors behind excessive Cladophora. They also publicly disseminate this data, so people living along the shoreline know where the water is safe.

Since the Cladophora is particularly bad in Niagara and a breeding ground for E.coli, the bacteria they are looking for primarily in their samples is E.coli. Many factors can affect the quantity of bacteria in the water— like precipitation, high winds, and heavy wave activity. It is essential to regularly monitor the situation because, as Gregary explains, you see a lot of variation from week to week.

Working for NCCC and Swim Drink Fish is a dream job for Gregary. Sometimes he can’t believe he gets paid to visit the lake frequently.

“I get to walk the beaches of Lake Erie every week, doing what I can to help maintain the warm, clear waters of the lake that inspired me 20 years ago.”

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Gregary holds up a collection of mussel and clam shells. Zebra & quagga mussels are a pair of invasive mussel species that came into great lakes in the mid 1990s. They were introduced in the ballast water of international freighters and ended up pushing out the lake’s native mussels and clams.
Gregary holds up a zebra mussel attached to Cladophora algae. Zebra and quagga mussels are filter feeders that strip suspended solids out of the water column. Eventually, they secrete their waste, which algae eats and thrives on. “They change the biochemical processes we see in the lake. They have fundamentally altered the lake system.”

(bottom left) Gregary holds up a collection of mussel and clam shells. Zebra & quagga mussels are a pair of invasive mussel species that came into great lakes in the mid 1990s. They were introduced in the ballast water of international freighters and ended up pushing out the lake’s native mussels and clams. (bottom right) Gregary holds up a zebra mussel attached to Cladophora algae. Zebra and quagga mussels are filter feeders that strip suspended solids out of the water column. Eventually, they secrete their waste, which algae eats and thrives on. “They change the biochemical processes we see in the lake. They have fundamentally altered the lake system.”

Cladophora isn’t only a health issue - it is an economic issue as well. The local municipality is also having to spend more money on beach grooming and cleanup.

Gregary holds up Cladophora that is in the water.
Gregary’s feet sink deep into the Cladophora that is rotting on the shoreline.

(left) Gregary holds up Cladophora that is in the water. (right) Gregary’s feet sink deep into the Cladophora that is rotting on the shoreline.

Most of the phosphorus causing these algae issues come from the major tributaries that feed into the lake. Most of the phosphorus gets into the tributaries as runoff from agricultural fields (fertilizer or manure). Still, some comes from septic systems and the products people use in their houses.

Gregary stands beside Wignell drain, which drains out into Lake Erie at Lorraine Bay. This particular drain has consistently had the highest rate of nutrient pollution in the region. At times, it has exceeded the provincial water quality objective for phosphorus by 600 percent.

Gregary stands beside Wignell drain, which drains out into Lake Erie at Lorraine Bay. This particular drain has consistently had the highest rate of nutrient pollution in the region. At times, it has exceeded the provincial water quality objective for phosphorus by 600 percent.

This year, the NCCC has started a partnership with other organizations, the local conservation authority, the City of Port Colborne, and Niagara College to implement a phosphorus reduction plan in the Niagara section of Lake Erie by restoring the natural wetlands in municipal drains.

The aim is to slow the water's flow down and allow any phosphorus to settle into the sediment. When this happens, other plants can use the nutrient for growth instead of algae.

Gregary points to an example where natural wetland vegetation like cattails or sedges is present in a municipal drain. The more natural wetland vegetation exists, the less likely phosphorus loading will occur, which will reduce the lake's algae.

Gregary points to an example where natural wetland vegetation like cattails or sedges is present in a municipal drain. The more natural wetland vegetation exists, the less likely phosphorus loading will occur, which will reduce the lake's algae.

While living and working by the lake, Gregary has enjoyed learning more about the local history. One test site he visits regularly is Waverly Beach, which looks out at Buffalo, USA. Here, Gregary walks out on the tip of what used to be the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool as part of Erie Beach Amusement Park that opened in 1890.

While living and working by the lake, Gregary has enjoyed learning more about the local history. One test site he visits regularly is Waverly Beach, which looks out at Buffalo, USA. Here, Gregary walks out on the tip of what used to be the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool as part of Erie Beach Amusement Park that opened in 1890.

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“Eleven million people live in the watershed and rely on Lake Erie for economic, spiritual and recreational needs. This algae, both the nuisance and harmful kind, is affecting people.” 

Gregary has heard people say that they don’t think Lake Erie can be saved from the issues it faces today. He isn’t pessimistic, but he is realistic. From his time studying the lake, Gregary has seen how there are good years and bad years. In the future, Gregary hopes that the good years can outweigh the bad years, and he is doing everything he can to make sure this is so.

Read More

STORIES FROM THE LAKE

Patricia – Pelee Island

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Heidi – Pigeon Bay

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Take Action

Lake Erie and the millions of people who rely on it for their drinking water, local jobs, and so much more need your help.

The health of Lake Erie continues to decline. Action is needed more than ever to restore its health for current and future generations.

You can make a difference. Here’s how you can help protect the lake and support the people who are closely connected to it.

EXHIBITION BY: documentary photographer COLIN BOYD SHAFER in collaboration with ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE

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