LBJ visit to Lake Erie led to cleaner waters

Lyndon B. Johnson during his visit to Buffalo (photo: LBJ Presidential Library)
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By Angelica Morrison

It’s been decades since Lake Erie was considered dead due to years of industrial pollution. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a powerful force in bringing Lake Erie back to life -- and changing the fate of the Great Lakes for the better. 

This month marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s visit to Buffalo and tour of its waterways. The visit was part of a broader movement to toughen the nation's environmental laws. 

Johnson arrived in western New York through a personal invitation from a longtime Buffalo environmentalist, the late Stanley Spisiak. It all started during an award event in Washington D.C., where he was seated next to Lady Bird Johnson.

“He suggested that Lady Bird come to Buffalo to see some of the horrible environmental conditions of Lake Erie and the Buffalo River and he said, 'If you’re going to come to Buffalo, you should bring your husband with you.' She should bring the president," said Jill Jedlicka of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. Spisiak is her great uncle. 

“And sure enough, later that year Lyndon Johnson came to Buffalo with his wife and several other key dignitaries including governor Rockefeller,” she said. “And they toured the Buffalo River and they toured Lake Erie and they experienced firsthand what a disaster we were dealing with.” 

Communities along Lake Erie were suffering from the effects of severe water pollution. Helen Domske of New York Sea Grant, a group involved in research and education, remembers exactly what that was like.

“I remember I was a child in the 1960s. I remember my parents taking me to the lake and it was the shores were covered with dead algae and you could find dead fish interwoven in the algae,” she said. “The lake was very eutrophic which means it had a lot of fertilizers and nutrients in it so it wasn’t nice to look at.”

The pollution was so bad that it was mentioned in a Doctor Seuss book, "The Lorax."

Here's an excerpt from the book, published in 1971, a fgew years after LBJ's visit: “You’re glumping the pond where the Humming Fish hummed! No more can they hum for their gills are all gummed. So, I’m sending them off. Oh their future is dreary. They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary. In search of some water that isn’t so smeary. I hear things are just as bad in Lake Erie.” 

That’s from a first edition — found on eBay for about $400. 

Things are different now — the lake isn’t so smeary.

And it’s all thanks to federal laws like the Water Quality Act of 1965, the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966 and the Water Improvement Act of 1970. 

Now, environmentalists say it's crucial to keep the Great Lakes and their tributaries clean and clear.

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