Hacking Lake Erie: A Brief History of Erie's Challenges and the Competition that's Creating Solutions


This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River burning, the fateful event that activated conversations, concerns and actions around water pollution and catalyzed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Water Act and additional policies that have changed the landscape and action around the monitoring and management of water quality.

While remnants of the industrial era rust in the backdrop of the city, the same pollutants that flooded the Lake during Cleveland’s manufacturing days, continue to contaminate Lake Erie.

Since the 1990s, Algal blooms have become common, especially in the Western Lake Erie Basin1.  Phosphorus and Nitrogen levels from agricultural runoff, sewage systems, water treatment plants and other sources, drive high levels of cyanobacteria or “blue-green algae”, creating a toxic environment for fish and the overall aquatic ecosystem.

2014 saw the Toledo water crisis where tides of nutrients polluted water sources, accelerating the growth of algal blooms. As a result, over 450,000 residents went without access to clean public drinking water. Fast-forward to the closing of 2018, when the National Climate Assessment released a report forecasting the increase of algal blooms in the Lake, which will impact both the health of the Lake and the water systems of the Great Lakes region.

It’s clear that Lake Erie is in jeopardy, but what can be done?

The EPA has established plans (e.g.  the Lake Erie Lakewide Action and Management Plan), regulations and put partnerships in place to work toward combating contaminates and improving water quality, but policies are just one pillar of improving Lake Erie’s overall health. Real, sustainable solutions are also needed.

Enter Erie Hack.

While mandates for the cleaning and restoration of the Lake have been executed, one organization is looking to impact change by driving a competition around the development of new, innovative technologies. In 2017, Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) launched Erie Hack, an innovative challenge that accelerates technology solutions to Lake Erie’s most pressing problems2. With the focus on developing practical solutions, Erie Hack seeks to engage coders, engineers, creatives, researchers and other great minds to focus on several challenges including nutrient loading and its environmental impacts, urban pollution, aging infrastructure, public outreach and education, utilization of data and water equity.

In casting a wide net, CWA is working to organize stakeholders around addressing a multitude of challenges while protecting water resources.

“Part of the Cleveland Water Alliance’s mission is to foster an ecosystem of industry partners, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders that are collaborating and working together to address water problems and encourage sustainable growth and development of the blue economy,” explains CWA Communications Manager, Savannah Tracy. “Erie Hack is the key to that mission. We are creating a place where folks who have a great idea about how to protect our valuable water resources and want to develop it can come, find mentors, make industry, utility, governmental, and nonprofit connections, and compete for the funds to make their idea a reality.”

In focusing on building a community of partnerships, Cleveland Water Alliance has found an ally in Cleveland-based nonprofit, DigitalC, which seeks to not only remove the barriers that widen the digital connectivity and digital literacy divide in Cleveland but to empower citizens to achieve success and impact community.

“Working with the Cleveland Water Alliance to leverage our regional water resources as a catalyst for innovative and impactful technology solutions is a truly unique opportunity. Over the course of our partnership, DigitalC has played a key role in supporting the Erie Hack and Internet of H2O competitions and in helping to formulate the concept for a Smart Lake Erie that underpins our collaboration today. I believe the intersection of water and technology presents an exciting opportunity for innovation – and who better than Cleveland to take advantage of that intersection for economic and societal benefit," said Dorothy Baunach, DigitalC CEO. “But this intersection of water, technology, innovation and community isn’t just taking place in Cleveland. Erie Hack is engaging collaboration amongst Cleveland and its sister cities in Buffalo, Erie and Detroit. And the initiative has already paid off.”

A recent seminar on water equity hosted by CWA in conjunction with DigitalC, Cleveland Water, NEORSD, and the Cleveland Water Equity Taskforce at the MidTown Tech Hive brought forth valuable conversation and planning around the heart of the issue for everyone – access to safe and affordable water.

The 2017 winning team from Detroit, Micro Buoy3, developed low-cost sensors to monitor the Lake’s water quality, while Akron’s Erie Open Systems took third place for a spectrometer with the ability to measure phosphorus and other contaminates in the water4. Crucial dialogue, design and innovation and implementation of technology has already taken place and 2019 brings a whole host of potential ideas, innovation and important conversation.

This year’s competition has already kicked off with an information session on January 16th at the MidTown Tech Hive in Cleveland. The official competition will launch on February 7th, providing interested participants with the ability to register for the competition at ErieHack.io.

In the following months, team formation meetups, mentor sessions, hacking days, quarter and semi-finals will take place, all building up to the finals on June 20th during the week of the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River burning, allowing our greater community the opportunity for some collective introspection on how we got here in the first place.

While Erie Hack is just one part of the ongoing effort in advocating for our water resources and advancing technologies to solve those larger challenges, Lake Erie and all that share its water are certainly better for it.




2 https://www.eriehack.io/

3 https://www.crainscleveland.com/article/20170503/news/170509926/detroit-team-wins-erie-hack-competition-akron-group-takes-third

4 https://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2018/09/anyone_could_help_solve_lake_e.html