By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC
The first triennial cycle under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement completed its full circle on Nov. 28, when the IJC released its First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality. The report is the culmination of extensive research by the IJC’s Great Lakes advisory boards and staff, as well as a comprehensive consultation process with the public, to determine if Canada and the United States are meeting their Agreement obligations.
“While significant progress has been made to restore and protect the lakes,” the report says, “the governments of Canada and the United States and Great Lakes civil society as a whole are living with the costly consequences of past failures to anticipate and prevent environmental problems. The Commission urges both countries to adhere to the prevention principle they wisely incorporated in the 2012 GLWQA.” This emphasis on prevention is reflected in many of the IJC’s recommendations.
Progress includes accelerated cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, setting new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, stopping new aquatic invasive species from entering the lakes, and establishing the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. However, work needs to be increased in these and several other key areas.
Protecting Human Health
The IJC identifies gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. To achieve this goal, the governments also must increase funding for infrastructure and provide support to communities to improve their capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows. These events directly relate to beach closings throughout the region, when bacteria levels are too high for swimming and other recreational uses.
For drinking water, the report concludes that governments provide safe drinking water nearly everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, but unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities, and some First Nations and Tribes have had longstanding boil water advisories. The IJC recommends that infrastructure be improved to eliminate all longstanding boil water advisories and persistent drinking water violations for communities everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, and that governments monitor and report on source water protection plans.
While most Great Lakes fish are safe to eat if consumers follow guidelines from state, provincial and First Nations, Tribal and Métis governments, the IJC concludes in the report that more effort is needed to ensure that people are aware of these advisories. This includes those who consume fish frequently or may be vulnerable to contaminants in the fish, such as women of childbearing age and young children.
The IJC also finds that the water quality of western and central Lake Erie remains unacceptable. In order for governments to achieve their new phosphorus loading targets and reduce harmful algal blooms, the IJC recommends that they include the following in their federal, state and provincial action plans:
- details on timelines
- responsibilities for action
- expected deliverables and outcomes
- quantifiable performance metrics to assure accountability.
Actions must include enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the US Clean Water Act. As shown in the figure above, western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay are having problems from excessive nutrient input. At the same time, some offshore areas in lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario are experiencing very low nutrient levels, which impact fish populations and commercial fishing.
Given the IJC’s belief that prevention is the best approach to restore and protect the lakes, it concludes that progress to address toxic chemical releases under the Agreement has been disappointingly slow. In the first three years of Agreement implementation, only eight chemicals of mutual concern have been identified and no binational management strategies for these chemicals have been completed. To improve progress, the IJC recommends that the governments accelerate work on binational strategies with clear timelines set and met for development and implementation. These strategies should have the principle of zero discharge at their core. Governments also should focus on policies and programs based on extended producer responsibility for a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to help prevent releases toxic contaminants at every stage in a product’s lifecycle. These policies and programs can encourage producers to develop environmentally friendly products, recycling programs and other approaches to lessen the impact of their products.
Combatting Invasive Species
Rigorously enforced binational requirements for ballast water exchange and saltwater flushing in ocean-going ships entering the Great Lakes have resulted in no new discoveries of aquatic invasive species from these ships since 2006. Species such as zebra and quagga mussels that have already invaded the lakes are spreading, however, and negatively impacting the ecosystem.
While governments have spent significant resources to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes, continued diligence is required to ensure they are not able to invade. Terrestrial plants such as invasive Phragmites, a common reed that may grow up to 6 meters or 19 feet tall, are spreading rapidly and need to be controlled to protect the health of wetlands.
The IJC’s assessment report finds that “looming over all challenges to the Great Lakes is the unprecedented threat of climate change.” A changing climate has been influencing the region for some time, from reduced winter ice cover to stressed wildlife and aquatic life and more frequent and intense storms. The 2012 Agreement includes a new annex to address climate change, which provides an opportunity for both countries to demonstrate global leadership by developing a binational, basinwide approach or strategy to climate change adaptation and resilience.
Engagement, Accountability and Funding
The IJC also finds that the governments need to strengthen public engagement, accountability and funding to achieve the Agreement’s objectives. Governments need to incorporate more robust public engagement into their activities, including engagement with diverse communities and Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments. Clear, time-bound targets for action are needed as are long-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators against which progress can be more definitively assessed. And to support further progress, the IJC recommends that governments’ financial investment in restoration and prevention continue at current or higher levels.
In addition to the 182-page First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, the IJC also released three additional reports to provide a thorough evaluation for governments and the Great Lakes community:
- a 30-page Highlights Report that summarizes its findings and recommendations
- a 280-page Technical Appendix to provide the science behind the report
- a 285-page Summary of Public Comment Appendix, which includes summaries of each public meeting as well as comments received at those meetings, on its online democracy website, Participate IJC, and via email and letter.
The IJC sincerely appreciates the time, thoughts and experiences of each person who contributed to the consultation process undertaken for the report, and hopes that its First Triennial Assessment of Progress stimulates action, as well as continued vigorous dialogue to further the goals of the Agreement. It also hopes that the federal governments will implement its recommendations, and that others can use the recommendations to support taking actions and obtaining resources to do the work needed to restore and protect the lakes.
“Despite different perspectives and opinions,” the IJC states in the report, “there is a value shared among the peoples of the lakes: that all the riches of the Great Lakes matter, and that we must do our best to preserve them for all time.”
Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer in the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.