Following 15 years of generally dry weather, the Great Lakes basin has experienced wetter conditions during the past four years. The four upper lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie – are all well above average. Lakes Huron, Michigan and Erie are at their highest levels for this time of year since 1998. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River were inundated with record-setting floods last year, but are now at lower levels than they were a year ago.
Water levels on the Great Lakes rise and fall in response to natural water supplies and levels change from day to day. Natural water supplies are the total inputs from rain, snow, runoff and inflows from upstream, minus evaporation from the lake surface. Outflows from lakes Superior and Ontario are regulated at dams approved by the International Joint Commission, allowing a limited degree of influence over high and low water levels. Lakes Michigan and Huron, connected by the Straits of Mackinac, rise and fall as a single lake.
Lake Superior was near the upper end of its historical range during the winter, but did not rise as much as usual in April. The level as of May 3, 2018, is about 1 inch (3 centimeters) below its level from a year ago. The IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control expects Superior to remain above its long-term average over the next six months, unless conditions are extremely dry. Regulated outflows from Lake Superior have been above average for the past six months and are expected to remain above average through the summer.
Water levels as of May 3 on lakes Michigan and Huron were about 3 inches (7 centimeters) above their level at the same time last year, according to the board. Levels are expected to remain above average over the next six months, even under extremely dry conditions. As of May 3, Lake Erie was about 4 inches (10 centimeters) above its level at the same time last year. It is expected to remain above average over the next six months, even if conditions are extremely dry. Strong winds can vary the level along the Lake Erie shoreline by several feet from one end of the lake to the other, causing short-term flooding and wave damage as seen along the western end of the lake on April 14-15.
Water supplies to Lake Ontario have been above average for more than a year, including record high monthly supplies in May 2017 and February 2018, and the highest-ever two and three consecutive months of supplies from April through June 2017. Regulated outflows have been extremely high throughout this period, including all-time record releases during the summer of 2017. February 2018 outflows were the highest in any February on record.
As of May 3, the Lake Ontario water level was 8.5 inches (22 cm) above average, according to the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, although about 16 inches (41 cm) below its level this time last year. With normal supplies, Lake Ontario is expected to fall toward average by mid-summer and remain near average through the end of the calendar year. Outflows are as high as possible without creating significant flooding in the St. Lawrence River.
“I am using the challenge as incentive to step back from my day-to-day duties and reexamine our routine operations from the perspective of energy conservation,” said Donald Jensen, superintendent of water production for the City of Highland Park in Illinois. “While it is easier to follow the old ‘tried and true’ practices, improvement can only come from challenging the status quo.”
In addition to Highland Park, the participating utilities include the City of Bayfield in Wisconsin, City of Ann Arbor in Michigan, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in Southeastern Michigan, and OCWA, central New York’s water authority. They were chosen from a broad field of applicants and range in size from the GLWA, which serves more than 4 million residents, to Bayfield, at less than 1,000. The program also is open to Canadian utilities.
Using innovative software developed by Dr. Carol Miller, Wayne State University engineering professor and director of the WSU Healthy Urban Waters Program (and co-chair of the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board Science Priority Committee), participating utilities have been reducing emissions from energy use and saving thousands of dollars in energy costs.
The five competing utilities received the software, step-by-step instruction and technical assistance. They submitted monthly reports and reported hourly energy usage at each energy consumption location, such as pump stations and buildings. At the end of the competition, utilities were scored on their reductions in energy-related pollution emissions. The reductions are weighted, with mercury reductions earning the highest number of points.
First place wins $20,000 in cash, and second place receives $10,000. The competition wrapped up in April 2018 and the awards are to be announced on May 21 in Chicago.
GLWA, a regional water authority established in 2014, is using LEEM. Shaker Manns, the utility’s energy program manager, said the challenge will help his utility establish a carbon footprint baseline.
“I’ve already created a baseline for electricity, but I don’t have a carbon footprint baseline yet,” Manns said. “The challenge allows me to compare this water authority to other water authorities to see where we really stand, and hopefully highlight areas that we can work on and things we are doing well.”
When he first heard about the competition last year, Manns said he immediately knew he wanted GLWA to participate.
“The Water Utility Challenge helps me balance energy usage and carbon footprint at the same time,” Manns said, “and make the environmental just as important as the economic considerations.”
Lynne Chaimowitz, a financial analyst for water treatment in Ann Arbor, noted that she has seen estimates that between 2 and 4 percent of electrical consumption in the United States is due to water production, so focusing on water utilities to impact emission from power production seems logical.
Although reducing mercury emissions is the principal focus, reductions in carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides typically go hand in hand, “so the procedural modifications that we are making have a general positive impact on the environment.”
While participating in the challenge, Ann Arbor has worked to ensure that its operational changes do not impact the level or cost of services. “It has provided us an opportunity,” she said, “to see where we have, and do not have, flexibility in how we operate and maintain the water system.”
How can you be involved?
Because of support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the PEPSO and LEEM technologies are available for free to U.S. and Canadian local water utilities. Make them aware that they can download it directly from the technology website and receive technical support for its installation.
Dr. Lauren Bigelow, CEO of the Growth Capital Network, is an innovation competition expert and board member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. was amended in 2012 to, among other things, include a new annex to address climate change impacts.
The new annex commits the Parties (Canada and the U.S.) “to identify, quantify, understand, and predict the climate change impacts on the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes” and to “sharing information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts.”
As noted in the IJC’s recent First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) under the agreement, phenomena linked to climate change over the last several decades includes reduced winter ice cover, increased summer temperatures and more frequent and intense storms.
Canada and the U.S. have taken a significant number of domestic actions related to climate change in the years since the Agreement was last updated, the TAP report found. One of the most important was a 2015 State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin report, which captured available science on impacts, inventoried assessment methods and summarized more than 250 studies.
In implementing the annex, the two countries have addressed science commitments related to climate change impacts, cooperated successfully on numerous measurement and communications projects and met implementation timelines.
Still, the Commission found in its TAP report that more emphasis must be placed on moving from science to action. Studies have identified climate change impacts in the basin, but more work is needed to adapt to the stresses this puts on people and infrastructure in the basin. Governments need to be better prepared.
The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board examined adaptation in a 2017 report, finding that most jurisdictions have a climate change policy or plan in place, but mitigation (such as reducing emissions) is more common than adaptation or resiliency planning.
And adaptation initiatives need to be integrated with other programs like stormwater management, since more frequent and intense storms are expected to increase sewer overflows in cities on both sides of the border.
More extreme precipitation events also mean more variability in lake levels, so land use planning and zoning needs to safeguard shoreline and coastal regions. This is an area where the IJC takes advice from its Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee, which looks at flows and levels.
In line with the Water Quality Board’s work, the TAP recommends that the Parties:
Demonstrate global leadership by jointly developing, in cooperation with other government jurisdictions, including indigenous governments and organizations in the Great Lakes, a binational approach to climate change adaptation and resilience in the Great Lakes
Invest in a binational vulnerability assessment, defining the risks posed by climate change and providing technical support for measures to adapt to climate change, to engage stakeholders and all orders of government, and to identify priorities for responsive actions in the Great Lakes region
Recognize the impacts of climate change on water infrastructure and provide support to communities to proactively and systematically improve the capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows, planning, zoning and adaptation.
Specific climate projections and likely environmental impacts in the Great Lakes region can be found below, in a portion of a chart from the TAP report and based on work by the Water Quality Board (see pages 147-149 for the full chart).
Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.
Human development has fragmented natural environments across the Great Lakes basin, causing problems for species that rely on those habitats to survive. These problems may be exacerbated by a changing climate. This hasn’t snuck up on the people and organizations working on restoring habitat and connectivity though – climate change has been at the forefront of their planning for nearly a decade.
On the United States side of the Great Lakes, funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has helped support habitat restoration efforts for the past seven years. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has used GLRI funding to assess how climate change might affect habitat restoration and protection efforts. Groups applying to receive GLRI funds for habitat restoration should consider how climate change might impact their work in the future, said Heather Braun, program manager for coastal conservation and habitat restoration at the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Project applicants have a variety of resources to look to for guidance of developing ‘climate-smart’ projects,” Braun said.
What’s challenging is the uncertainty of the future; some models say water levels may increase and others say they may decrease, so restoration projects should be designed to accommodate both possibilities. For example, Braun said a wetland restoration project might include a provision for a water control station or water pumping station to allow the wetland to continue functioning in a low-water future. Restored habitats also need to be able to withstand increased intensity of storms: high winds, strong waves, seiches (or waves pushed from one end of a body of water to another) and ice.
Reducing habitat fragmentation is an important part of restoration work, and for the GLRI. Braun said special consideration has been given to projects that are adjacent to one another to improve connectivity – particularly in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and Ohio’s Maumee Bay. With a changing climate, a variety of plants and animals will be seeing their habitable ranges change – connectivity can improve their chances to live in areas they can survive.
According to the 2013 Environment and Climate Change Canada report, “How Much Habitat is Enough?,” species across North America are already responding to climate change with shifts in ranges, longer stays in breeding grounds by some birds, and earlier mating calls by amphibians. But with the complexity of species, their specific needs, and environments, it’s incredibly difficult to determine what effects will be coming down the line for specific regions and habitats.
The report suggests a precautionary approach that would protect and restore more complete ecosystems beyond the minimum amount of forest, wetland, grassland and riparian areas needed to maintain species populations above an extinction level threshold. A more connected and less fragmented ecosystem is more resilient to climate change, the report says.
Setting aside habitat fragmentation, there would ostensibly be greater biodiversity as a result of global warming in more northern regions like Ontario, said Jeff Bowman, research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and faculty at Trent University. But habitats fragmented by human development in areas along the Great Lakes – such as the coastal marshlands of the Huron-Erie corridor – would inhibit movement north, which will likely result in less biodiversity than would otherwise be expected.
While the Great Lakes serve as a natural barrier for some of this movement, Bowman said, animals can still cross in some key areas like connecting channels. Animal crossings can occur in the Rainy River system west of Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the western and eastern connecting channels of Lake Erie, and the east end of Lake Ontario, Bowman said.
Landowner initiatives can provide important safeguards, such as the A2A Collaborative in New York, Ontario and Quebec. The collaborative is working on a wildlife corridor between Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and Adirondack Park in New York, including Thousand Islands National Park in the St. Lawrence River. Species have historically used this route to travel north and south across the North American continent. Having a stable connection across latitudes and habitats can shore up the resiliency of biological populations in the face of climate change, according to the project website.
The northward expanded range of animals such as southern flying squirrels and bobcats into northern ranges is forcing them to interact with similar existing species. Already, Bowman said, there are reports of hybrids between the southern and northern flying squirrels in Ontario, and there are concerns that bobcats expanding their range north might hybridize with lynx.
“Hybridization is one of the predicted effects of climate change,” Bowman said. “And the flying squirrels are one of the first demonstrated examples of what we call climate change induced hybridization.”
There’s also a disconnect between how quickly animals can move into new areas and how slowly plants do. Bowman said that southern flying squirrels are, for example, getting ahead of trees they live alongside and are thus unable to find the acorns to eat that they rely on in their southern ranges – in turn causing them to die in the winter. So even though the squirrels could find pleasant temperature ranges and some food in their new homes, they ultimately must wait for the trees they rely on to permanently settle in these new regions.
Bowman added that some amphibians seem to be taking advantage of the expanding breeding season by emitting mating calls earlier in the year, potentially allowing them a competitive advantage for food supplies over their rivals that must wait.
Habitat restoration project managers need to balance near-term restoration goals with an increasingly variable climate and consider what species will be well-placed to survive in in the future. This includes anticipating the spread of invasive species and planning for long-term management, Braun said.
Invasive species such as Phragmites thrive on habitat disturbances and low water levels, Braun said. Anticipating such changes and improving coordination of invasive species management efforts is important to reduce encroachment on newly restored areas or in existing habitats stressed by climate change, disturbance or fragmentation already. The species’ almost virulent spread and rapid infestation rate makes that a challenge, leading to a push to track its spread and coordinate efforts across the Great Lakes.
Improving coastal resiliency to climate change for the Great Lakes basin is an ongoing effort for all the states and provinces around the waters. Improvements done thoughtfully would make the challenges down the line more manageable.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Lake Erie has experienced late summer cyanobacteria blooms routinely since 2003. Research into the blooms points to phosphorus inputs from local rivers, especially the Maumee, as the prime factor controlling the blooms. To help with management and understanding, the National Ocean Service began an annual forecast of bloom severity in 2012.
By 2014, a numerical severity index ranging from 1 to 10 was developed, making it easier to communicate interannual variations in bloom intensity. The scale was calibrated with the intense 2011 bloom being assigned a 10, with 1 representing little or no bloom biomass over the bloom season from July to October. Overall cyanobacterial biomass was determined using data collected by satellite every one-two days.
The current iteration of the forecast is based on the amount of phosphorus entering the lake in the spring from the Maumee River, which provides the largest single source of phosphorus into any of the Great Lakes and carries a high concentration of bioavailable phosphorus, the form most suitable for supporting algal growth and bloom formation. This phosphorous comes mostly from agricultural runoff into the Maumee River from March to July. Despite these high phosphorous levels, however, intense blooms of cyanobacterial only form from July to September when water temperatures rise sufficiently to allow rapid cyanobacterial growth.
By early May, there is sufficient information from water samples and models to begin to project the size of the bloom. Phosphorus is monitored by Heidelberg University with daily samples analyzed each week. Weather models now allow the National Weather Service to forecast river discharge in Ohio from 45-60 days out, based on models using precipitation and temperature. Combining the measurements and models, NOAA has enough information to cover March to July, and issues a projection of the potential bloom size in early May. This projection is updated each week as more phosphorus measurements are collected. In early July, most of the phosphorus has been delivered, and the formal seasonal forecast is issued.
This year, the annual prediction of bloom severity will be made on July 12 at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. The event is organized with the Ohio Sea Grant program and will include information on other aspects of the bloom and management strategies.
Richard Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, an arm of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The changing climate around the Great Lakes will exacerbate existing challenges to aquatic species – such as competing with invasive species and finding food – and present some new ones as temperatures rise, according to researchers in the United States and Canada.
The Great Lakes have experienced an array of issues that put stress on fish, plankton, and other aquatic populations: habitat loss, excessive nutrients, oxygen-poor areas known as hypoxic zones, and invasive species like quagga mussels. Climate change is interacting with these existing problems in complex ways, according to Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Great Lakes Ecosystem Specialist Paris Collingsworth, who helped author a 2017 research paper on those interactions. Collingsworth also is an assistant research professor with Purdue Forestry and Natural Resources.
Climate change is expected to lead to warmer air and surface water temperatures, Collingsworth said, and there’s already evidence of warming in the waters. If faced with just that aspect, and if these fish have the space to move around, fish would be able to adapt – they regulate their body temperature by moving into whatever that species’ optimal temperature range is, a process called thermoregulation. This has allowed some species of fish in parts of Ontario to move northward into historically cooler waters as they warm up, said Scott Parker, a climate change ecologist with Parks Canada.
“In my own experience I’ve seen white bass moving northward,” Parker said. “It’s more a temperate species that’s coming into our waters.”
Water temperatures also can get uncomfortably warm for fish species like walleye that prefer cool waters and lake trout that prefer cold waters, Parker said. Though the Great Lakes are large enough and cool enough that this hasn’t been much of a concern, he said it’s becoming more of an issue in smaller inland lakes, which warm up faster.
But changing water temperature also is impacting food availability and the frequency of ice cover, two factors that have a dramatic impact on how fish reproduce and survive. Collingsworth said the lake whitefish, for example, spawns in shallow waters in late fall each year.
“They’re counting on ice cover to provide a stable environment for their eggs,” Collingsworth said. “If they don’t have ice cover, then those shallow environments can be turbulent due to wave action and storms, and directly dislodge the eggs.” This essentially kills the larval fish before they can hatch. Other fish, such as lake sturgeon, also spawn in running water in the springtime and could be at risk from heavy spring storms, he added. While the extent of the maximum ice cover and how long it’s on the water varies from year to year, ice coverage has declined by 71 percent between 1973 to 2010 on all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair.
Short, warm winters could also cause fish to hatch before they normally should, which leaves those fish ill-equipped to survive. For example, yellow perch hatch based on water temperature, Collingsworth said.
There has been a shift in what kind of plankton species are found in the lakes, said Parker. A recent paper indicates that shift is affecting smaller individual plankton, as well as what plankton species are in these communities; what this could mean for the food web of the Great Lakes is still uncertain.
Warming water temperatures and other issues with invasive species and the nutrient cycle also could lead to a disconnect of when predators and prey are historically active, something seen in marine environments that could translate to the Great Lakes. A fish species may start hatching before – or after – their ideal food source is readily available, forcing the fish to make do with what’s out there or simply die, according to Collingsworth’s report. It’s possible this has caused problems for yellow perch and walleye to successfully reproduce in Lake Erie.
“From studies of larval fish in Lake Michigan, we know that alewives’ growth during their larval phase is about half now what it was in the early ‘00s or late ‘90s,” Collingsworth said. “They’re growing slower, and the presumed mechanism is that they aren’t getting as much food.” He added it’s possible that the growth rate average would be even lower if researchers could include the dead alewife young, too.
An increase in the severity and number of spring storms also could wash more nutrients into lake systems, exacerbating problems seen in western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay, Green Bay and elsewhere: algal blooms and hypoxia. Hypoxia can pose a significant problem for species of fish that prefer the same temperature ranges that hypoxic zones tend to occupy, forcing fish like yellow perch to stick to other parts of the water column that aren’t as healthy for them just to breathe, Collingsworth said. Water that has stratified into particular layers of warmth and oxygen content – which happens during the summer months and can be interrupted by storms – can make that problem worse, and climate change could extend the amount of time water is stratified.
And more harmful algal blooms can pose human health risks and get into water intakes. The United States and Canada have recently unveiled plans to try and reduce nutrient pollution into Lake Erie, recognizing that the plans may be adapted as time goes on to reflect climate change and changing conditions.
Water levels in the lakes could affect wetlands and other coastal ecosystems if they see prolonged periods of low or high water levels – in turn affecting fish that use those as habitat – but so far there’s a lot of uncertainty how climate change could impact those, Collingsworth said.
Existing stressors like invasive mussels and habitat loss have already fundamentally changed the identity and character of the Great Lakes, Parker said. With climate change added in the mix, fisheries managers will have to adapt stocking and catch limits to a “novel ecosystem.”
“It’s not simply a new ecosystem to our area, it’s a novel one,” Parker said. “We haven’t seen these systems before – anywhere.”
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
The conference began in 1993 in Cornwall, Ontario, (one year before the River Institute was founded) as a means of bringing scientists and communities together to discuss freshwater issues. Twenty five years later, river scientists and community members from Ontario, Quebec, Akwesasne, and New York will come together in Cornwall to revisit the original conference theme, “Sharing Knowledge – Linking Sciences.”
The theme celebrates the River Institute’s founding partners and neighbors, the Mohawks of Akwesasne, and highlights projects and programs that link ecosystem science and traditional ecological knowledge.
“Our collective responsibility to protect the environment is from an indigenous perspective and is laid out at the beginning of each conference with the ’The Words that Come Before All Else,’ which is the traditional Mohawk Thanksgiving Address,” said River Institute Executive Director Dr. Jeff Ridal.
Over the past two and a half decades, the River Institute has evolved into a unique nucleus for freshwater research, education and community engagement throughout the Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River ecosystem. That uniqueness comes in part from its connection to community and a desire to develop an enhanced awareness of the value of traditional ecological knowledge by integrating it into scientific research. This integration plays a vital role on the upper St. Lawrence River.
River Institute Board Chair Walter Oeggerli says, “Our experience at the River Institute has been that the stories that define our history are important pathways to engage people in environmental issues and also serve to inspire scientific inquiry and research.”
Over the course of two information-packed days, the 2018 symposium will feature three keynote speakers that exemplify scientific inquiry and community engagement.
On May 30, Community Science Day, Canadian explorer and Order of Canada recipient Dr. Geoff Green of Students on Ice and Canada C3 fame will join local high school students. He will speak on the epic 25,000 km Coast to Coast to Coast research and reconciliation expedition that he led along Canada’s coastline in 2017.
The next day will highlight freshwater research and remediation. Tony David, water resources manager with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe of Akwesasne and winner of the 2017 Environmental Champion Award from the US Environmental Protection Agency, will discuss his work in the decommissioning and removal of the Hogansburg Dam. The first project of its kind for a Native American Tribe, the removal has opened up more than 500 miles of river and streams as spawning habitat for migratory fish.
Karen Douglass Cooper is the communications/community outreach officer for the River Institute. Author of the second edition of the “Healthy Home Guidebook” and contributor to several freshwater resource publications, she also serves as coordinator for the Remedial Action Plan for the St. Lawrence River in Cornwall, Ontario.
Although water quality in the Great Lakes is generally good, Canada and the US still lag behind in meeting goals to identify Chemicals of Mutual Concern and develop strategies to address pollution.
All of the Great Lakes have been degraded by human and industrial activities. The IJC has for many years called on governments to strengthen efforts to identify and stop these chemicals from entering the lakes.
Chemical pollution comes in many forms, from tiny invisible particles in the air or water that aren’t detectable by human senses to toxic substances like mercury from power plants in and outside the region. These harmful chemicals can pose risks to human health and affect drinking water quality.
Many chemicals build up over time (bioaccumulate) in the food web. Substances like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can remain in the Great Lakes ecosystem for long periods despite being banned by Canada and the US several decades ago. The good news is these banned substances are slowly diminishing over time in these ecosystems.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1978 required Canada and the U.S. to prohibit the discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts and virtually eliminate the discharge of all persistent toxic substances. However, these goals have yet to be met. The list of hazardous and potentially hazardous substances created at the time included hundreds of substances and chemicals.
Over time, both governments have passed bans or regulations to reduce and eliminate production and use of toxic substances like PCBs, but new substances are continuously created that might pose health risks to humans, fish, and wildlife.
Canada regulates chemicals through the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), adopted in 2006. Canada has evaluated nearly 23,000 chemicals which were in commercial use during the previous two decades. That process identified about 4,300 chemical substances that will require additional testing or evaluation. The CMP seeks to address the safety of all 4,300 substances by 2020.
The updated 2012 GLWQA continues to call for both countries to virtually eliminate all Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs). CMCs are substances from human sources that pose a threat to human health and the environment. This is different from approaches in past versions of the GLWQA where a long list of hazardous substances was used.
As of 2018, only eight chemicals or categories of chemicals have been designated as CMCs. Public concern has been expressed about the slow pace of the CMC process, and the IJC shares these concerns. In its First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC recommends governments accelerate work on binational strategies for elimination or continual reduction of CMCs with clear timelines set and met for strategy development and implementation. The IJC also recommends the governments implement the GLWQA principles of zero discharge, virtual elimination, accountability and public engagement, as well as Extended Producer Responsibility. The IJC further believes strategies to reduce pollutants in Great Lakes waters must contain clear timelines for the implementation of actions.
The IJC concluded in its TAP report that expanding and expediting the process of identifying more CMCs, and developing clear binational strategies to reduce or eliminate toxic substances are needed to meet each countries’ GLWQA obligations.
Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
Since the 1970s, Great Lakes researchers have had a friend to help them learn more about chemical pollutants in the waters and food chain: the herring gull. With old contaminants phased out and new ones entering the system, sampling these sentinels of the skies is more valuable than ever.
The Canadian Wildlife Service – part of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) – has collected gull eggs from 15 sites across the Great Lakes basin each spring since its Great Lakes Herring Gull Monitoring Program began in 1974, according to Robert Letcher, an ECCC research scientist on chemistry and ecotoxicology.
“The herring gull was chosen given its presence and breadth of nesting sites across the Great Lakes,” Letcher said. “And because the herring gull sits atop the aquatic food web – it’s a fish-eating bird, a top predator – it’s a good indicator species, or sentinel, on what’s getting into the aquatic food web from a chemical standpoint.”
This binational effort by Canadian and US scientists to sample gull eggs has proven to be a cornerstone indicator of Great Lakes health. A State of the Great Lakes 2017 report from Canada and the U.S. used herring gull eggs as an indicator for pollutants, with its data echoed in the IJC’s first Triennial Assessment Report.
Researchers check gull eggs for contaminants passed down by bird parents (a process known as bioaccumulation), and can gauge the presence of bioaccumulated contaminants in species up the food web. They also look at shell thickness, check for embryo mortality and fetal deformity, get an idea of how many gulls are using a particular nesting site – all indicators of reproductive health – and use atomic isotopes to understand how gull diets have changed over time.
Researchers then compare these factors between colony sites. Since the sample sites and lab work have been largely consistent over the course of the program, Letcher said, a comprehensive archive through time has taken shape. The samples are held long-term in the National Wildlife Specimen Bank in Ottawa where they can be sub-sampled for other chemicals that may become more prominent in the years after they were collected.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has assisted the Canadian Wildlife Service and ECCC in collecting eggs from some colonies throughout the life of the program. More recently, it worked with the state of Michigan to add an additional 10 sites on the US side of the lakes, said Lisa Williams, environmental contaminants branch chief and biologist with the USFWS Ecological Services Field Office in Michigan. Samples from the United States are typically sent to the same ECCC lab to keep the analysis and scientific methodology as consistent as possible, and also held in Ottawa. Funding from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been critical in expanding the number of sites and chemicals analyzed.
Legacy contaminants that were on the scene when the program first started, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or DDT, have long since been banned, and concentrations saw steady decreases in the late 1970s before flattening out in the past decade, Letcher said. Contaminants phased out more recently such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have shown signs in recent years of decreases in herring gulls, due to the time lag in the chemicals moving through the system.
On the flip side, mercury amounts haven’t decreased much since monitoring started in the 1970s, Letcher said. And with a constant churn of new chemicals entering the lakes all the time, more contaminants are being examined using the herring gull eggs.
These include polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and related chemicals. PFOS were phased out by producer 3M in the early 2000s but are still produced elsewhere in the world, and as such concentrations haven’t dropped in gull eggs over time, Letcher said. The urban landscape still contains large amounts of PFOS and PFAS chemicals that are getting into the lakes and food web.
Some sampling sites have been dropped from research due to birds abandoning them because the location has degraded, such as Fighting Island on the Detroit River, or from natural changes in nesting preferences, Letcher said. But other colonies, like those on the mouth of the River Raisin in Michigan, can see year-to-year swings in reproductive success, Williams said. Those sites continue to show indications of depressed immune systems in the gulls, even as legacy contaminants decrease. This suggests that with enough stressors in a given year, the birds won’t achieve as much success reproducing, Williams said.
Williams said research also suggests that herring gulls in contaminated areas may have descended from gulls who were more tolerant of these chemicals and thus were able to reproduce successfully, though that may have come at the cost of other aspects of their health.
“Herring gulls can be our canaries on the Great Lakes,” Williams said. “They can also help us learn, when compounds are being phased out, how rapidly the system can respond to that phase out, and when concentrations drop beneath the level of concern.
“The take-away message of this is not to release bioaccumulative chemicals into the environment.”
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Many of us don’t realize that when we buy a new couch, stove or computer, we may bring flame retardant chemicals into our homes.
Flame retardants have been used in a wide variety of commercial and consumer products since the 1970s, including electronic devices, plastics, mattresses, furniture and carpet. While one group of such chemicals – polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs – have been phased out in Canada and the United States due to negative impacts on the environment, other flame retardant chemicals are still used in both countries.
These substitute flame retardants often have been found to be just as toxic as the ones they replaced. In addition, imported products may still contain PBDEs. PBDEs are persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic to humans and the environment, and have been found in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health and wildlife.
Efforts by Canada and the United States to phase out the manufacture and import of some PBDE chemicals and develop strategies to reduce their levels in the environment have been somewhat successful, as shown by declining concentrations of PBDEs in the Great Lakes environment. However, residual PBDE flame retardants are still present throughout the Great Lakes basin at higher levels than necessary to protect human and wildlife health. Substitute but still harmful flame retardants also are now building up in the environment.
Canada and the US governments designated PBDEs as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) in May 2016 under Annex 3 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This designation requires that a binational strategy be developed and implemented to prevent, control and monitor the chemical’s presence in the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) has studied how to reduce the release of PBDEs into the Great Lakes and released its second report on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in late January. While the first report, released by the Commission in November 2016, outlined elements of a successful binational control strategy as required under the Agreement, this second report proposes several actions for the Commission to consider recommending to the governments to address challenges in seeking safer alternatives to the use of PBDEs and other toxic chemicals as flame retardants.
In its second report to the Commission, the WQB recommends several actions to eliminate inputs of PBDEs and other toxic flame retardants into the Great Lakes environment (see infographic). These range from redesigning options to protect from flammability that do not use toxic substances to developing extended producer responsibility programs as a method to avoid the release of PBDEs and other flame retardants during production, use, recycling and disposal of products.
The WQB also is concerned that recycling products containing PBDEs or other toxic flame retardants will result in the new products, such as bottles and toys, unintentionally containing these toxic substances. The board recommends that governments and responsible industries explore ways to avoid this contamination of products made from recycled materials. The WQB also recommends that the public have easy access to information on whether a product they are buying contains unintended contamination by flame retardants.
The WQB concludes that public education is essential so that the next time we bring a new laptop or recycled products into our home, we know we’ve chosen those that don’t contain harmful flame retardant chemicals.
There is a long history of IJC involvement on flame retardants.
“The Commission is concerned that the number of chemicals being monitored to establish the chemical integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem is inadequate for that purpose. Of particular concern are many unmonitored chemicals, especially pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and high-volume chemicals, such as a new generation of biodegradable pesticides, which have the ability to dissolve in both water and fat and therefore often show unusual patterns of bioaccumulation and environmental degradation …
Many flame retardants are brominated organic compounds similar in structure to PCBs, and can have even greater toxicity than their chlorinated counterparts. Some have been appearing in waters and biota of the Great Lakes system where they have not been previously documented.”