Ontario as a Model for Clean Drinking Water

By Raj Bejankiwar and Salma Ahmed, IJC

drinking water david j flickr
Credit: David J

As the largest surface area of freshwater on earth, the Great Lakes have long been a source of drinking water for millions of Canadians and Americans. This dependence on the Great Lakes calls for stringent care to secure the quality of water into and out of the region’s drinking water systems.

However, the sustainability of the Great Lakes is under constant physical, chemical and biological stresses. Most of these stresses are due in part to our collective behavior as a society. As new and emerging challenges present themselves, the public grows skeptical of the quality of drinking water. In wake of water quality incidents like Ontario’s Walkerton tragedy in 2010, the ongoing water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan, and the Toledo Ohio water crisis of August 2014, the integrity of the Great Lakes water basins as a source of drinking water has never been more important. Legislation, science and governance are critical to restoring and protecting the quality of these binational waters. This includes commitments by the Canadian and US governments to ensure waters of the Great lakes are fishable, drinkable and swimmable as outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.


Incidents in history have served to reaffirm the importance of the condition of drinking water at the source. In May 2000, a large storm event hit Walkerton, Ontario, and washed cattle manure into a town well that leached into the groundwater table. A total of 2,300 residents of Walkerton became ill from drinking the water and seven died from the worst-ever outbreak of E. coli bacteria in the history of Ontario. Justice Dennis R. O’Connor was appointed commissioner of the Walkerton inquiry and made sweeping changes to the safeguarding of Ontario’s drinking water by establishing the Safe Water Drinking Act of 2002. This act features the recognition of source protection as the first barrier of the multi-barrier approach in providing safe drinking water.


A decade and a half later Flint, Michigan, switched the city’s source of drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. Officials decided against adding an anti-corrosive agent to the water treatment process. This proved to be a mistake, as highly corrosive water from the Flint River caused lead to leach from transportation pipes into the drinking water supply. Elevated levels of lead were found in the blood of the Flint community and residents had to resort to drinking and bathing with bottled water during the transition back to the old water supply in October 2015. A state-commissioned report from Flint-based engineering firm Rowe Professional Services lays out a multi-decade plan that is expected to cost at least $216 million to restore Flint’s water supply infrastructure. More than a year after the contamination was discovered, many Flint residents are still unsure of the safety of their water supply and continue to use bottled water to drink, bath and cook.


In 2014, Toledo, Ohio, issued a “do not drink” warning for three days to about 400,00 water users when a toxic algal bloom arose close to a water intake pipe. The type of algae that the bloom contained produced a toxin called microcystin. Since the incident, governments working to put the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement into action have made significant strides to cut down the amount of algae-feeding phosphorus that gets into Lake Erie’s tributaries, notably the Maumee River.

The Ontario Approach

Relying on the Great Lakes as a source of drinking water demands that stringent care be taken. Today through development of comprehensive safety mechanisms, drinking water standards are maintained from source to tap. For more than a decade in Ontario, more that 99.9 percent of water quality tests have continued to meet the province’s strict health-based water quality standards. This is due in part to protection at the source, maintenance throughout the transportation process, diligence in the treatment of water, and security in making it available to the public.

Water for Ontario residents is drawn mostly from Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. There is a multi-barrier approach to protecting the source water, including designated intake protection zones, well head protection zones and drinking water intake protection zones — all with protection plans developed in part by local committees.

 Intake protections zones for the Windsor drinking water treatment plant. Credit: Essex Region Drinking Water Source Protection Authority

Intake protections zones for the Windsor drinking water treatment plant. Credit: Essex Region Drinking Water Source Protection Authority

Water is treated on a multi-tier basis. It’s tested for parameters such as microbiological, chemical and nutrient concentrations, trace metals and pH (acidity). Each water treatment plant in the province is equipped with primary, secondary, and tertiary courses of treatment to address these parameters.

This method of treatment reinforces the notion of how policy and the scientific process ensure that the system of treatment supports the larger structure of how water is handled nationwide. However, policy surrounding water quality is one only side of the coin. Taking action on a local level through engagement in the community is another.

Written into Ontario’s Clean Water Act was the opportunity for community and public consultation on water quality. Through forming a Source Water Protection Advisory Committee, local communities can identify potential risks or threats to their water and plan and implement actions to reduce or eliminate these threats.

Source Protection Authorities across Ontario sought public comments on draft source protection plans in 2011. During 2012, comments were taken into consideration and plans were finalized and implemented from 2013 to 2015. These source protection plans will be updated depending on individual risk assessments carried out by source protection authorities, who are mandated to seek public comments during that time.

A holistic approach to water quality management can prevent incidents like Walkerton, Toledo, and Flint from happening again. Getting involved in the discussion surrounding water quality in your community can help to keep waters fishable, drinkable and swimmable.

Swimming at Burleigh Falls in Ontario
Swimming at Burleigh Falls in Ontario. Credit: Martin Cathrae

Raj Bejankiwar is a physical scientist and deputy director at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Salma Ahmed is a student intern, also at the Windsor office.

Successes and Challenges in Canadian Areas of Concern

By Raj Bejankiwar and Salma Ahmed, IJC

The Great Lakes basin covers an area greater than 750,000 square kilometers. In Canada, it’s home to 90 percent of Ontario’s population, provides drinking water to 8.5 million people and 40 percent of Canada’s economic activity.

This dependency has caused the Great Lakes’ ecological health to deteriorate. Throughout the basin in Canada, as in the United States, many sites have been impaired.

In these “hot spots,” the water needs additional treatment to be ready for consumption, aquatic life is at risk or not safe to eat, and there are health warnings related to swimming, fishing or boating. The source of this impairment can vary from industrial development to sewage plant discharges and historic pollution from past practices. These locations are known as Areas of Concern (AOCs).

What is an Area of Concern?

In 1987, the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement formally established AOCs as geographic locations where environmental degradation hinders the ability for human use and/or the capacity to support aquatic life. Termed Beneficial Use Impairments, they represent a change in the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the area that became a standard for evaluating the severity of the AOC. Fourteen beneficial uses are considered for each AOC.

Each AOC has a Remedial Action Plan (RAP), which is a comprehensive strategy for dealing with impairments within the area.

Lake Erie Wheatley Harbour

Canada has 17 AOCs, of which two are in recovery and three are restored. Wheatley Harbour in Lake Erie is the latest AOC that has been restored and removed from the list of Canadian AOCs. Wheatley Harbour AOC was listed in 1987 due to five beneficial use impairments, and a final cleanup was completed in 2010.

Wheatley Harbour. Credit: Government of Ontario
Wheatley Harbour. Credit: Government of Ontario

An AOC is delisted by the government of Canada when environmental monitoring information confirms that environmental quality has been restored in accordance with criteria established in consultation with other levels of government, IJC and the public of each degraded area.

The success at Wheatley Harbour occurred over a period of more than 20 years. Cleaning up AOCs is a long, complex and often capital-intensive process. More than $4 million was spent to upgrade sewage treatment plants. Federal agencies, in conjunction with provincial and other financing partners, worked together with municipalities and communities to restore ecological integrity to the AOC.

Hamilton Harbour

Hamilton Harbour on the western tip of Lake Ontario is an ongoing challenge. Upon initial assessment in 1989 and 1992, this AOC had 11 impairments. Development in Hamilton Harbour has led to cleanups of 675,000 meters of contaminated sediment. Hamilton Harbour still has eight impairments and cleanup costs have amounted to $770 million.

Hamilton Harbour. Credit: John Hall, Hamilton Harbour RAP coordinator
Hamilton Harbour. Credit: John Hall, Hamilton Harbour RAP coordinator

About 376 hectares of fish and wildlife habitat and 12 kilometers of shoreline habitat have been restored. The first phase of the Randle Reef cleanup project started in March and is expected to be complete by the end of 2017. Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, anticipates  that the cleanup project will generate millions in economic benefits including job creation, business development and tourism. However, work still needs to be done to execute the next two phases of the cleanup project.


Wastewater treatment discharges and combined sewer overflows contribute to the deteriorating conditions of AOCs within the Great Lakes. This is an issue in Hamilton Harbour as well as AOCS in Nipigon Bay, Peninsula Harbour, St Marys River, Toronto and the Bay of Quinte.

Not only is it a federal responsibility to remediate AOCs, but local communities are directly impacted by the financially intensive cleanup process.

In fiscal year 2010, the government of Canada renewed and made permanent its funding of $48 million annually for Great Lakes initiatives: $22 million from Environment Canada programs of which $6 million is allocated per year to remediate contaminated sediments in Great Lakes AOCs. Another $26 million is put forth for various activities by other federal departments.

In binational AOCs, coordinated efforts are required from Canadian and US federal, provincial and municipal governments. In the Detroit River AOC, for example, the Canadian government invested $60 million for a retention basin in the Detroit River to capture and treat combined sewer overflows in Windsor, eliminating 22 combined sewer overflows along the Windsor riverfront and reducing domestic sewage pollution significantly  on the Canadian side.

The most recent funding was a US grant for a Detroit River habitat restoration project of more than $7 million. The Detroit River Area of Concern has nine impairments and continues to demand the attention of all stakeholders to successfully mitigate impairments.

To take part in community initiatives dealing with AOCs and increase awareness of the AOCs in your community, visit the IJC’s Areas of Concern page.

Raj Bejankiwar is a physical scientist and deputy director at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Salma Ahmed is a student intern, also at the Windsor office.

Great Lakes Summer Reading

By Sally Cole-Misch and Allison Voglesong, IJC

So it’s summer, and newspapers and magazines have published lists of the latest books to enjoy while you’re on vacation. But what better way to spend time on a splendid Great Lakes beach than reading about the lakes? Our thoughts exactly.

We offer the following nonfiction and fiction reads to help you consider your view from the beach with even more appreciation.

long shining waters cover by danielle sosinThe Long-Shining Waters, by Danielle Sosin. Fiction, 2012, winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.

The vast, powerful Lake Superior transcends time to connect three narratives that are separated by centuries and similar in their search for meaning in uncertainty. Available from IndieBound.


south of superior cover by ellen airgoodSouth of Superior, by Ellen Airgood. Fiction, 2012.

When Madeline Stone walks away from Chicago and moves 500 miles north to the shores of Lake Superior and Michigan’s upper peninsula, she isn’t prepared for how much the lake, friendship and charity will teach her to live a bigger life.  Available from the publisher at Penguin Books.


once future great lakes book cover by john rileyThe Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History, by John L. Riley. History, 2014

A passionate, wide-ranging history of the landscapes around the Great Lakes. Available from McGill-Queen’s University Press.



masters of empire book cover by michael mcdonnellMasters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, by Michael McDonnell. History, 2015.

Assumptions about trade, diplomacy, and war in the Great Lakes region of Revolutionary America are shattered by these vivid historical depictions from the Odawa native perspective. Available from MacMillan Publishers.


stormstruck book cover by robert campbellStormstruck: When Supercharged Winds Slammed Northwest Michigan, by Robert Campbell. Nonfiction, 2015.

It was a 100-year storm that snapped thousands of trees like matchsticks, blasted homes apart with its vertical winds and left Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakes with a cleanup likely to last years. This book includes extensive maps, photos and stories. Available from the publisher at Mission Point Press.

floating palaces great lakes book cover joel stoneFloating Palaces of the Great Lakes, by Joel Stone. History, 2015.

Relives the lively history of the steam-powered ships that provided jobs and countless memories for those who travelled throughout the Great Lakes through much of the 19th century. Available from University of Michigan Press.


miss colfaxs light book cover by aimee bissonetteMiss Colfax’s Light, by Aimee Bissonette. Children’s, 2016.

This is the true story of Harriet Colfax, who became lighthouse keeper for the Michigan City lighthouse off Lake Michigan in 1861 at the age of 37, and kept the light shining until she was 80. Available from Sleeping Bear Press.

Sally Cole-Misch
is the public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Allison Voglesong is the Michigan Sea Grant fellow, also at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office.

Citizens to Speak Out on Great Lakes Restoration and Protection in October

By Lauren Stokes, IJC

great lakes public forum binational toronto ontario canada
Credit: Binational.net

Mark your calendars for Oct. 4-6 as the first of several dates to learn how the Great Lakes are faring and provide your own thoughts. That’s when the governments of Canada and the United States will hold the Great Lakes Public Forum at the Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario.

Officials will present the latest findings on primary issues the two countries committed to acting on in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including climate change, habitats and species, and chemicals of mutual concern. A total of 16 presentations are slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 4-5. The progress report – also known as the Parties’ Report on Progress or PROP – will be released in September and provide the basis for the conference presentations. On Thursday, Oct. 6, various presenters will celebrate the diversity of the Great Lakes.

The IJC will contribute to the forum by holding two public meetings on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Those present at the Allstream Centre can tell us what they think about PROP and the governments’ actions from 4:30-6 p.m. Then we’ll move to downtown Toronto for a meeting from 7-9 p.m. to obtain more public comments from the broader community.

Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario
Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario. Credit: IJC files

Sharing your views on government progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes is vital to the IJC as we develop our own assessment of progress and recommend actions that Canada and the US should take to restore and protect the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.

The forum is open to the public and free to attend, and will be streamed live with multiple opportunities to provide online comments throughout the three days. Registration is available via binational.net.

Shortly after the Toronto public forum, the IJC will hold a public meeting on Oct. 18 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to allow residents on the western side of the basin to share their views. Final details for all meetings will be included in the September issue of the Great Lakes Connection newsletter.

Lauren Stokes is an intern at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, and a student in the political science master’s program at University of Windsor.




Invasive Grass Carp Spawning in Sandusky River Leaves Tough Questions

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

During a research trip over the summer of 2015, a University of Toledo graduate student discovered grass carp – an invasive species of Asian carp – spawning viable eggs in the Sandusky River.

Fortunately, the grass carp is not the worst of the Asian carp species: the invasive bighead and silver carp that now dominate the Mississippi River and its tributaries will directly outcompete native fish for food, including popular fishing targets and prey fish like yellow perch.

sandusky river
The Sandusky River. Credit: Holly Embke

Holly Embke’s discovery of eggs around Fremont, Ohio, was not the first indication that grass carp were breeding in the waterway, as juvenile fish were discovered there in 2012. It does stand as the first confirmation of spawning in the Great Lakes basin, however.

Embke explained that it is legal in some Great Lakes states to buy sterile grass carp for vegetation control, as they are voracious herbivores. When the fish escape they can find their way into the Great Lakes, where they have been found in all but Lake Superior. Those purchased were all thought to be “triploid” and sterile, and did not directly compete with any native species.

When she found the juveniles in 2012, however, they were “diploid,” or capable of reproducing. Embke went on the Sandusky River one to three times a week between June and August 2015 with bongo nets to try and scoop up eggs – reasoning that water temperatures seemed to be warm enough that the fish would try to spawn — while also setting light traps to try and catch juvenile carp.

“In the Sandusky we thought they would spawn in this one area of the river close to Fremont, Ohio, because it fit the characteristic spawning sites that they would use in their native area, where it’s shallow and rocky,” Embke said.

While they failed to catch any juvenile carp, Embke said they caught seven eggs in nets and one, randomly, in a light trap downriver. All the eggs were fertilized and in varying stages of development, she added.

grass carp eggs sandusky river
Grass carp eggs collected from the Sandusky River. Credit: Holly Embke

Embke already has a second round of surveying underway in the Sandusky this year and hopes to narrow down the spawning location to better determine where juvenile carp might be located and caught.

Managing the carp is important, especially if they are reproducing in the basin. Embke said that the grass carp appetite for aquatic plants coupled with larger numbers of fish would negatively impact habitat for waterfowl, insects and other nearshore fish, as well as increase soil erosion and reduce overall water quality due to plant removal.

Jeff Tyson, Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Lake Erie Fisheries Program administrator, said that response and emergency action plans are in the preliminary stages but the state should have something together by 2017 or 2018 to contend with grass carp. At the moment, he said, the DNR simply doesn’t have enough information about the species in the river and where it spawns to form a meaningful response. Even though they have reported sightings going back to the early 1980s, it wasn’t until around 2011 that Ohio started documenting fish sightings. In the meantime, the DNR is trying to determine exactly where grass carp are found in the Sandusky and where they spawn.

The Ohio researchers are working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to tag carp and use that information for sampling data. Tyson said the state also is interested in any grass carp specimens caught by anglers for research purposes. You can report a catch or sighting at ohiodnr.gov/reportais.

A grass carp. Credit: USDA APHIS PPQ
A grass carp. Credit: USDA APHIS PPQ

A solitary adult grass carp also was caught by a commercial fisherman in the St. Lawrence River in May 2016, sparking concerns that the invasive species had made its way into the waterway. Jacques Nadeau, communications director for the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks, said that single 20-25 year-old fish seems to be an isolated case, and didn’t appear to have a chance to lay eggs. The province has budgeted CDN$1.7 million until 2018 to continue surveying the waterway and prepare an emergency response if additional grass carp are found.

The IJC supports an ecological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River to prevent the spread of invasive Asian carp to the basin. This includes using barriers to keep the fish from reaching the lakes.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s U.S. Section office in Washington, D.C.

Sturgeon Spawning Grounds Restoration Shows Promising Results

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Lake sturgeon were once abundant in the Great Lakes basin before overfishing and habitat destruction in the late 1800s through the early 1900s decimated their numbers. Since then, a lack of suitable spawning locations for the sturgeon to lay eggs has been a major drag on recovery efforts.

lake sturgeon swims natural reef spawn
A lake sturgeon swims through a natural reef on its way to spawn. Credit: Adam Lintz

So about 15 years ago, a group of interested researchers and organizations made the decision to build their own spawning rocky reefs mimicking the lost natural sites for the fish. Those plans to construct spawning grounds in the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers years ago are showing promising results now, University of Michigan Water Center Director Jennifer Read said.

The three initial spawning reefs, constructed off Belle Isle in 2004, were relatively small, 50-by-80 feet or about 37 square meters. The reefs were made with a variety of substrates and shapes to see which ones sturgeon used the most. The fish seek out loose rock with clean-flowing water located deep under the surface to lay eggs. While the rivers used to be filled with suitable spawning habitat, much of it was destroyed by dredging and construction of the shipping channel, Read said. Follow-up investigations found that sturgeon and other fish species, like whitefish, walleye and a variety of suckers, were at the reefs, with other species confirmed to be spawning.

test reef construction fort wayne detroit
A test reef under construction near Historic Fort Wayne park in southwest Detroit. Credit: James Conway

Rich Drouin, lead management biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Lake Erie division, said his agency found sturgeon weren’t picky about the type of substrate, prompting future reefs to be built with relatively cheap fractured limestone.

Additional reefs were constructed in other locations within the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers with ample water flow. Reefs have been built near Fighting Island and Grassy Island in the Detroit River, and by Pointe Aux Chenes, Harts Light and the Middle Channel at the St. Clair headwaters. Read said there are now eight in total. A new one near Belle Isle is in the works that would be about five acres or 2 hectares.

“We’ve gone from a postage stamp to a fairly nice size,” Read said. “The impact of making navigable (waterways) and upland uses reduced good spawning habitat by 90 percent. There may have been 500 acres lost, so this may be a small percentage of what was lost, but it has a large impact on the fish.” With the eight reefs built, and a ninth at Belle Isle, the restored reefs will amount to around 20 acres or 8 hectares.

See also – Fins Up: Detroit River Reef Project to Benefit Endangered Lake Sturgeon

So far invasive species haven’t been a major problem at the man-made reefs, said Lynn Vaccaro, coastal ecosystem research specialist at the University of Michigan Water Center. The loose rock chosen is too large for parasitic sea lamprey tastes and too small for egg-eating round gobies to settle in any large numbers. While some invasive mussels have attached themselves to the rocks, they have not yet deterred the fish from using the sites to spawn.

Read said the new Belle Isle reef could cost more than $1 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative just for the construction, including binational consultation, document preparation and oversight, but not pre- and post-construction assessments. Those assessments are valuable for narrowing down the criteria to find the right location for construction and seeing how the fish respond afterwards. One such assessment found that the Middle Channel site was getting silt on it, which affects sturgeon spawning.

Drouin said since it takes up to 25 years for sturgeon to grow into adults, it could take that long to determine if their population is growing based on the habitat restoration or if the fish are simply moving their spawning efforts to the reefs from elsewhere. Other species will need years of study as well, but if they are growing that could be important to fishery management.

Drouin said sturgeon are known to eat invasive zebra and quagga mussels, though at their current numbers they don’t eat enough to make much of a dent in their spread across the basin.

While urban development and modern shipping needs limits how much habitat can be restored in the river systems, Read noted every little bit helps in the effort to bring the Great Lakes’ largest residents back from the brink.

sturgeon artificial reef middle channel st clair river usgs
A sturgeon swims through an artificially constructed reef in the middle channel of the St. Clair River. Credit: USGS

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s U.S. Section office in Washington, D.C.

Great Lakes Watermark – Beaches and Coasts

By IJC staff

The IJC is partnering with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to gather and share Great Lakes Watermark stories—written, spoken, or filmed—that connect the personal, emotional and cultural ways we use and value our precious shared waters. Watermark stories are being archived on a special Watermark Project site. Have a Great Lakes story to share? Submit yours online today.

This month’s Watermarks are from Environment and Climate Change Canada scientist Wendy Leger (also co-chair of IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee) and New York Sea Grant coastal educator Helen Domske (featured in a recent post on Great Lakes learning).


50 Years of Sea Grant: How to Roll Up Your Sleeves and Make a Difference

By Mary Bohling, Michigan Sea Grant Extension

In 2016, the National Sea Grant College Program celebrates 50 years of putting science to work for America’s coastal communities. Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership that turns research into action by supporting science-based, environmentally sustainable practices that ensure coastal communities remain engines of economic growth in a rapidly changing world.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through research, education and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is one of 33 programs in the NOAA National Sea Grant network. MSU Extension educators live and work in coastal communities around Michigan.

michigan sea grant mary bohling extension educator
Mary Bohling. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

To celebrate Sea Grant’s 50th anniversary, Michigan Sea Grant is publishing a series of articles highlighting the work of our Extension educators. I was featured in a recent article where I was asked, “If you could get people to follow just one piece of conservation advice what would it be?” My response: Get involved! There are so many grassroots environmental organizations that rely on volunteers to accomplish their missions. Find one that speaks to your environmental passion, roll up your sleeves and make a difference.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for individuals to take a vested interest in contributing to the great work of our environmental nonprofits. Most of the local nonprofits that I partner with have very few paid employees and rely heavily on volunteers to help meet their missions. This is something I encourage my own family to do, too.

Since 2002 my family has participated in a special Detroit River cleanup as part of annual Earth Day celebrations. The event, hosted by the Friends of the Detroit River and their Detroit Riverkeeper, removes trash and debris from the river, and educates people about the Riverkeeper program and the public’s role in keeping our waters clean. The day begins at a local park where volunteers climb into boats and head out to several islands to collect trash that has washed ashore. Other volunteers collect trash along the mainland shoreline.

plastic debris detroit river
Plastic debris collected from the Detroit River. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

When we first started attending the cleanup, we would find items such as couches, barbecue grills, and other large debris. This year as we scooped up trash along the shore, my daughter and I began to see another pattern emerge. The items we found most often were smaller plastic items that end up in our waterways because they are not properly disposed of. These items also take a long time to decompose and can pose hazards to wildlife. The 50-plus volunteers that joined the cleanup not only made a tangible impact that day on the Detroit River, but what they learn also allows them to make future decisions that help lead to a healthier natural world.

Another wonderful example of a volunteer making a difference is Bruce McCulloch. A fish biologist from Canada, Bruce and his wife relocated to the Detroit area. He had some free time and an interest in fish and benthic macroinvertebrates, so in 2006 he began volunteering for Friends of the Rouge. He quickly became indispensable to the program. Bruce is now a team leader who helps to train others. He assists in bug identification and acts as an adviser to the program, contributing articles on unusual findings in our reports and helping with data analysis.

“I have always felt that volunteering is important for many reasons. You volunteer your time because you believe in an organization. You know you are making a difference. Volunteering also allows you to meet new people and make new friends and contacts,” Bruce says.

“As a self-proclaimed ‘Bug Nerd,’ sampling and identifying aquatic macroinvertebrates is a labor of love. The discoveries of three species of sensitive caddisflies that were not known to occur in the Rouge River watershed were highlights for me. The volunteer monitoring that is being undertaken provides valuable time series data that can be used to gauge the health of the watershed.”

You too can make a difference throughout the Great Lakes. Not sure how to get involved? Start by looking for environmental organizations in your area. Call to see if they have volunteer opportunities and sign up to get their newsletters. You can also encourage your own friends and family to volunteer.

See also: The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup Takes Trash, Leaves Footprints

Adopt-a-Beach Volunteers: Passionate Agents of Change

Mary Bohling is a Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator serving Macomb, Monroe, St. Clair and Wayne counties. Mary works with coastal communities, nonprofit groups and businesses along the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River and western Lake Erie applying science-based knowledge to address Great Lakes issues, including economic development, habitat restoration, coastal tourism initiatives, and greenway/water trail development. In addition, Mary is the chair of the Michigan Statewide Public Advisory Council, chair of the Michigan Trails Advisory Council Non-Motorized Advisory Workgroup Water Trail Subcommittee, co-chair of the Downriver Linked Greenways Initiative, and co-founder and board member of the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance.

volunteers cleaning up shorelines benefit fish wildlife michigan sea grant
Volunteers play a key role in cleaning up shorelines to benefit fish and wildlife. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Adaptively Managing the Regulation of Great Lakes Water Levels

By IJC staff

The IJC is responsible for regulating outflows from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario affecting water levels and flows in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. In 2015, it established a Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee, known as GLAM, to provide ongoing monitoring and assessment of these regulated outflows.

Adaptive management is another way of saying that we adjust water resource policies based on hard evidence about the how well they’re working. While people may agree conceptually on the value of adaptive management, it is difficult to do and there are few examples of its full implementation.

Water levels affect stakeholders on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system differently. High water levels can cause flooding and erosion to shoreline properties, but be beneficial for recreational boaters, commercial navigation and hydropower.

Low water levels can leave docks and boat launches high and dry and force big ships to carry less cargo, but low levels also can be beneficial for beach goers. Variability in water levels over time is natural and can improve certain environmental outcomes such as wetland plant diversity. The IJC has to consider all these stakeholders as well as the ecosystem as it regulates the outflows of Lake Superior and Lake Ontario.

The adaptive management approach was discussed during a recent webinar hosted by the Graham Sustainability Institute on “Changing Great Lakes Water Levels and Local Impacts” in a presentation given by Wendy Leger, GLAM’s Canadian co-chair. You can view the video of her presentation below. A pdf of her presentation also is available: Insights on Addressing Water Level Variability.

Over the last several decades, persistent high or low water levels have triggered multi-year binational studies to determine what can be done about the problems extreme levels cause. These studies have produced better regulation plans and models and data that support those new approaches. Traditionally, when these studies end, there is no follow-up mechanism to measure how effective the new management measures are, and no way to reconsider those measures as preferences change over time and new data becomes available. GLAM is designed to be that mechanism.

adaptive management, water level variability
A slide from “Insights on Addressing Water Level Variability.”

GLAM is supported by federal, state and provincial water agencies from both sides of the Canadian-US border. The committee does several things. It maintains and improves the models and databases developed in the studies so they can be used continuously. GLAM also is designing and executing monitoring programs with partner agencies to validate and improve specific parts of the decision support models, where sensitivity analyses showed the recommendations might change if these model elements were improved based on additional data.

GLAM is connecting people so that a wide range of decision makers can learn about developing information sooner and can act on it more expeditiously. GLAM is monitoring climate changes, starting with an effort to reduce errors in water flow and level estimates so that small trends can be identified with greater confidence. GLAM also is developing a sustainable capacity within the agencies to carry this work into the future, making sure young professionals learn from the teams formed during the big studies on water levels and flows. And because there are so few examples, GLAM is reaching out to others to share experiences in managing adaptively, helping to make a good idea practical.