Lake Superior Action Plan Shows Successes in Reducing Chemical Pollution

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Lake Superior as seen from Batchawana Bay, Ontario. Credit: Scudder Mackey
Lake Superior as seen from Batchawana Bay, Ontario. Credit: Scudder Mackey

Having a road map and plan for protecting and restoring a lake and its watershed can be incredibly helpful. They can show how the lake is recovering and in what ways, and suggest additional work to help improve things.

Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) compile the state of a specific lake using a variety of studies, alongside public input and data from state, provincial, tribal, First Nation, federal and non-government sources. Liz LaPlante, Lake Superior LAMP manager with the Great Lakes National Program office of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said the LAMPs describe the current state of the lake, present ecosystem objectives and environmental goals, and identify potential actions that can be taken to achieve those goals.

Topics in the LAMP include recent information on invasive species, habitat and wildlife, aquatic species, chemical pollution, shoreline and nearshore habitat conditions, climate change and human-use impacts. The LAMPs are released by EPA and Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC) and distributed to all levels of government, and stakeholders including the general public. The Lake Superior LAMP was released this week. LAMPs were compiled for the lakes between 2000 and 2008, and Lake Superior will be the first one released under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

“(The LAMP) sets out a specific management plan for protection and restoration of the Great Lakes at a lake level,” LaPlante said. “You can’t treat all the lakes the same, because they’re not the same. They all have different issues, problems, stakeholders and means to address (these problems).”

The draft LAMP report for Superior, released in 2015, noted that due to the relative lack of development around the lake compared to the other Great Lakes, its waters are fairly clean and safe. In general, Superior fish are a healthy and nutritious food source although consumption advisories have been issued by state, tribes and the province of Ontario to protect against harmful pollutants found in some fish in some areas.

Levels of legacy chemicals, such as DDT, dioxins and PCBs, continue to decline in the Superior ecosystem. The lower food web, which contains small shrimp-like crustaceans such as diporeia and mysis, is in good shape. The fisheries are doing well although some populations of some larger fish species like walleye are only seeing limited success in rebounding from reduced population sizes. The lake’s coastal wetlands also are marked as being in “good” shape, but researchers lacked the “full suite of indicators” at the time of the draft LAMP’s publication to confirm that initial conclusion, according to the document.

LaPlante said that ideally, the LAMPs are documents that are relevant to everyone, from policymakers and scientists to city officials and local residents. People could read it for guidance on how to help improve the watershed they live in, like adding a riparian buffer zone (a strip of vegetation near a stream that filters out excess nutrients before they reach water) to their waterfront property or decreasing the use of lawn pesticides and herbicides.

Pancake Bay, Lake Superior. Credit: IJC
Pancake Bay, Lake Superior. Credit: IJC

The next LAMP, for Lake Huron, is due to be complete by the end of 2016. LaPlante said the Superior LAMP was originally scheduled for release in late December 2015, but was delayed to give stakeholder groups more time to review and comment on the document. The LAMPs after Superior’s will have an extended comment period built into the schedule, which should prevent major delays going forward. The Superior LAMP was open for comment for about six weeks starting in January 2016, and the authors received about 50 pages of comments to review and incorporate into the document.

Protecting the Great Lakes is important not only for the environment and current residents, but to safeguard them for the future. LaPlante said that with climate change, water quality and quantity issues will only become more important. With LAMPs lighting a path forward, the Great Lakes can be healthy and continue to be an important part of life for the region for decades to come.

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

Binational Groundwater Report Calls for Better Monitoring of Contaminants

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A scientist takes a groundwater test sample. Credit: US Geological Survey
A scientist takes a groundwater test sample. Credit: US Geological Survey

Groundwater sources throughout the Great Lakes basin need to be better monitored and mapped. The work is needed to determine how quickly the sources recharge and the potential impact that contaminants in groundwater could have on water quality in the basin.

That’s according to a report recently released by the Canadian and US governments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Contaminants can work their way down the water table and impact groundwater and the quality of surface waters. The recent groundwater report indicates that this can impact fish populations, and ultimately the fish further up the food chain that we eat. Drinking water from groundwater and surface water sources can be impacted too, and excess nutrients in groundwater — from sources like septic systems, manure, fertilizer, leaking wastewater pipes and concentrated animal feeding operations — may contribute to algal blooms in lakes.

Because it can take anywhere from a few days to decades for groundwater to reach the surface, depending on the local geology and soil makeup, water quality managers may have to deal with these contaminants for years to come, long after their initial sources may have been cleaned up.


The groundwater report makes several recommendations on the science front. The authors suggest tracking groundwater as it moves into streams and the Great Lakes, and compiling locations of known and suspected sources of groundwater contaminants.

The report also recommends improving groundwater quality monitoring and surveillance to help fill information gaps. For instance, scientists want to know more about the interaction between groundwater and surface water on local-scales when it reaches the “transition zone” between the two.

Different kinds of bedrock in aquifers can cause differences in how quickly groundwater recharges. Credit: Granneman et al. 2000, USGS
Different kinds of bedrock in aquifers can cause differences in how quickly groundwater recharges. Credit: Granneman et al. 2000, USGS

What’s New

It wasn’t until the 2012 amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that Canada and the United States committed to coordinating groundwater science and management actions. Under the amendment, an “Annex 8 subcommittee” of experts from both countries was formed to identify groundwater impacts on the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the lakes, and analyze other issues. While the topic of groundwater has been a part of the agreement since 1978, progress reports weren’t required until 1987.

The vast majority of groundwater connects to surface streams, creeks and other waterways in the Great Lakes basin. According to a 2010 report from the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board, 8.2 million people in the Great Lakes basin rely on groundwater to drink, including 82 percent of the rural population; it also provides 43 percent of agricultural water (and this proportion is increasing) and 14 percent of industrial water in the basin.

The Great Lakes, as seen from space by a NASA satellite. Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE
The Great Lakes, as seen from space by a NASA satellite. Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

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

ParticipateIJC: How You Can Help to Define the Future of the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

great lakes water quality agreement participateijc
Credit: IJC files

Over the next year, the IJC invites you to participate in its assessment of progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. Here’s your cheat sheet to keep track of the meetings and other opportunities to participate.

Great Lakes Public Forum

The Great Lakes Public Forum is the first opportunity, which will bring together Canadian and US government folks working to restore and protect the lakes, as well as state, provincial and municipal government representatives and others from a wide variety of organizations. Can’t make it to Toronto? No worries.

The IJC is live-streaming the event with Detroit Public TV on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 4 and 5, including our public comment session from 4:30-6 p.m. on Wednesday. You may view the events via livestream and YouTube.


You can watch, provide your comments and questions, and talk with others watching the conference via an IJC online democracy platform called ParticipateIJC. The sharing platform, by Bang the Table, will include valuable information about the Agreement, the governments’ report on progress to accomplish the Agreement’s goals and objectives, and provide opportunities for you to contribute your own videos, photos, stories and comments.

ParticipateIJC will run throughout the IJC’s assessment process, and include a variety of discussion forums as well as new information as we hold public meetings in towns throughout the Great Lakes region.

We’re excited to launch this website as part of ongoing engagement with all of you about the Great Lakes. It’s guaranteed to provide an avenue for everyone who cares about the lakes to talk and share with each other. The online democracy platform goes live on Sept. 20. Click here to join in the conversation.

Toronto and Milwaukee Public Meetings

Outside of the forum, we’ll hold a public meeting for Toronto residents to share their thoughts and experiences restoring the city’s waterfront and their part of Lake Ontario on Wednesday evening, Oct. 5, at Toronto’s City Hall. You can register to attend at Eventbrite.

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, we’ll hold a public meeting on the other side of the basin — in Milwaukee at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Wisconsin’s College of Freshwater Sciences. People will be able to discuss progress made and progress to come, and learn about the Milwaukee region’s successes and challenges to restore and protect its part of the basin. Register here.

Spring 2017 Meetings

Between the end of October 2016 and mid-January 2017, the IJC will pull all the information together – the governments’ progress report, its advisory boards’ reports and assessments, and your comments – to write a draft of its Triennial Assessment Report, or what we call the TAP report.

Once that’s released in mid-January, we’ll head back out to hear what you think of that report and  issues you’re concerned about in your area in a series of public meetings in communities across the Great Lakes basin. The draft report and its appendices will be posted at and on ParticipateIJC to encourage discussion and comments. A final report will be released in summer 2017.

See also: “Governments’ Great Lakes Public Forum to Present Status of Lakes, IJC Session Invites Your Views

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

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on Sept. 21, 2016, to reflect adjustments in our livestreaming of the Great Lakes Public Forum.

filming previous forum lake erie participateijc
Filming at a previous forum on Lake Erie. Credit: IJC files

Governments’ Great Lakes Public Forum to Present Status of Lakes, IJC Session Invites Your Views

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

toronto skyline lake ontario public forum
A portion of the Toronto skyline reflected on Lake Ontario. Credit: Allen

The Great Lakes are the heart and soul of our shared economies, cultures, recreation, and personal and collective quality of life. Over three days in early October, the governments of Canada and the United States will tell us how the lakes are faring, based on the goals and objectives they’re trying to reach in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

The conference is free and open to all who want to attend on Oct. 4-6 at the Allstream Centre in Toronto. Tuesday and Wednesday’s presentations will focus on Areas of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern, groundwater, algal blooms, habitat, climate change and aquatic invasive species. On Thursday the program switches to celebrating the lakes and the variety of people and organizations who are creating innovative solutions to issues challenging the Great Lakes. A complete program outline and registration information is available at

See also: “ParticipateIJC: How You Can Help to Define the Future of the Great Lakes

great lakes right path public forum toronto
Are the Great Lakes on the right path? Add your input at the Great Lakes Public Forum from Oct. 4-6 at the Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario. Credit: Helena Jacob

The IJC will hold a special session at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to hear meeting participants’ views about what the governments have accomplished to restore and protect the Great Lakes. You can sign up to speak during the session via

The IJC wants to hear from you about:

– What government programs are working and which aren’t?

– Does the governments’ progress report tell you what you want to know?

– Have they focused on the most important challenges?

– What issues do you feel are most pressing for the Great Lakes – in your area and for the Great Lakes as a whole?

– What additional actions are needed?

government programs progress report questions
Credit: IJC files

We’ll hold another meeting at Toronto’s City Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday to talk with residents about the region’s unique issues and the variety of ways they are working to revitalize the waterfront and their part of Lake Ontario.  You can register for this conversation via

The IJC’s primary role in the Agreement is to assess the effectiveness of programs, report on progress and recommend further actions and issues to be addressed. So we will listen closely to what conference attendees say and to everyone else’s comments provided in Toronto, online and in subsequent public meetings.

Your views are essential for the IJC to assess progress to accomplish the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s goals and objectives, and they will be included in the IJC’s report on progress, to be released in draft form in January 2017. We look forward to talking with you about our collective heart and soul – the Great Lakes.

See also: “ParticipateIJC: How You Can Help to Define the Future of the Great Lakes

toronto october 5 public comment session great lakes public forum
Join us in Toronto on Oct. 5 for our public comment session at the Great Lakes
Public Forum, and at an evening conversation about the Toronto region’s unique
challenges, successes and priorities. Credit: S. Cole-Misch

Upcoming Progress Report on Great Lakes Expected to Generate Widespread Interest

By Frank Bevacqua, IJC

The first progress report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement will cover familiar topics from earlier versions of the Agreement such as nutrients, chemicals and Areas of Concern and also bring an increased focus to newer topics including climate change impacts, groundwater, habitat and invasive species.

The Progress Report of the Parties (PROP) will be released in the near future by the governments of Canada and the United States, the parties that signed the Agreement. It will document actions to restore and protect the Great Lakes as well as work by the two countries to set binational targets and coordinate domestic actions.

The report is known as the PROP, or Progress Report of the Parties. Credit: Gilly Walker

Excessive nutrients in the water contribute to toxic and nuisance algal blooms, and experts identified the nutrient phosphorus as a major factor. In February 2016, the governments adopted several new targets to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie that were largely consistent with 2014 recommendations from the IJC.

These reductions are necessary to minimize oxygen-depleted “dead zones,” maintain algal species consistent with a healthy ecosystem and prevent cyanobacteria levels that threaten human or ecosystem health. The governments are working to develop domestic action plans by 2018 to achieve the reductions.

Fishing in Lake Erie. Credit: Ohio Sea Grant

Pollution and other human activities can prevent the normal use of Great Lakes waters and result in beneficial use impairments such as restrictions on eating the fish, beach closings and habitat loss. Work to restore beneficial water uses in Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) has been sufficient to formally remove seven areas from the list of 43 AOCs designated nearly 30 years ago. Efforts are underway to restore water uses in remaining AOCs and the PROP is expected to report on the status of efforts in each of the locations.

Chemicals of mutual concern such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants known as PBDEs can damage aquatic ecosystems and threaten human health when people eat contaminated fish. Binational actions to date include designating the first eight chemicals of mutual concern. Strategies to reduce the release of these chemicals will be developed to fulfill Agreement objectives and protect human health and the environment.

The Agreement calls on the two countries to develop lake ecosystem objectives and Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) for each of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels. In response to these commitments, a draft Lake Superior LAMP was released in November 2015 and a draft Nearshore Framework was released in May 2016.

A Lake Superior wetland. Credit: USFWS Midwest

The 2012 Agreement recognizes that groundwater quality can impact the Great Lakes. In May 2016, the governments released a report on Great Lakes groundwater science that examines connections to surface water quality, delivery of contaminants and nutrients, role in aquatic habitats and impacts to groundwater from urban development and climate change.

The PROP is expected to report on actions to address issues such as climate change impacts, habitat conservation and discharges from ships. Both countries have implemented regulations to reduce the risk of introducing aquatic invasive species from discharges of ships’ ballast water, including stringent binational enforcement of ballast water exchange requirements. No new aquatic invasive species from ballast water have been reported in the Great Lakes since 2006.

The IJC wants to hear your views on progress by the governments to fulfill their commitments under the Agreement and whether the PROP is a useful report. There are many opportunities to join the discussion and provide comments during the IJC’s upcoming public engagement period.

Frank Bevacqua is the public information officer at the IJC’s US Section Office in Washington, D.C.




Something in the Water: Stories and Social Change

By Dr. Bonnie McElhinny, University of Toronto

Fishing. Family. Healing. Danger. These and other themes are included in following stories, which are just two from a group of 90 stories first-year students wrote in a course on “Living at the Water’s Edge in Toronto” that I taught at the University of Toronto in fall 2015.

Darren Cheung

When Darren Cheung was 14, he went fishing with his dad on the Otonabee River near Peterborough, Ontario. They saw some huge golden carp sunbathing on one side of a dam; Darren squeezed through a hole in the fence but his dad was too big to make it through, so he remained on the other side, extremely worried as he watched his son tightrope-walking along a thin concrete wall with white waters and fast currents below.

“After about half an hour I was hooked onto a large carp,” Cheung recalls. “I couldn’t believe the rod bent from the power of the fish and the strong currents. From a distance I could see my Father’s worried smile and he was yelling out ’Be careful Darren!’ After almost an hour of battling the fish I finally landed it. I brought it to him and the first thing he did was give me a huge hug and said, ’Never again’ while we both laughed and smiled in relief.”


river watermark bridge red
The Otonabee River in Peterborough. Credit: Robert Linsdell

Dure-ajam Bajwah

Shamaila Bajah’s family regularly spends the day at Woodbine Beach on Lake Ontario in Toronto. Bajah collected this story from her sister, Dure-ajam Bajwah about one visit: “I did not feel well that day because I was on my period,” the sister said. “I really did not want to get wet in the water, but I had heard that if you go in the water during your periods it really helps calm your cramps.

 “So I just soaked my feet in the water … I was just sitting and relaxing in the nice water, which was surprisingly helping my cramps, and all of a sudden I see my little brother going too deep into the water. He was only eight years old at the time, and he is developmentally delayed and he cannot swim either.

“So I started yelling at him to not go so deep. I was yelling at the top of my lungs for him to come back to shore, but he wouldn’t listen. Then he finally got to the part where there was a deep plunge in the water and a huge wave rolled him farther down and he started to drown. I could not think of anything at that moment and I ran after him in the water, fully clothed! I grabbed him and dragged him to shore and I made him cough because he had gotten a lot of water up his nose and in his throat.

“That was the most terrifying moment for me, because I honestly thought he was going to drown. I had already lost a brother when I was younger and I couldn’t bear to lose another one, so I completely forgot about my periods and being fully clothed and ran after him. After that incident I’m always careful when taking little kids in the water, because a split second can be life changing. The water can be unpredictable and you always have to be cautious when submerged in it.”


Woodbine Beach. Credit: City of Toronto

Living at the Water’s Edge

These stories were collected as part of a pilot project with Lake Ontario Waterkeepers (LOW) Watermark project, which collects stories about a particular experience people had with a body of water. The stories are stored and shared in a digital archive, creating a permanent, searchable record of the relationship between Canadians and their waters. (The IJC also is collecting stories with LOW on the Great Lakes from Canada and the United States).

Each student wrote their own story, collected five stories from family and friends, and analyzed the stories. They provided feedback to LOW about the process of story collection, so LOW could refine the project. LOW President and co-founder Mark Mattson and LOW Vice-president and co-founder Krystyn Tully visited the classroom to discuss the project with students.

The course was designed so the students, whether newcomers to Toronto or long-time residents, could think about what it meant to live on and with the Great Lakes during their time at the university. The course blurred the boundaries of a classroom, by asking students to get their feet wet on various experiences around the city: visiting an indigenous-led restoration project on the Humber River and a water filtration plant, paddling on the Humber, and hiking the course of a river now buried in the Toronto sewer system. They also invited community members to speak about their work, including an award-winning photographer who has explored the Toronto sewer system and an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) water-walker. It also asked students to think about a variety of ways to portray the Great Lakes (in film, poetry, science, ethnography, and travelogues)

One of the ways newcomers arriving in Canada claimed the land from indigenous peoples was by describing the landscapes as empty (terra nullius) and unpeopled.  But indigenous people in Canada have long and ongoing histories with and stories about the land and water. This course wove those stories with the students’ stories to create a multilayered picture of the relationship people have with water.

The course was singled out for recognition as one of 14 noteworthy pedagogical initiatives engaging the community and taking advantage of Toronto’s location by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation.

Why do water stories matter for the future of the Great Lakes? Research on the Great Lakes often originates in the sciences, and documents water quality and quantity issues. A focus on water stories might seem “soft” to some. In order to call attention to significant problems, we often focus on the damage done; sometimes we tell people why water should matter to them.

In these stories, people tell us, and themselves, why water matters. The picture they offer is the range of ways that water is entwined with some of the best and most memorable, and sometimes the most difficult, moments of our lives. In these stories, water is not a commodity and not simply a natural resource. The stories are about relationships we have with each other and with the water. The stories also reflect a theory of social change and social action: that change will take place when a broad group of people, not simply those who are water experts, are actively engaged with water issues It may not always be enough to engage people’s heads.  We need to engage their hearts, too.

This year, students at the University of Toronto will partner with LOW and the IJC to gather stories from those attending the Great Lakes Public Forum on Oct. 4-6 in Toronto. Some students will also share their stories at this event.

Please look for the LOW booth to share your story, or share your story with the students roaming the event. I hope to do further research on this and other story projects around the Great Lakes, and the theories of social change they reflect and enact. I also hope to build connections with other faculty teaching courses, especially with a social science and humanities component, around, about and on the Great Lakes. Finally, I hope to put together a summer field course jointly taught by scholars in the sciences, social science and humanities that would allow students from the University of Toronto and elsewhere to travel around the Great Lakes to learn with, from and about people working on various issues facing the lakes and their watershed.

Dr. Bonnie McElhinny is an associate professor in the Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. For a copy of the syllabus, you may contact her at

Watermarks: A Cherished Commissioner and Award-Winning Professor

By IJC staff

This month’s Watermarks come from two special people.

The first is from US Commissioner Dereth Glance, who ended her tenure last week and penned a farewell column reflecting on her time with the IJC.

The second is from Michael Twiss, who has served on the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board and its Research Coordination Committee since 2014. Twiss is a professor of limnology, botany and microbiology at Clarkson University in New York, and was recently given the Anderson-Everett Award from the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

The IJC’s Great Lakes Watermark Project includes these and other watermarks in partnership with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Visit the site to see several wonderful stories posted in video and written formats by others, and submit yours today. You’ll see this project mentioned throughout the Great Lakes Public Forum next month in October.  If you’re there, visit our Watermark booth to join in the fun. Everyone has a Great Lakes story – what’s yours?

Watching Algal Blooms from Space

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

saginaw bay harmful algal bloom nasa
A harmful algal bloom in Saginaw Bay as spotted from space by a NASA satellite. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Response Team, NASA

Scientists don’t need to be out on the water collecting jars of algae to help measure a bloom – they can do it from space, too.

A team of scientists was able to use historical data from NASA ocean color satellites to measure the extent of Great Lakes algal blooms back to 1997, even before satellites were actively collecting the data. Michigan Tech Research Institute Co-Director Robert Shuchman said they wanted to answer the question on whether or not harmful algal blooms, or HABs, were getting worse year-to-year, focusing primarily on three areas: the western basin of Lake Erie, Green Bay in Lake Michigan and Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. Thanks to a grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, they were able to begin the project about five years ago.

Using the data as a “time machine,” Shuchman said they were able to figure out the average extent of the blooms each year in those three basins. They found that all three locations seemed to behave independently of each other, even though they have similar weather patterns and are relatively near each other. While the extent of algal blooms on Lake Erie has been generally increasing, especially since 2006, Saginaw Bay has been fluctuating year-to-year. Green Bay blooms also fluctuate based on runoff and air temperature in the basin.

Michael Sayers, the researcher in charge of the study, said the lack of perennial HAB trends in those two bays compared to Lake Erie is possibly due to land use and geography. The worst of Lake Erie’s algal blooms is due to agricultural nutrients getting into the Maumee River during the spring, which in turn deposits them into Lake Erie.

Sayers said around 70-80 percent of the Maumee watershed is agricultural. In contrast, the Saginaw River and Fox River watersheds are closer to 40 percent agricultural. They also seem to react differently to weather factors like temperature, precipitation and seasonal climate – leading Sayers to believe that these blooms are “locally controlled phenomena.” The US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has held community outreach efforts and directed money to farmers in the Saginaw River system to work with local agricultural producers to reduce sediment getting into the Saginaw Bay, Sayers said, so local factors could be playing a role beyond the weather, such as Michigan’s phosphorus-reduction legislation.

By correlating the satellite data with “resuspension events” involving winds and waves, the researchers found that resuspension of phosphorus into the water column from bottom sediments also does not seem to be the same issue in Green Bay and Saginaw Bay as it is in western Lake Erie. Sayers said looking in the areas where the blooms pop up repeatedly, there were few events that could have caused resuspension. He hypothesized that Green Bay’s narrow and long morphology may help protect the waterway from winds strong enough to cause resuspension, where phosphorus that has settled into the lake floor is churned back up into the water, providing new fuel for algal blooms.

Using satellites allows researchers to see a long-term analysis of the lakes and the blooms, adding some extra information on the cause and effects of HABs. There are some limitations, though. Shuchman said the land adjacent to the narrow Green Bay has a tendency to form cloud cover early in the day that doesn’t always clear up by the time the satellite moves overhead, and extended periods of cloud cover over parts of the lakes effectively blind the satellites from seeing surface conditions. Shuchman said aircraft now fly over Lake Erie once a week during the July-September HAB season, which helps collect data when it’s too cloudy for satellites. In the next few years, he hopes to add lower-flying drones to monitor the lakes on particularly cloudy days.

This information can be helpful from a public health standpoint as well. The toxicity of harmful algal blooms can make humans sick if ingested and cause rashes if touched, while it can outright kill dogs and other animals. Shuchman said the data is already used by water treatment facilities to protect their intake systems, and natural resources departments in each state for public safety regarding fishing and other uses of the water.

nasa aqua satellite
NASA’s Aqua satellite, launched in 2002, is used to observe weather and climate patterns and trends — including algal blooms — alongside another satellite called Terra. Credit: NASA/JPL AIRS Project

Sayers said satellites currently in use are primarily sensitive to plant-like green algae, but going forward researchers should be able to collect what’s known as hyperspectral data that can delve deep into subtle color differences. This would allow them to identify specific phytoplankton species and types, including some blue-green colored cyanobacterial algae like those found in toxic HABs. Sayer said the information would be helpful for resource managers and stakeholders in these areas, to find out what kind of toxicity they can expect from a bloom for planning water treatment and usage advisories. Green algae and blue-green algae species are not closely related, but both use the “algae” name based on being aquatic and being able to manufacture their own food using sunlight and nutrients in the water.

“Field measurements have been going on for a long time, but HABs are a complex issue, and remote sensing has added some information on cause-and-effect of HABs,” Sayers said.

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

Get Involved: Combined Sewer Overflows, Climate Change

By Jeff Kart, IJC

For September, Great Lakes Connection is focusing on public involvement, especially as it relates to the 2016 Progress Report of the Parties (PROP) and an upcoming Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto.

The IJC also keeps an eye on other events, opportunities and interesting items in the basin that may interest readers (and motivate you to participate).

water drainage
Water drainage. Credit: Brandon Bankston

Rulemaking: This sounds boring, but it’s worthy of notice. The US Environmental Protection Agency is asking for public input on plans to establish public notification requirements for combined sewer overflow discharges in the Great Lakes. That is, overflows that occur when wastewater systems carrying stormwater and sanitary sewage in the same pipes are overwhelmed by heavy storms, and discharge untreated sewage into waterways. The EPA wants to hear your ideas for potential approaches to notification that can better protect public health. If you drink water, swim or fish, you may wish to drop them a line. Go here to comment before the end of the day on Friday, Sept. 23.

Chime in for change: The government of Canada is inviting residents to help develop a plan to address climate change and create new opportunities in clean technology. Officials are asking people to join a conversation on emission reductions, putting a price on carbon, and other topics. You can submit your ideas here. A public consultation page includes ways to add your input to other activities, too.

Make a date: The Great Lakes Information Network maintains a Great Lakes Regional Calendar that’s worth a look. You can search by year, month, keyword and organization for events like a September Adopt-a-Beach cleanup throughout the Great Lakes basin. By the way, the IJC calendar is here.

Let us know: That’s a sampling of what’s out there. If you think we’ve missed anything that should be included, feel free to comment below or send an email to

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Talking Microplastics

By Jeff Kart, IJC

If microplastics could talk to us, they would make a lot of noise. The tiny particles, added to some personal care products like face washes and toothpaste, are ubiquitous in the Great Lakes. There are concerns that the plastics, also known as microbeads, are causing harm to the ecosystem, fish and other organisms.

That’s why the IJC held a workshop in April with experts from Canada and the United States, to gather information on possible recommendations to the two governments on how to battle this threat. Here are highlights of what we heard.

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.