New Plan 2014 Protects People, Environment and Economy on Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River

By Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack, IJC co-chairs

After 16 years of scientific study, public engagement and consultation with governments, the IJC is moving forward with Plan 2014.

Plan 2014 is a modern plan for managing water levels and flows on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Since 1960, the flow of water from Lake Ontario has been regulated at the Moses-Saunders Dam, located at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, following requirements in the IJC’s order of approval. While natural factors such as precipitation, runoff and evaporation predominate, regulation can substantially affect the levels and flows of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The need for an update became clear in the 1990s when property owners, recreational boaters and others voiced increasing dissatisfaction with the current regulation plan that was developed in the 1950s. The IJC initiated a study in 2000, which the governments of Canada and the United States funded at about US$20 million. The study directly involved more than 200 technical experts and stakeholders to evaluate hundreds of alternatives. Following the study, the IJC continued to seek a solution that addressed public concerns and balanced the diverse interests. Few water-level management decisions have ever received this degree of scrutiny and fine-tuning.

Plan 2014 will continue to protect the people who live and work on these waters by reducing the severity and duration of extreme high and low water levels. Under Plan 2014, the most extreme high water level on Lake Ontario is expected to be about 6 centimeters, or 2.4 inches higher than under the current plan.

While floods will occur under any regulation plan, regulation has greatly reduced the severity of flooding throughout the system. On Lake Ontario, regulation has eliminated 98 percent of the economic costs associated with flooding. Plan 2014 will continue to protect homes from flooding.

By far the largest economic cost to shoreline property owners is maintaining shore protection structures, such as rock revetments and sea walls. On Lake Ontario, the current plan reduces these costs by about $20 million per year. Plan 2014 will continue to reduce these costs by about $18 million per year. The economic costs associated with shoreline erosion will change very little under Plan 2014.

On Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, Plan 2014 will allow for more natural variations in levels to foster the conditions needed to restore 26,000 hectares, or 64,000 acres, of coastal wetlands. Thriving wetland habitats support highly valued recreational opportunities, filter polluted run-off and provide nurseries for fisheries and wildlife.

The range of water-level fluctuations, environmental conditions and coastal impacts on the lower St. Lawrence River, below the Moses-Saunders Dam, will remain essentially unchanged.

In most years, recreational boaters on Lake Ontario and the upper river will find that Plan 2014 provides greater water depths in the fall, extending the boating season and making it easier to pull boats out at the end of the season. Plan 2014 also increases hydropower production and is more reliable in maintaining system-wide levels for navigation.

Plan 2014 further prepares residents on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River for the future in a number of important ways. The plan performs better by reducing impacts under changing climate conditions compared to the current plan. In addition, conditions related to fluctuating water levels, such as costs to maintain shore protection structures and the health of coastal wetlands will be monitored on an ongoing basis.

The process to update the regulation of water levels and flows began with the realization that the current plan no longer meets the needs of the people and environment of Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River. Now that the governments of Canada and the United States have concurred with the IJC’s proposal, we look forward to better serving our two countries under Plan 2014, which will take effect in January. The IJC will also monitor and assess conditions on an ongoing basis to track whether Plan 2014 performs as expected.

Gordon Walker is the chair of the IJC’s Canadian Section.

Lana Pollack is chair of the US Section.

The State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin

By Tricia Mitchell
Environment and Climate Change Canada

Doug Kluck
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

How and why is climate change impacting the Great Lakes? How is it affecting our future? What are we doing about it?

As part of its fifth assessment report published in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” The World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks Report this year, also recognized the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation “as the most impactful risk for the years to come, ahead of weapons of mass destruction.”

This chart shows temperature data from four science institutions since the late 1800s. While there may be some variability between each of these four lines and a fair amount of variability or scatter over time, all show that temperature has changed quite dramatically and all four lines show rapid warming in the past few decades. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
This chart shows temperature data from four science institutions since the late 1800s. While there may be some variability between each of these four lines and a fair amount of variability or scatter over time, all show that temperature has changed quite dramatically and all four lines show rapid warming in the past few decades. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Climate change is posing significant risks to communities, health and well-being, the economy, and the natural environment. These impacts are expected to become more severe, unless concerted efforts to reduce emissions are undertaken.

Climate change effects are being experienced in the Great Lakes. Effects observed across the basin include warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, decreased ice coverage, and variations to historic fluctuations of water levels. For example, over the last 60 years (1950-2010), the Great Lakes basin has experienced an increase in average annual air temperatures between 0.8-2.0 degrees C (1.4-3.6 F), with this warming trend projected to continue, according to a 2015 State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes basin report.

In the last century, surface water temperatures of the Great Lakes have increased by as much as 3.5 degrees C (6.3 F) and are projected to continue to increase. More work is needed to understand the full impact of these changes on Great Lakes water quality and the health of the aquatic ecosystem.

Recognizing the potential impacts of climate change on Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health, Canada and the United States incorporated a Climate Change Impacts Annex in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Annex is focused on coordinating efforts to identify, quantify, understand, and predict climate impacts on the quality of waters of the Great Lakes, and sharing information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts. Implementation of this Annex is led by Environment and Climate Change Canada and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From the cover page of the 2015 State of Climate Change Science report.
From the cover page of the 2015 State of Climate Change Science report.

Over the first three years of implementation of the 2012 GLWQA, the work under this Annex focused on a review of the current and best available, peer-reviewed climate change science relevant to the Great Lakes. The “State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin: A Focus on Climatological, Hydrologic and Ecological Effects” synthesizes the state of climate change impacts in the Great Lakes basin and identifies key knowledge gaps and provides a foundation of knowledge that will guide future work under this Annex.

In addition, a new product known as the “Great Lakes Climate Quarterly” was developed for use by government managers and practitioners, as well as stakeholders and the public. These quarterlies are available at binational.net and provide a quick and easy-to-understand overview of the latest season’s weather and water level conditions, weather and water level-related impacts, and an outlook for the upcoming quarter. Canada and the US also have a number of other interesting projects underway that are of value to this Agreement, including the Great Lakes Evaporation Network and the Lake Level Viewer.

For the next three years, the work under this Annex will involve examining what key science gaps identified in the “State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin” report can be addressed, as well as supporting the implementation of the other GLWQA issue annexes in order to ensure that climate change impacts are being taken into consideration in the overall implementation of the Agreement.

The work under this Annex to understand how climate change is affecting processes now, and may affect processes in the future, is important to making informed management decisions for the Great Lakes.

Tricia Mitchell is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex Canadian Co-Lead.

Doug Kluck is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex US Co-Lead.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 14, 2016, to clarify information on air and surface water temperature increases.

Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior, taken in July 2010. Credit: IJC files
Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior, taken in July 2010. Credit: IJC files

How Climate Change Could Impact Great Lakes Algal Blooms and Ice Cover

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Ice cover on the Great Lakes in Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response TEAM at NASA GSFC
Ice cover on the Great Lakes in Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response TEAM at NASA GSFC

Climate change is expected to impact locations across the globe, including the Great Lakes. Experts say warmer temperatures, more severe spring storms and reduced ice cover will make it easier for harmful algal blooms to grow and remain in lake waters. What’s more, it seems that winter isn’t putting a brake on algal growth in Lake Erie – just changing the type of algae.

Globally, this year is on track to be the warmest on record. Last year, the Great Lakes experienced a warmer and drier winter than usual thanks to the El Niño effect from the Pacific Ocean. That warmth kept ice cover low on the Great Lakes, and thanks to a relatively dry spring the 2016 algal bloom on Lake Erie was much smaller than in recent years. But are these trends or simply outliers? It’s complicated.

Common sense would suggest that as the Great Lakes climate warms up, ice cover would be reduced. There are other factors too, according to Jia Wang, ice climatologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The major player is the jet stream encircling the globe in the northern latitudes. As the jet stream fluctuates, colder and warmer air moves around to follow it. In some years, like the winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15, the jet stream’s shape drags frigid arctic air from Alaska and Canada southeastward, leading to colder temperatures and thus greater ice cover on the Great Lakes.

Wang said data on ice cover for the Great Lakes only goes back to 1973, but there appears to be a cycle   showing increasingly reduced ice cover into the ‘90s before a rebound in the 2010s. Based on the data, the basin lost 26 percent of its maximum ice cover from 1973 through 2015, with Lake Superior losing the most – about 39 percent. Cold winters starting in 2013 and 2014 brought ice cover to levels seen in the late 1970s, though.

The amount of ice cover on the Great Lakes fluctuates each year, but there is a downward trend over the past 40 years, possibly due to global climate change. Source: Draft State of the Great Lakes Report as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum
The amount of ice cover on the Great Lakes fluctuates each year, but there is a downward trend over the past 40 years, possibly due to global climate change. Source: Draft State of the Great Lakes Report as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Research Manager Ram Yerubandi says lake water temperatures have been increasing, according to decades of available data. Less ice cover in the winter means the lakes could see increased evaporation, which in turn would reduce water levels. Climate change models for the Great Lakes are split on whether the region could see decreased water levels. Models show increased precipitation, particularly through more spring storms which could mean more nutrient runoff for harmful algal blooms to feast upon in the summer.

Warmer Temperatures and Less Ice Could Strengthen Algal Blooms

Less ice cover could bring a host of other changes to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Arthur Zastepa, research scientist with ECCC, said there are algae called diatoms that bloom during the winter in Lake Erie. These brown algae form their blooms under the ice and in cracks, attaching themselves to it so they can grow.

“Life is thriving out there in the winter time,” Zastepa said. “However, we don’t quite understand the link between wintertime production and the effect it has on hypoxia (low-oxygen conditions) and algal blooms in the summertime and the mechanisms responsible.”

Zastepa said scientists are still trying to understand what happens to these blooms when the spring hits, though recent investigations suggest that they settle into the sediment and begin to break down when temperatures rise, contributing to hypoxia.

An upturned piece of ice with brown algae growing on it was spotted during a 2008 Bering Sea expedition. Credit: C. Ladd
An upturned piece of ice with brown algae growing on it was spotted during a 2008 Bering Sea expedition. Credit: C. Ladd

Brown algae isn’t as bad as the blue-green variety known as cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. After nutrient-rich runoff enters the water system in the spring, blue-green algae can explode into blooms in July that last into October.

This year, while the larger bloom in Lake Erie had broken up by October, patches of it were still growing well into the latter part of that month. Zastepa said a warmer fall could be keeping those warm water-loving cyanobacteria going. Scientists are looking for these blooms earlier and later in their “growing season.”

A dry summer also could play a role. If major rain events drive a lot of nutrients into Lake Erie in the spring and are then followed by a drought keeping the water column stable and stagnant, those potentially toxic cyanobacteria can thrive. While forecasts for 2017 only go through February, the US Climate Prediction Center expects wetter weather in the Great Lakes region during that period.

A satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom on Lake Erie, which was the second worst bloom on record. Credit: MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS
A satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom on Lake Erie, which was the second worst bloom on record. Credit: MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

Heavier Spring Rains Could Provide More Food for Algae

There are additional climate impacts, and scientists are still trying to find out how they are connected to each other. Timothy Davis, a NOAA research scientist, said more spring rainfall in the region due to climate change could mean more nutrients entering the lakes and increase the overall flow from tributaries into the lakes. More rainfall also increases the likelihood of sediment washing into the lakes, reducing the amount of light getting into the water – which in turn could impact how summer blooms form and how toxic they become.

There are studies suggesting the most dominant blooming form (and potentially toxic) cyanobacteria microcystis produces more toxins at higher water temperatures and in a more nutrient-rich environment. Those same higher water temperatures could negatively impact invasive mussel species in the Great Lakes, whose filter-feeding methods further reduce competition for microcystis. There also haven’t been any studies completed on how climate change would impact the ability of the United States and Canada to achieve 40 percent nutrient loading reductions into Lake Erie, Davis said. Those unknowns make it hard for models to predict what could happen in the future in terms of bloom size and intensity, he said.

Climate change occurs on a decadal time scale and experiments take place on significantly shorter scales. Davis says climate models have a hard time making regional predictions on what will happen in the future with the Great Lakes, though trends suggest it will be hotter and generally drier, punctuated with severe storms.

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

Improvements Proposed to Measure Great Lakes Health

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

great lakes health indicators
Credit: wp paarz

Do the Great Lakes provide safe, high quality drinking water? Can we swim and fish without health concerns? Are fish and other aquatic species thriving or declining? To answer these questions, scientists and governments need accurate measures, or indicators, that reflect the health of the Great Lakes.

Indicators to assess the state of the Great Lakes have been part of work by Canada and the United States since the mid-1990s, when the first State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference was held. The indicators developed out of this initiative have been refined and expanded over time.

When the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was amended in 2012, it placed a priority on monitoring and assessment to evaluate progress in Great Lakes restoration programs. The IJC held expert workshops to consider and evaluate the proposed indicators of this progress, which resulted in a proposed 21 indicators with 51 measures, or ways to assess these indicators. These are divided into two categories – those that monitor factors that affect human health and those that focus on the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem – and reflect the Agreement’s nine objectives.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s nine general objectives. Credit: S. Cole-Misch
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s nine general objectives. Credit: S. Cole-Misch

The IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board Research Coordination Committee released its report, Future Improvements to Great Lakes Indicators, on Dec. 12 that summarizes its work to identify which of these IJC indicators and measures have data and at what level for reporting the health of the Great Lakes. Based on this information, the Committee recommended improvements in indicators used by the governments to report progress in meeting the Agreement’s objectives.

As of result of its research, the Committee concluded that future assessments of Great Lakes health would benefit from the governments’ use of additional indicators and expanded efforts to compile, quantify and manage those indicator data. Specifically, the Committee recommends:

  • Using source water for the human health sub-indicators to measure the health of the Great Lakes as a source of drinking water
  • Adding total phosphorus, dissolved reactive phosphorus, and nitrate-nitrogen concentrations as indicator measures for Great Lakes nearshore zones
  • Adding loadings of total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus from the major Great Lakes tributaries
  • Adding nearshore predators’ abundance and recruitment to better assess the health of food webs
  • Reporting on progress in Asian carp monitoring and prevention
  • Addressing data gaps for appropriate indicators that have only partial data or no data by establishing a long-term focused sampling program
  • Standardizing assessment methods and data sources used to increase consistency in assessing long-term trends and detecting changes in lake health status
  • Overhauling data management and sharing so that data used in past assessments of progress be collated in a centralized publicly accessible location.

By improving Great Lakes indicators, the Committee believes that Canada, the US and the IJC can more fully assess the status of Great Lakes health and progress to achieve the Agreement’s objectives.

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

Adaptive Management in Action

By Bill Werrick
Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee

We are adaptively managing water levels in the Great Lakes, and projects being pursued by an IJC Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee will help improve climate monitoring in the basin.

Adaptive management, as defined in a 2009 US Department of the Interior guide, “is a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.”

Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in northern Lake Huron surrounded by open water, January 2014. Credit: Dick Moehl
Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in northern Lake Huron surrounded by open water, January 2014. Credit: Dick Moehl

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study Board recommended adaptive management in 2006 to refine its recommendations, which had been based on computer simulations that showed how water levels would impact several management objectives, including wetland health and shore protection costs. The process recommended by that Board, to model, decide, monitor, revise the model, and revisit the decision, is the essence of adaptive management.

Collaboration is not an aspiration for GLAM, it is a necessity. The IJC has created the space for adaptive management, but it is a meeting room, not a command center. The work described in GLAM’s Semi-Annual Report to the IJC (covering March-August 2016) is work done by its members, agencies and individuals in many categories including improved fisheries (see “Helping Fish in St. Marys Rapids with the Push of a Button”), improved climate monitoring, and model validation.

Improved climate monitoring

Climate researchers watch for trends in precipitation, runoff and temperature data that could signal a shift in climate and lake levels. But the estimates of how much water enters and leaves the lakes each day are imprecise. Two different approaches are used in the Great Lakes to measure these flows, and the differences between the estimates can be significant, leaving researchers to wonder whether trends are errors, or whether errors are hiding trends.  GLAM helped organize and supported IJC funding that leveraged three efforts to improve these estimates.

Maintaining the meteorological instruments at Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in Lake Huron, September 2013. Credit: Pakorn Petchprayoon
Maintaining the meteorological instruments at Spectacle Reef Lighthouse in Lake Huron, September 2013. Credit: Pakorn Petchprayoon

Andrew Gronewold at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is applying a novel statistical model that uses the differences between the two estimates as clues for finding errors in one or the other. An initial experiment using a small dataset essentially eliminated the difference. Now the Lab will attempt to apply the method to a much longer dataset.

Another effort, headed by Vincent Fortin of Environment and Climate Change Canada, is working to improve historical estimates of on-lake precipitation. The records we have are extrapolations from land-based stations, and those estimates are suspect. High-resolution, short-term precipitation forecasts can provide more consistently accurate estimates of rainfall on the lakes. When the drivers used in these forecasts are available as historical datasets, the models can use them to produce “hindcasts” – predictions of things that have already happened.

A five-year hindcast run during the Upper Great Lakes Study provided convincing evidence that this would produce a better historical precipitation record, but required substantial computing power. Using a typical desktop computer, it would take about 900 years to produce the desired 30-year record. Environment and Climate Change Canada will use a new supercomputer to accomplish this in less than a year.

Finally, GLAM has been supporting IJC funding for projects to measure and report evaporation from lakes using eddy-covariance techniques. Prior to the Upper Great Lakes study, there were no sustained measurements of Great Lakes evaporation, a flow of water much larger than the flow over Niagara Falls.

Eddy-covariance station on Granite Island in Lake Superior. Credit: John Lenters
Eddy-covariance station on Granite Island in Lake Superior. Credit: John Lenters


Model validation

GLAM has been managing efforts to validate the wetland plant and shore protection models that were so important in developing the IJC’s proposed Plan 2014 for regulating Lake Ontario levels. Working with the GLAM committee, Environment Canada, The Nature Conservancy and the state of New York have been monitoring wetland plant types by location and elevation since 2009, and these results are now being compared to modeled predictions from the wetland model. New York and the Army Corps have conducted surveys of individual shore protection structures to refine damage estimates produced during the study.

The US Department of Interior guide mentioned previously reports that “Adaptive management as described here is infrequently implemented, even though many resource planning documents call for it and numerous resource managers refer to it.” It is not easy to forge a collaborative focus across borders and agency missions on the lakes. It takes conscious planning to gather the evidence needed for science based management. This was not easy, but it has begun in the Great Lakes.


The Climate Change Framework Working Group

IJC boards are working together to get ready for climate change. Representatives from boards across the boundary have formed a Climate Change Framework Working Group to expand on the basic ideas they had agreed to at an International Watersheds Initiative Workshop in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2016.

The framework is still under development but it is built on three core ideas: that each board would use planning methods that were consistent across the boundary but flexible enough to accommodate the differences among board missions, that IJC and the boards would support and share a clearinghouse of information and lessons learned, and that there would be institutional support for adaptive management. The initial concept is described in a draft white paper and was presented to the St. Croix River Watershed Board on Nov. 29, 2016. The plan is to present the framework to commissioners in January 2017 to get their input.

Bill Werick is a water resources planner. He retired from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources in 2004 but has remained active in water resources here and around the world, and is a US member of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

Helping Fish in St. Marys Rapids with the Push of a Button

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

gates st marys river outflow water lake superior huron
Gates at the head of the St. Marys River help control the outflow of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The flow of water from Lake Superior to Lake Huron has been controlled for almost a century through a series of structures on the St. Marys River, which involves work crews turning manual cranks. But now the US Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead with a project that will set up some gates to be opened and closed with the push of a button.

Control structures on the St. Marys are under the supervision of the International Lake Superior Board of Control, including a 16-gate structure called the Compensating Works. Opening and closing the gates—eight on each side of the international border—allows the board to help control outflows from Lake Superior for hydropower, navigation, riparian, and environmental interests.

The Army Corps project  will upgrade operations for at least four of the US gates. This will reduce the amount of effort required to work with the gates, and allow the board to be more responsive to water conditions to help provide better habitat for aquatic species in the St. Marys Rapids, said John Allis, the board’s alternate regulation representative and chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office for the Army Corps Detroit District.

When the board is setting the amount of water to release from Lake Superior each month, it needs to allocate enough for municipal and industrial water needs, the Soo Locks used for shipping, and for the rapids’ fish habitat. The remaining water goes to the three hydropower plants on the river. The board has, over the years, gotten a better idea of how best to manage the water to support that fish habitat in the St. Marys Rapids by partially opening more gates by smaller amounts, which in turn has led to more demands on staff to operate the gates with manual cranks.

Since opening and closing gates is currently a labor-intensive process for work crews, it creates practical limits on what kind of gate adjustments are feasible, Allis said.

The automated system will make it easier to open and close gates more quickly, and more slowly—which is important to fish and other wildlife in the rapids. The roughly 80-acre St. Marys Rapids, located just downriver from the gates, is a major spawning and feeding ground for a wide range of fish species, including salmon and trout.

The St. Marys Rapids are a major spawning and feeding location for several species of fish. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers
The St. Marys Rapids are a major spawning and feeding location for several species of fish. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

“Almost every month in the summer through the fall there’s some species that end up using the rapids for spawning,” Allis explained. “It’s one of the most productive areas on the Great Lakes.”

With the current hand-crank system, however, water levels can fluctuate suddenly and cause major problems for the fish. A sudden loss of water can strand fish, while a sudden burst can wash both fish and their eggs out of the rapids. With automated gates, Allis said the board can instead make slower, more gradual changes by opening gates gradually, improving the productivity of the spawning area. While crews can make those slower adjustments with the current crank system, the number and amount of time required of staff makes it unfeasible on the US side.

The US$8 million project to modernize the four gates would get underway in the spring of 2017 and should be complete by December 2018, with funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The remaining manually operated US gates could be automated as part of the project based on additional funding.

The Army Corps operates and maintains the US gates. Brookfield Renewable Energy Group handles the eight Canadian gates on behalf of the Canadian government, none of which are part of the upgrade project. Allis said the board will leverage the automated gates in concert with the manual gates to make sure fish in the rapids have an ideal amount of water and flow while still retaining flow for other needs.

Allis said the project won’t impact water levels of Lake Superior or Lake Huron, since it doesn’t affect the amount of water coming in from Lake Superior each month. This just provides more flexibility for how to release that water throughout the month, adjusting how the flow moves across the rapids and making more gradual changes. A healthier environment for spawning on the rapids could be beneficial to anglers, he said, and would provide some additional habitat for native species.

“Improving spawning conditions (and fish habitat) in the St. Marys Rapids provides a tremendous regional benefit to the Great Lakes ecosystem,” Allis said.

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

The 16 US and Canadian gates help manage outflow. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers
The 16 US and Canadian gates help manage outflow. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

Great Lakes Cities Prepare for a Changing Climate

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A tree knocked over during the December 2013 ice storm in Toronto knocked out power to parts of the Annex region of the city. More frequent ice storms are expected by the city due to climate change. Credit: Ron Bulovs
A tree knocked over during the December 2013 ice storm in Toronto knocked out power to parts of the Annex region of the city. More frequent ice storms are expected by the city due to climate change. Credit: Ron Bulovs

Preparing for a literal rainy day can save millions of dollars in the era of climate change. With the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, the climate around the globe will be changing over the coming decades. Some communities, including those around the Great Lakes, are already trying to get ahead of climate change to prepare their infrastructure and residents for what’s coming.

Toronto is one city that has been working to adapt to climate change for nearly a decade. Mark Bekkering, manager of implementation and support of the city’s Environment & Energy Division, said a 2007 Climate Change Action Plan included recommendations to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The plan also sparked discussion and research on how the city could prepare for major and minor climatic changes.

“Since none of the research done to that date could help us identify (how) extreme weather events would change for Toronto, given the local impact of the Great Lakes and our geography and topography, we decided to commission our own climate modelling to see how extreme weather would change for the next 30-plus years,” Bekkering said.

That report, adopted by the City Council in February 2013, predicts that in the extreme range, Toronto will face more frequent extreme rain events that cause flooding by 2050, and more extreme heat events in the summer months. By a coincidence, in 2013 Toronto faced two extreme weather events in line with what the report forecasted: a severe rain event in July that flooded tens of thousands of homes and knocked out power to the west side of the city, and an ice storm around Christmas that knocked out power across town for up to a week in some areas. Bekkering said those incidents “gave the motivation” to accelerate the city’s adaptation work.

finch-avenue-west-jane-finch
Finch Avenue West in Toronto was washed out following an intense rain storm in August 2005, impacting a variety of surface structures. Credit: Jane-Finch.com

A consulting firm was commissioned to help the city create a “climate change risk assessment process and tool” to help identify future issues for a property, department, organization or area of the city. From there, Bekkering said, those groups can take steps to mitigate high-risk parts of Toronto. For example, the Transportation Services Department learned that control boxes for traffic signals can malfunction in extreme heat events, so workers installed cooling fans that turn on once temperatures reach a certain point. The city also is looking at backup power generation at key intersections in case of an outage.

Toronto is enhancing its culvert management system by standardizing inspection and maintenance to help reduce the risk of blockage and collapse. Bekkering said the city is bringing broader private and public sector service providers – like telecommunication companies, the Enbridge oil pipeline company,  and provincial agencies – into the discussion to see where they can identify risks and work together on understanding common priorities, such as urban flood risks. These groups also are identifying interdependencies that could be affected by extreme weather. For example, subways rely on electrical power, so spending millions to make the subways resilient to flooding and heat won’t mean nearly as much if electrical utilities don’t take action to reduce their vulnerability to flooding and heat.

On the opposite end of the Great Lakes is Milwaukee, where officials believe the greatest threat from climate change is an increased risk of severe storms causing major flooding. Milwaukee suffered “100-year storms” in 2008 and 2010 that caused stormwater and sanitary sewer system back-ups and subsequent backflows into people’s homes. Erick Shambarger, environmental sustainability director for Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, said the city put together a “flooding study task force” following the 2010 storm – recognizing that severe storms are on course to become more frequent in the future. Milwaukee’s sewer infrastructure isn’t built to withstand storms of that magnitude, he said.

The city is tackling the problem in multiple ways. Milwaukee has implemented a “Green Streets Stormwater Management Plan,” Shambarger said. That means any time a street is reconstructed due to pothole or pavement issues, it is inspected to see what sort of infrastructure would work there to contend with major rain events. These can include rain gardens, bioswales, or the use of porous pavement that allows more stormwater to go into soil rather than the drainage system. This benefits the groundwater cycle, reduces the amount pouring into stormwater lines and decreases flood risks.

Permeable pavement on Milwaukee’s Greenfield Avenue allows precipitation to pass through into the ground rather than enter the storm sewer system, which in turn helps prevent backups and flooding. Credit: City of Milwaukee
Permeable pavement on Milwaukee’s Greenfield Avenue allows precipitation to pass through into the ground rather than enter the storm sewer system, which in turn helps prevent backups and flooding. Credit: City of Milwaukee

While stormwater and sewage flow into separate pipes in some parts of Milwaukee, the pipes are combined in older parts of the city. As a result, sewage can back up into area homes during severe storms, when the wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed by combined stormwater and sewage.

Shambarger said another problem stems from pipes connecting people’s homes to the public line: if those lines aren’t properly maintained, they can become leaky and discharge sewage and stormwater into groundwater. Milwaukee has pilot programs to help homeowners replace those private lines, but Shambarger said the money isn’t there to get a handle on the entire problem.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has its own project to help deal with flood risks with the County Grounds Basin, a way of containing heavy amounts of rain in a specific area to avoid floods. The $90 million project can retain and store 315 million gallons of water during a severe storm, bringing excess water from the Underwood Creek into the basin by way of an underground tunnel. The basin drains out to the Menomonee River, taking up to four days if the basin is completely full.

Elsewhere in the city, Shambarger said officials are considering converting unoccupied, abandoned and foreclosed properties into storm reservoirs, channeling that backflow floodwater to those properties’ basements to spare occupied homes. This can be the equivalent of 600 55-gallon rain barrels on one parcel, he said, with some properties holding up to 44,400 gallons. The basements would be covered with turf after the house is demolished so that it can better fit in within the neighborhoods.

Shambarger added that Milwaukee officials also are interested in combating the “heat island effect,” where the pavement causes the area around it to get hotter than it would otherwise. This could include removing pavement, which in turn helps the stormwater runoff issue.

Planters and rain garden along the road in Milwaukee help keep water out of the sewer system as a way to adapt to extreme storm events. Credit: City of Milwaukee
Planters and rain garden along the road in Milwaukee help keep water out of the sewer system as a way to adapt to extreme storm events. Credit: City of Milwaukee

The cities of Toronto and Milwaukee both recognize that property owners will need to adapt to a changing climate. Bekkering said Toronto has set up an extreme weather page on its website to give advice to homeowners on how they can prepare and protect their homes from rain, ice, extreme heat and wind.  The city also is working with private property management companies and owners to evaluate how resilient their buildings are to severe weather events.

Milwaukee has set up a Better Buildings Challenge to cut energy use in commercial buildings throughout the city, offering free assessments and loan financing to building owners that want to upgrade their properties. These can range from adding renewable energy sources to improving energy or water efficiency. Shambarger said the city also has residential programs to help homeowners purchase solar panels for their homes or to secure loans for energy efficiency upgrades, and is working to improve energy efficiency at manufacturing plants.

“Everything we’re talking about is adapting to climate change, but that’s all in addition to work on energy efficiency and climate mitigation,” Shambarger said.

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

Dig This: Soil Can Help Heal Our Great Lakes Climate

By Randy Dell
Dr. Patrick Doran
The Nature Conservancy in Michigan

How can we feed the world, provide clean water and battle climate change? The answer could be right beneath our feet.

Healthy soil is the foundation of life on Earth. It’s a modern imperative for long-term agricultural production, which is growing as our global population continues to increase. Soil provides for an estimated 95 percent of food production and is essential for filtering pollutants from our water and reducing the impact of climate change by storing carbon dioxide emissions.

Though official measures are lacking, The Nature Conservancy estimates that less than 10 percent of soils in the United States and Canada are managed for optimal health today. With so many benefits derived from healthy soils, widespread adoption of soil health practices must become a priority.

With support from General Mills, a team of Conservancy scientists, environmental economists and agriculture experts recently prepared a Soil Health Roadmap, which outlines how adopting soil health practices on at least half of US corn, soy and wheat croplands by 2025 could deliver substantial social and environmental benefits. Soil health practices minimize soil disturbance and optimize plant diversity, contributing to more continuous plant and residue covers which in turn create vital, living ecosystems in the soil. Such practices include planting cover crops, adopting no-till or other forms of reduced tillage, and increasing diversity of crop rotations.

No-till field next to fresh plantings in Michigan’s Gratiot County in the Saginaw Bay watershed. Credit: Michael D-L Jordan
No-till field next to fresh plantings in Michigan’s Gratiot County in the Saginaw Bay watershed. Credit: Michael D-L Jordan

According to the team’s calculations, improving soil on more than half of US soy, wheat and corn croplands could deliver up to $7.4 billion in water and climate benefits annually. Furthermore, farmers stand to gain $37 million in net economic benefits due to increased productivity for each percent of cropland transformed across the US corn belt. In the most optimistic case—100 percent adoption of soil health management systems—Conservancy experts estimate up to $50 billion in annual societal economic benefits.

At the farm level, the benefits of improved soil health include higher rates of productivity and profitability over the long term. At the societal level, the benefits include improved water quality, filtration, and storage; richer biodiversity; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. While calculations were solely focused on the US, experts say the estimates could likely be extrapolated across Canadian agriculture.

Conservation benefits from achieving our soil health adoption goal include mitigating 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. That is the equivalent to taking 5 million passenger cars off the road for one year. Every year, we also can reduce the amount of nutrient loss by 344 million pounds, eliminate 116 million metric tons of soil erosion, and create more than 1 trillion gallons of available water capacity in cropland soils. All of these impacts will directly benefit our shared water resources, including reducing stressors to the Great Lakes, and improve the health of our waters that support nature and people.

While these estimated values are impressive, achieving these outcomes is a daunting job. It will require diverse stakeholders to come together to achieve a coordinated and elevated investment of time, funding, expertise and commitment across science, business and policy priorities. The success of the Soil Health Roadmap hinges on creating greater coordination, innovation and investment in soil health. By elevating the role of soil health in US cropland management systems and measuring the economic and environmental benefits, we can advance a scalable, sustainable model for farming systems around the world.

The Conservancy and its partners will work on science, economic and policy components to improve soil health in the US. Credit: The Nature Conservancy
The Conservancy and its partners will work on science, economic and policy components to improve soil health in the US. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Our vision for good soil health is clear, and the benefits are compelling. Investing in healthier soils can create new sources of wealth for farmers across America’s Heartland while creating a dividend for consumers and future generations in the form of resilient food systems, clean water and a stable climate. This is a win-win: Improving soil health can boost agricultural productivity and reduce environmental impacts.

Within the Great Lakes basin, The Nature Conservancy and partners are already working to improve soil health through projects such as the Saginaw Bay Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification in the Western Lake Erie basin. The Conservancy also is working to increase climate mitigation opportunities in agriculture by collaborating with the Delta Institute to promote the Nitrogen Credit Program in Saginaw Bay, where growers that adopt nutrient management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions are potentially eligible for a greenhouse gas credit payment. These programs are already showing benefits, such as establishing more than 14,000 acres of cover crops in the Saginaw Bay watershed and verifying the sound nutrient and fertilizer recommendations on over 1.2 million-plus acres in the Western Lake Erie watershed.

For more information about how The Nature Conservancy and our partners are working to achieve soil health, visit nature.org/soil.

Randy Dell is agricultural strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Dr. Patrick Doran is associate state director and director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Canadian Members of Parliament Focus on Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River

By IJC staff

The first Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Parliament Hill Days in Ottawa could lead to a new, multiparty caucus of members of Parliament from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region.

The Oct. 26-27 event was organized by a coalition of ten organizations. More than 40 parliamentarians and a cross-section of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence enthusiasts participated, including IJC Co-Chairs Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack and IJC Commissioners Richard Morgan and Richard Moy. Also involved were nongovernmental organizations, mayors, business interests, conservation authorities, scientists and academics. During a reception, Vance Badawey, member of Parliament for Niagara Centre, announced his intention to form a multi-party Great Lakes and St. Lawrence parliamentarian caucus.

“The region of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River is a vital trade corridor and ecosystem shared by Canada and the United States … Yet we do not have a shared vision and plan to build a strong economy in this region while preserving it for future generations,” Mark Fisher, president and CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, said of the proposal. “The first Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Parliament Hill Day and the potential creation of a regional regions was meant to address this gap.”

The following day, mayors, business representatives, and environmental and fisheries advocates from the “Hill Days” organizing groups met with members of Parliament from all parties. The proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Collaborative Initiative aims to bring together government officials and a broad spectrum of interests who share the goal of protecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River while growing the economy.

organizers parliament hills day
Organizers of first Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Parliament Hill Days in Ottawa meet with Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (middle). Credit: Council of the Great Lakes Region

“I am very pleased to see so many groups and elected people coming together to work towards progress in the region,” IJC Canadian Chair Walker said in remarks delivered as a keynote speaker at the reception. “The IJC has been encouraging just such an approach for some time, with a view that only good could come out of the effort.”

ijc canadian chair gordon walker council great lakes region parliament hills days ottawa
IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker. Credit: Council of the Great Lakes Region

IJC US Chair Pollack added, “Collaboration among elected officials, the public and private sectors, and civil society has worked well in the United States to advance the best interests Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region. I was amazed at the participation and enthusiasm for this new endeavor and offer my congratulations and thanks to those who have worked to realize this success.”


Great Lakes Day and St. Lawrence Parliament Hill Day organizers

Lead Organizers

Supporting Partners


The new proposal for collaboration was inspired by the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, through which federal agencies fund projects to target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The IJC has a special role in stewardship of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region. Under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the IJC is mandated to assess how well the governments are doing with actions to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.The new proposal for collaboration was inspired by the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, through which federal agencies fund projects to target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem.

In October, Canada and the United States released the first Progress Report of the Parties describing the actions taken under the 2012 Agreement. The IJC is preparing its own independent Triennial Assessment of Progress. The assessment will incorporate the views of citizens in the region. You can learn more and participate in the process online at ParticipateIJC.org, and in IJC public meetings held throughout the basin, most recently in Toronto and Milwaukee.

The Latest in the Fight Against Endocrine Disruptors

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A US Geological Survey scientist dissects a fish to determine possible effects from exposure to endocrine disrupting contaminants. Credit: USGS
A US Geological Survey scientist dissects a fish to determine possible effects from exposure to endocrine disrupting contaminants. Credit: USGS

A dangerous class of chemical compounds called endocrine disruptors has been known to cause health problems in wildlife and people since the 1960s. These chemical pollutants, which can come from substances like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or pesticides such as DDTs, made their way into the Great Lakes before the United States and Canada started taking steps to end their production and limit usage starting in the closing decades of the 20th century. Since then, stacks of research have discovered how dangerous these substances are to human and animal health, and efforts are underway to improve testing and filtering for them at water treatment plants.

On the binational level, progress has been made. According to the Progress Report of the Parties released earlier this year, the Canadian government has passed regulations that address some of these chemicals directly, while the US government recently amended the Toxic Substances Control Act to improve regulation. Both countries also have been funding research into these compounds. Regional and local efforts are progressing as well.

According to Dr. Carol Miller, director of the Healthy Urban Waters program at Wayne State University and member of the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board (SAB), researchers are collaborating with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the regional Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to investigate methods of removing endocrine disruptors from drinking water supplies and improving testing for them in water supplies.

Miller said there has been an increasing effort to use existing drinking water monitoring stations in the Great Lakes channels to measure and track chemicals in the water – both those already identified as potentially hazardous and others just in case they are found to be hazardous in the future. Environmental chemist Dr. Miriam Diamond from the University of Toronto said major sources of endocrine disrupting chemicals are from urban areas, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture (in the form of pesticides). Due to aging infrastructure and increases in the urban population, Diamond said wastewater plants—such as those around Toronto—are being asked to contend with additional domestic sewage, industrial emissions and stormwater without sufficient money for maintenance and upgrading. Since those plants aren’t optimized to deal with these endocrine-disrupting pollutants, some can slip through and enter the water system.

Dr. Theo Colborn. Credit: Jrrochester
Dr. Theo Colborn. Credit: Jrrochester

In 1988, a scientist named Dr. Theo Colborn published research suggesting that persistent human-made chemicals in the environment were being transferred to the offspring of a variety of wildlife species that otherwise did not seem to be exhibiting any issues. The IJC brought the topic up in its 1992 sixth biennial report, where it found that the environment and future generations of people were both at significant risk from these substances. At the time, the US General Accounting Office found no federal agencies had listed any endocrine disrupting chemicals as a known or potential risk to human development or reproduction, while a Canadian government report found that the effects seen on wildlife also occur in humans.

Colborn convened a small group of scientists in 1991 who were working independently on what are now called endocrine disruptors. The scientists were each working at a variety of scales from the microscopic to full-scale wildlife; Colborn brought them together so they could begin highlighting the issue as a whole. The idea of endocrine disruptors was published in 1997 in Colborn’s book “Our Stolen Future” and received widespread attention.

One of the most important discoveries over the past 25 years is that endocrine disruptors have an impact on sexual development and that the chemicals come from man-made sources or from new uses of organic compounds, said Dr. Michael Twiss, an SAB member and biology professor at Clarkson University.

Twiss cited the discovery of feminized suckers in Lake Superior caused by chemical byproducts from the pulp and paper industry, thanks to ongoing research carried out since 1988. Those chemicals also occur naturally in trees, but can impact some species when they get into aquatic environments in excessive amounts. The industry has since made an effort to clean up its practices, due in part to research by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“There’s often a balance among hormones, so in order for a female to be a female there’s a balance between estrogen and testosterone,” Twiss said. “Any change in that ratio (from endocrine disruptors) can throw it one way or another.”

Scientists have learned that these endocrine disrupting substances can turn “whole batteries of genes” on and off in a way that allows them to have effects for generations beyond the initial exposure to an organism, in what is called an epigenetic effect.

Generally when the concentration of a toxic substance drops below a certain amount, it becomes less poisonous. In turn, toxicity increases as the dose of the substance increases. Miller said endocrine disruptors research suggests that low and median concentrations can result in varying types of effects from what scientists would expect to see based on the impacts of high concentrations.

Scientists suggest this is because organisms naturally have hormones in their systems, and that those systems are designed to be modified by relatively low hormonal changes. Since levels of these legacy endocrine-disrupting chemicals are declining in the lakes and rivers, it’s possible concentrations of specific chemicals could cause new health risks.

In a September presentation sponsored by the Collaborative on Health and the Environment, National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Director Dr. Linda Birnbaum said that endocrine disruptors can impact a person’s sleep, mood, sexual functions and, in children, general development. These compounds can act as keys to the “locks” of hormones, and tell the body to produce particular hormones like estrogen or testosterone or ease back and shut off production. Effects can even start happening at the levels found in the “soup of chemicals” we live in – from air pollution to the food we eat and drinks we drink.

“Not all of them are artificial – some are natural,” Birnbaum said. “Some are in food, some are in drugs we take, and there are lifestyle issues. For example, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, all of those things can interfere with hormone action.”

Birnbaum estimates that up to 140,000 chemicals are currently being used commercially around the globe. With those numbers, testing each one individually isn’t practical. The NIEHS has developed a program capable of screening up to 10,000 chemicals at once, though that method doesn’t account for human genetic variability to the extent that exists in the world. Ideally, she added, chemicals would be tested in advance before getting used. The program is being used to identify which ones could have a damaging impact to human health.

Dr. Thomas Speth, an SAB member and US Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer, said there have been some limiting factors when trying to measure the impact of endocrine disruptors. The first is that there are a suite of chemicals in the environment that need to be accounted for, and the second is how few laboratories are capable of running those investigations. Even if scientists study a mix of chemicals at once, they could still miss some that are having an impact.

There has been informative work, though. Researchers have reconstructed the history of the introduction of brominated compounds like PBDEs from archived environmental samples, and found that the compounds have much the same effect as the older compounds like DDT on fish and wildlife and likely on humans – all of which are endocrine disruptors.

Rain and the air also are major pathways. Diamond said any chemicals in the air can easily enter the water system through atmospheric deposition – the pollution of water by air pollution – or by rain. This is the major driver of endocrine disruptors getting into Lake Superior, while other lakes with higher population densities can be exposed through runoff, she added.

A huge problem is posed by chemicals already in use as building insulation or other long-lived equipment like electrical transformers that will remain in the environment for decades.

Coupled with other obstacles faced by aquatic life– like habitat loss, lack of oxygen due to severe algal blooms, and invasive species – the addition of endocrine disruption can have a major impact on the health of the lakes, she added.

Scientists collect several fish species from the Chicago River’s north branch to analyze them for endocrine disrupting chemicals and biomarkers of endocrine disruption as part of a survey that included the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River. Credit: Clifford P. Rice, US Department of Agriculture
Scientists collect several fish species from the Chicago River’s north branch to analyze them for endocrine disrupting chemicals and biomarkers of endocrine disruption as part of a survey that included the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River. Credit: Clifford P. Rice, US Department of Agriculture

While there has been progress in cleaning up some endocrine disruptors from waterways, the governments still have work to do to achieve the “virtual elimination” of persistent toxic chemicals called for in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

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