IJC Finds Successes and Challenges in Meeting Great Lakes Water Quality Goals

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

sherri mason suny fredonia microplastics niagara
Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY-Fredonia led a survey of microplastics in the Great Lakes aboard the research ship Niagara in 2012. The tiny pieces of plastic are a growing environmental concern on the Great Lakes. Credit: SUNY-Fredonia

Coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes basin are recovering, providing habitat and natural water filtering along the shores. Areas of Concern that have long suffered from degradation and pollution are improving. Plans are being assembled to reduce nutrient inputs to Lake Erie and get a handle on algal blooms. New aquatic species have been kept out of the lakes, and an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern has been drawn up. Canada and the United States have made significant progress to restore and protect the lakes, even though there’s still a long way to go to meet the objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

These are key findings in a new draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report from the IJC. The Agreement requires the IJC to consider how well the countries are tackling a variety of issues in the Great Lakes every three years. The TAP report, now out for public input, paints a largely positive picture. Its findings are the result of work by the IJC, its Great Lakes advisory boards and the Progress Report of the Parties report, which Canada and the US released last September.

The final TAP, to be released in late 2017, is expected to contain recommendations and suggestions for efforts by Canada and the United States to safeguard the basin. The IJC is encouraging people from both countries to add their thoughts and comments on the TAP at ParticipateIJC.org and at a series of March public meetings (see “It’s Your Turn”) to help develop the final recommendations.

The 2012 Agreement includes a series of objectives to guide the two countries, eight states and two provinces on Great Lakes issues.

Drinking water and pollutants

The TAP reports few changes in the quality of the overall Great Lakes for swimming and other recreational uses. Waters were safe for swimming in 96 percent of the season in the US and 78 percent of the season in Ontario, giving people plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lakes without worrying about E. coli bacteria or algal blooms.

Moreover, the IJC found that source water from the lakes, when properly treated, is safe to drink, though there have been a few notable incidents. A 2014 “do not drink” advisory in Toledo, Ohio and Pelee island, Ontario, was directly related to Great Lakes water pollution when an unsafe level of the toxin microcystin was found in treated water during an algal bloom on Lake Erie. Other drinking water contamination incidents like the one in Flint, Michigan, where elevated lead levels leached into distribution pipes in 2015 because the water wasn’t treated with anti-corrosion measures, also help serve as a reminder that how drinking water is safely delivered to the people in the basin can be improved.

There has been some progress in improving or maintaining drinking water quality in the basin. Of the 10 Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes that had drinking water impairment issues – either consumption restrictions or problems with taste and smell – seven areas no longer experience problems, and officials expect two of the remaining three expect to no longer have problems in the next two-to-three years.

Additionally, the United States and Canada are working on groundwater quality studies to determine if groundwater supplies, which are generally good, are improving. This research also should give researchers a better idea of what impact groundwater quality and quantity has on surface water supplies in the basin. Since some communities and individual wells alike can depend on groundwater, making sure supplies are strong, recharging and clean from chemical pollutants is vital for public health. Ontario’s Clean Water Act mandates source water protection plans, while on the US side, states voluntarily can develop plans under the US Safe Drinking Water Act to keep hazardous chemicals out of drinking water.

Chemical pollution continues to threaten human and ecosystem health, and Canada and the US are lagging when it comes to addressing that issue in the Great Lakes. The TAP reports that toxic chemical concentrations are a mixed bag – some legacy chemicals are decreasing, while other chemicals seem to be on the rise that could spell major problems down the road. The countries designated an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern and are developing strategies to address them, but the list wasn’t finalized until last May and binational strategies to control them are behind schedule; pilot strategies for two of those identified chemicals are incomplete and the development process isn’t transparent to the public.

When it comes to chemicals in wildlife, the two countries have made strides in reducing the amount of legacy contaminants – like DDT or PCBs – in fish frequently consumed by people, but advisories have still been issued for some species and areas due to the presence of those legacy contaminants. Both countries continue to monitor levels of contaminants in Great Lakes fish that are generally eaten by humans, though more data is necessary to determine whether the two countries are making additional progress. This is especially important to communities that eat more locally caught fish than others, and to anglers who also enjoy eating what they catch.

rouge river detroit tap report industrial chemical
Industrial and chemical facilities along the Great Lakes waterways – including tributaries like the Rouge River in Michigan pictured above – have historically been key sources of chemical pollution into the lakes. Credit: EPA

Environmental conditions, climate change and nutrient runoff

Additional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement objectives call for healthy and productive wetlands and charge the United States and Canada to protect and restore wetlands and other habitats across the lakes. The TAP report says that coastal wetlands are improving across the basin, providing habitat for a variety of native species and a protective barrier to reduce the amount of pollutants and nutrient runoff getting into the lakes.

This also supports another Agreement objective, to control nutrient runoff and associated algal blooms. According to IJC Biological Scientist Dr. Li Wang, the United States has provided habitat restoration funds to local organizations through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, while Environment and Climate Change Canada has used money from the Wildlife Conservation Fund to support almost 40 restoration projects in the basin. The recently approved Plan 2014 for regulating water flows through the Moses Saunders dam will also help restore an estimated 64,000 acres of wetlands around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that have been degraded under the previous water outflow management plans.

Nutrient runoff (mainly from agricultural sources) is a serious problem in all the lakes except Superior, and the IJC has found it’s getting worse. These nutrients contribute to unwanted algal blooms and lead to oxygen-poor zones, toxic waters and damage to the food web. The two countries have agreed to try and reduce nutrient runoff to Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025 based on 2008 levels, and are developing action plans to reach that goal. Those plans are due by February 2018.

Those plans must be rigorous to achieve these reductions, but the plans being developed don’t do enough for wetlands restoration and construction to help reach the targets, according to the TAP. These blooms are particularly prevalent in Lake Erie, though they’ve appeared in locations throughout the Great Lakes, from Hamilton Harbour in Lake Ontario to Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. The general public is advised not to swim or fish in waterways when regularly updated bulletins indicate it’s unsafe due to these blooms.

harmful algal bloom lake erie landsat
A harmful algal bloom spreads across western and central Lake Erie in October 2011. Nutrients running into the lakes and feeding algal blooms is one issue the United States and Canada are working on addressing. Credit: NASA Landsat-5

The Agreement states that the lakes should be free of new invasive species and the spread and impact of existing ones should be limited as much as possible. While the United States and Canada have been able to stop the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes by enforcing ballast water flushing requirements – based off of proposed International Maritime Organization standards – harmful species like Phragmites, zebra and quagga mussels continue to spread and wreak havoc on the native ecosystem. There’s no comprehensive estimate on the economic impact of these species, though it costs money to control sea lamprey in tributaries and clear mussels from infrastructure. Research in both countries is continuing to find new ways to contain and possibly eradicate these invasive species in a number of ways, including pheromones, electrical and acoustic barriers and chemical controls.

The TAP report covers other environmental concerns for the Great Lakes and the people and wildlife around them under the catch-all water quality objective of freeing the lakes of substances, materials “or conditions” that negatively impact the lakes.

Plastic debris known as microplastics can be ingested by animals, causing a variety of health problems that can make their way up the food chain to humans. Both countries have passed laws that will ban products containing microbeads, but these are only a small subset of all microplastics. More attention is needed to eliminate all/other degraded plastics from entering the lakes as a result of waste disposal choices.

Finally, climate change is leading to an overall downward trend in ice cover on the Great Lakes, which impacts the ecosystem and water levels throughout the rest of the year. Canada is developing climate change models specific to the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence River, but the IJC believes a binational, unified approach to adapting to climate change from the federal and regional governments is the best way forward and should be explored.

The TAP is the result of three years of work, and the first such report since the 2012 Agreement was signed. The Commission hopes that it helps guide and sustain progress for the years to come as the governments work to restore the integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.

wetlands ontario natural barriers pollutants
Wetlands such as the one in Batchawana Bay, Ontario, are important natural barriers for pollutants entering the Great Lakes, and have been improving in recent years. Credit: IJC

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

It’s Your Turn: Tell Us What You Think About IJC’s TAP Report and Progress to Restore the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The Canadian and US governments presented their progress report last fall on efforts to restore the Great Lakes by meeting the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has now released its initial assessment of that progress in a draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report. The TAP report was released in draft form so we can hear from you before it becomes a final report to both countries.

shores lake superior tap
The shores of Lake Superior. Credit: Dean Pennala – Fotolia

“Now that the IJC has released its draft assessment of progress report, we’re eager to hear from Great Lakes residents,” US Commissioner Rich Moy said at the time of the report’s release.

There are several ways you can contribute to the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. You can tell us what you think of the draft report’s findings and respond to its questions — and anything else that’s on your mind about the lakes — via email to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org and online at ParticipateIJC through April 15, 2017.

You’re also invited to attend a public outreach meeting that the IJC will host in six communities in March. In addition to hearing your thoughts and comments, local experts will present the latest information on specific issues in each location – including the successes and challenges still to be faced – to ensure a broad conversation about the lakes.

“We strongly encourage everyone to provide their input or participate in an upcoming public meeting,” said IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker. “Public input is essential to Agreement success.”

Public meeting dates and locations include:

  • Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
  • Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan
  • Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario
  • Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio
  • Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York
  • Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario.

Details for each meeting will be provided in early February at Participate IJC, on the IJC website, in next month’s issue of Great Lakes Connection, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Be part of the conversation by telling us how you value the Great Lakes ecologically, culturally, economically and personally, and about the commitment you and your community share to restore and protect these precious waters.

What do you think about Canada and the United States’ progress to accomplish the Agreement’s goals and objectives, and about the IJC’s draft assessment of that progress? Your voice is essential to ensure that both countries continue to make progress. The floor is yours.

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

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 30, 2017, to reflect a date change to the Toledo meeting.

The Great Lakes Eight: Greatness Art Project Spans Ontario

By Karen Kun, Waterlution

Great Art for Great Lakes (GAGL) is the first project under the “Greatness” banner and is being delivered by Waterlution, a nongovernmental organization based in Oakville, Ontario. Great Arts for Great Lakes will invoke the power of the arts in strengthening Ontarians’ understanding of and attachment to the Great Lakes, by celebrating the lakes through a variety of artistic means.

GAGL is a two-year project that involves a series of arts and learning workshops focused around eight Great Lakes communities. Commissioned artists will co-create artworks with communities that build up toward celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation (creating both Canada and Ontario) and produce a lasting digital showcase.

Proposals are still being accepted for the first eight artists. The ninth art project has been commissioned to two Kingston-based artists, who will create a digital showcase called Community Flow that will combine Great Lakes scientific data and small art pieces produced at the local workshops.

great lakes art project waterlution
Credit: Waterlution

The Great Art for Great Lakes project grew from a June 2015 session in which a diverse group of prominent Ontarians drawn from the arts, science, media, design, First Nations, business, environment, culture, youth and sport communities was convened by Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell of Ontario.

During that session, Dowdeswell invited participants to explore how celebrating the Great Lakes can help protect their service to the environment, people and economy, while engendering a stronger sense of identity and pride in our citizens.

The group concluded that a “bold and noble” initiative was needed to champion the importance and value of the Great Lakes, to provide a window on all that is being done and can be done for them, and to make the Great Lakes iconic for the people of Ontario, across Canada and around the globe.

GAGL is grateful to have support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and is a featured Canada 150 project to showcase community engagement throughout this sesquicentennial year. Waterlution will work with local artists to co-create Great Lakes stories with one art project per community throughout 2017.

Communities will be invited to learn about the Great Lakes and offer inspiration to the chosen artists during workshops, to ensure that the art piece created truly represents the many cultural and historical aspects of the region.

Waterlution is working with municipalities to donate these creations to an appropriate permanent space for future generations, such as local art galleries, colleges or municipal properties.

The project will expand into other Great Lakes communities in 2018-2019 to include all five Great Lakes and develop partnerships in the United States and Quebec.

At this time, Ontario focus communities are Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Sarnia, Owen Sound, communities of Manitoulin Island, Mississauga and Thunder Bay.

great lakes communities map
Credit: Waterlution

There are many ways to get involved with GAGL in 2017. If you live in any of the communities noted, workshops are available this spring. The Call for Artists will open on Jan. 20, 2017.

Please contact Project Leader Christopher McLeod at chris.mcleod@waterlution.org for more details.

Karen Kun is the founder of Waterlution and co-founder of Greatness The Great Lakes Project. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates.

Finding Inspiration on ‘Big Water’

By IJC staff

Great Lakes Watermarks are about inspiration. The two latest examples come from Katherine O’Reilly and John Kennedy.

O’Reilly, a graduate student at Notre Dame, talks about growing up near Lake Erie, “pea green water” and how she was moved to study coastal wetlands and their role in improving water quality.

Kennedy, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, says his interest in “big water” started as a child, on Lake Michigan. He’s spent decades working to solve water quality problems in Green Bay.

The IJC’s Great Lakes Watermark Project includes these and other watermarks in partnership with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. We’ve been gathering and sharing stories about the freshwater seas since last year.

See a special Watermark Project website for more, including how to submit your own.

Get Involved: Lead, Lakes and Student Research

By IJC staff

This issue of Great Lakes Connection focuses on the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress. We urge you to take the time to peruse the report and add your input, then come back to this post.

OK, thanks. We’ve compiled a few items of possible interest below, from opportunities to help shape drinking water policy in Canada to conducting research on Lake Erie.

Students aboard a University of Toledo research vessel
Students aboard a University of Toledo research vessel. Credit: University of Toledo/YouTube

Lead in Drinking Water – Health Canada is asking for comments on a report related to lead in drinking water. A Federal-Provincial-Territorial Committee on Drinking Water has assessed information on lead with the intent of updating a drinking water guideline. Comments must be received before March 15.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment on a proposed rule to require plumbing manufacturers to put “lead free” markings on pipes and fittings used for drinking water. The deadline is April 17.

Lake Research Student Grants – The Michigan Chapter of the North American Lake Management Society and Michigan Lake and Stream Associations are seeking proposals for a Lake Research Grants Program. Organizers are looking for projects that increase the understanding of lake ecology, strengthen collaborative lake management, build lake partnerships and/or expand citizen involvement in lake management. Proposals are due Feb. 17.

Land-Lake Ecology – The University of Toledo Lake Erie Center is looking for undergraduate applicants for its Summer 2017 Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This is a nine-week (May 30-July 28) paid fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation. For more information, see the program page. The deadline to apply is Feb. 24.

Onward – Please pass this information along to a colleague or friend who might be interested.

Let us know of any items you’d like to see included in future updates (or shared on social media). Send them to Executive Editor Jeff Kart kartj@washington.ijc.org.