Great Lakes Residents Pack IJC Public Meetings to Voice Their Thoughts and Concerns

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

issues raised
Meeting participants raised several key issues during the Great Lakes public meetings, as described below. Credit: CBS News, Syracuse News, IJC, Environmental Media Associates, FLOW, Tipp of the Mitt Watershed Council, Education in the World

At five IJC public meetings on the Great Lakes held March 21-29 around the basin, standing-room-only crowds packed venues in Canada and the United States to learn from presentations about topics reflecting local issues as they relate to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to share their own thoughts and concerns.

The IJC held the meetings to obtain comment on the governments’ progress report released last fall, its own draft assessment of progress report released in January, and other issues that Great Lakes residents wished to address. All comments – from presenters and the public – will be reviewed as part of the public input into a final Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report to be released later this year. The report is part of the IJC’s responsibilities to evaluate progress by Canada and the US every three years to accomplish the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including gathering comment on the government’s Progress Report of the Parties (PROP). Obtaining public input is essential to both the IJC assessment and to providing that comment as the Commission is directed to do under the Agreement. The IJC is grateful to everyone who took the time to attend and provide their thoughts and concerns. A public comment period on the reports ended April 15; the first public meeting was held March 2 in Sault. Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Issues raised over the course of the six meetings included: access to safe, affordable drinking water, and the role of agricultural runoff and urban infrastructure in creating harmful algal blooms and contributing pollution to the lakes as well as proposed US funding cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; risks from nuclear power plants and the storage and transportation of nuclear waste; and threats to the lakes from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Some issues mentioned at every meeting were agricultural runoff, identifying radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern, and the threat to the lakes from Asian carp.

Videos of each meeting as well as a summary video are available at Here’s a brief summary of the presentations and comments received at the meetings.


Two sessions were held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Activity Center in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 21: an afternoon roundtable with scientists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, citizens and others to discuss the unique issues facing the Detroit community; and an evening public meeting.

During the afternoon, issues raised included access to affordable and clean water, threats from the proposed US federal budget to continued funding for local and regional restoration projects, and incorporating social science, environmental justice and economics into the IJC’s Great Lakes work, as well as specific responses to the IJC’s draft TAP report.

Leila Meikas of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council and Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization urged the IJC to include more discussion of fair access to clean water and environmental justice in the final TAP report. “There’s a political separation between water and people, such as corporations being able to extract (Great Lakes) water cheaper than a person in poverty would be paying,” Orduño said. “Protecting the Great Lakes as a whole must also come back down to the household level, so everyone understands how environmental justice, affordability and public health relate to Great Lakes water quality.” Other participants encouraged the IJC to include experts in social science and economics on its Great Lakes advisory boards to expand the range of topics and research they can provide to the IJC.

detroit public meeting
The Detroit evening public meeting, above, and participants line up to provide their comments, below. Credit: IJC

participants line upThese issues and others also were raised by the public in the evening meeting after brief presentations focused on the drinkability, swimability and drinkability of local Great Lakes waters. Participants expressed concerns about the threat from radionuclides as a result of possible emissions from existing nuclear power plants and proposals for nuclear waste storage and transport in the region, and urged that radionuclides be listed as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) by the governments. Speakers also urged that the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down and the oil transported on land instead, where a spill could be more fully contained than in the lakes. Proposals also were provided to designate the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, establish Lake Erie as a binational marine park from the Point Pelee Islands to the mouth of the Detroit River, and to address the imminent threat to the lakes from Asian carp.


sarnia public roundtable
Participants at the Sarnia public roundtable are welcomed by IJC Canadian chair Gordon Walker. Credit: Jeff Kart

Residents from as far as northern Ontario to mid-Ohio traveled to attend the afternoon public roundtable at the Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre in Sarnia, Ontario, on March 22. After presentations about progress to remediate the St. Clair River Area of Concern, CMCs, and sustainable agriculture and harmful algal blooms, participants discussed the topics in small groups. These discussions included the need to: ensure adequate funding for cleaning up toxic Areas of Concern; identify radionuclides and other chemicals as CMCs on a timelier schedule; investigate pharmaceuticals in water from wastewater treatment discharges; and provide greater education and training on best management practices to reduce phosphorus loadings into the lakes.

Joe Hill, Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee member, and others expressed concern for nuclear power production. “How do you know how safe is the drinking water that is being pumped in the area as far as nuclear is concerned? … We do not need nuclear power plants.” Sandra Sahguj, from Thunderbird Water Panther Circle, Walpole Island First Nation, identified dredging for shipping on St Clair River as a concern. “There is a plan for the St. Clair River to be dredged at Walpole Island. No more big ships on the St. Clair, and I don’t want any nuclear waste to be traveling through that water. It’s too dangerous.”

Oregon (Toledo)

full house ohio lake erie
A full house listened to a summary of ongoing research about Lake Erie from Chris Winslow, (not pictured) director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. Credit: Jeff Kart

Attendees filled the Lake Erie Center meeting room and adjacent hallway on the evening of March 23 in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo to hear about the latest Lake Erie research, as well as updates on the state’s Lake Erie protection and restoration plan and the connection between the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and domestic action plans to restore Lake Erie, before providing their own comments. Many participants expressed a need to regulate animal waste from CAFOs, which is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, in the same way that limits on fertilizers are regulated for crops. “Without mandatory regulations the objective of no nutrients into the lakes from human activity won’t be accomplished,” said Nick Mandros of the Ohio Environmental Council. Rick Graham of the Izaak Walton League’s Great Lakes committee added, “The western Lake Erie basin needs to be declared impaired to force people who are creating the problem to change their actions and restore our waters.”

bouchard closing
Canadian Commissioner Benoit Bouchard provides closing comments at the Toledo area meeting. Credit: Sarah Lobrichon

Other comments focused on the effect of climate change on the lakes and the increased environmental justice issues it will cause over time, the need to preserve funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the US to restore the Maumee River Area of Concern, and restoring wetlands on agricultural and common lands to slow water drainage and filter pollutants naturally. Effective public notice of beach closings also was raised as a primary need in all five lakes. “Ohio does a great job of monitoring,” said Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn, “and can be used as a model to assess how other states and provinces are doing to monitor microcystin and let the public know quickly of those results, and closing beaches as needed.”


The WBFO-WNED public broadcasting studios hosted two sessions on Tuesday, March 28, that brought more than 270 people together to learn and talk about the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York. Eight presentations on topics ranging from restoration of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, the effect of emerging contaminants on fish and wildlife, and wetland habitat restoration, to the Great Lakes Coast Initiative and reclaiming accessible shorelines for recreation at restored urban waterfronts started the afternoon session, followed by questions and statements from the audience.

pollack buffalo
IJC US Chair Lana Pollack welcomes participants to the public meeting in Buffalo. Credit: Sally Cole-Misch

Among issues raised during the afternoon and the evening public meetings were the impacts of combined sewer overflows and nuclear waste storage. Paul Grenier, regional councilor for the City of Welland, Ontario, said, “Local governments … need consistent sewage discharge regulations, they are not the same across states and provinces.” Charley Tarr added that the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan is flawed for the same reason. “We need a regional plan that addresses upstream and suburban inputs,” Tarr said.

Several speakers raised concerns about possible leaks and the long-term viability of the West Valley nuclear waste facility in the Lake Ontario drainage basin. “Because of the extreme storms we have here, this facility is in serious danger,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “The facility is on glacial till so it is not secure. All nuclear waste facilities should be looked at in light of the more extreme weather events throughout the region.” Others raised concerns about hydrofracture waste, continued US funding for Great Lakes restoration projects, erosion and sediment loadings into tributaries to the Buffalo River, and the potential for water diversion as the climate warms. “The No. 1 priority is to keep Great Lakes basin water in the Great Lakes basin,” said Philip McIntyre.

St. Catharines

st catharines roundtable
Participants at the St. Catharines public roundtable discussed sustainable agriculture, the Niagara River, agriculture and nutrients, and other topics in small groups. Credit: Allison Voglesong

The last public meeting at the St. Catharines, Ontario, Rowing Club on the afternoon of March 29 was in roundtable format. Four presentations discussed regional initiatives for sustainable agriculture and the Niagara River Area of Concern. Participants then divided into small groups to discuss these issues, agriculture and nutrients, and the Grand River and Lake Erie.  Issues raised by these groups included the lack of access to beaches and waterways, beach closures due to pollution and bacteria, and the need for collaboration between regulators and farmers to identify common causes and sources of nutrients entering the lakes to develop plans with targeted reductions or each jurisdiction.

Concerns also were raised about possible decreases in funding for the binational Niagara River Area of Concern, which would impede progress, and how sewage is managed in the region. “I am concerned about the sewage lagoons in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie and the E. coli that is generated from the lagoons, which cause medical problems,” said George Jardine, from Citizens Against Unsanitary Sewage Effluent. “The temporary sewage lagoon was only supposed to last 20 years but it is still in force and was never shut down.”

As well, the rampant growth of Phragmites, an invasive grass plant with a feathered plume that increasingly can be seen along highways in ditches and in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes region, was brought up by Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. “I think our biggest threat to our coastal areas right now is Phragmites. We are losing our habitat, we are losing our biodiversity, we are losing our native species. We need our government to help us get the herbicide that controls the Phragmites and we need a program in place in the province.”

Go to to read and watch more from the IJC’s Great Lakes public meetings, as well as comments provided online by others. The final TAP report will include all comments, as part of the body of the report and in an appendix of public comment, when it is released later this year.

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

Watermarks from the Soo

By Jeff Kart, IJC

Our Great Lakes public meetings have concluded, wrapping up a six-city tour of the basin. For this month’s Watermark series, we go back to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where we held our first meeting on March 2 to gather comments on the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report, and the governments’ Progress Report of the Parties.

Both reports deal with work on protections under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. Both Watermarks below, like others in the series, touch on personal Great Lakes stories. What’s your personal connection to the Great Lakes?

Thanks to all who attended our meetings and all who volunteered to record Watermarks. Stay tuned for more videos in future issues of Great Lakes Connection. Find other IJC watermarks here and on a special Lake Ontario Waterkeeper site, where you can add your own Watermark.


Invasive Mussels Turning Central Lakes into a Food Desert

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

invasive mussels nutrients
Invasive mussels have caused nutrients such as phosphorus in the Great Lakes to clump closer to the shorelines. Coupled with mussels’ tendency to clarify water, this has led to an expansion of the algae Cladophora. Credit: USGS

Invasive zebra and quagga mussels are taking nutrients that would otherwise be in deeper waters and shunting them closer to the shore, which could make it more difficult to halt harmful algal blooms.

Known as the “nearshore nutrient shunt,” this migration of phosphorus and other nutrients used as food by plankton has led to some severe negative impacts in the existing Great Lakes food web. Algae, particularly Cladophora which grows on the hard surfaces near the mussels and feeds on the nutrients the mussels excrete, are thriving in those nearshore regions where nutrients are stockpiling.

The shift in nutrient locations also has benefitted other species that prefer nearshore and benthic – or lake floor – environments, according to Dr. Harvey Bootsma, associate professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Historically, a greater chunk of phosphorus entering the lakes has found its way offshore, where it serves as food to phytoplankton. Those in turn are eaten by zooplankton, and fish can feed on both types of plankton, as well as other aquatic species that eat them. Some phosphorus ends up finding its way into the benthic level, periodically getting kicked back up dissolved into the water, where it can continue to serve as fertilizer for phytoplankton.

With invasive mussels, more phosphorus is staying in the nearshore environment, cycling through and never making it into deeper waters. Nearshore currents also tend to keep dissolved phosphorus in the water column, where Cladophora gets the first crack at this food supply. Coupled with the mussels’ voracious appetites clarifying the water column, this can lead to greater harmful algal growth, resulting in the blooms seen on Lake Erie and in bays throughout the Great Lakes. The mussels also are capable of scavenging offshore plankton as it drifts into the nearshore zone, ultimately retaining the nutrients from the plankton in the mussels’ nearshore home.

zebra quagga mussels
The zebra mussel, left, and quagga mussel, right, are a pair of invasive species originally from Europe that have dramatically altered the Great Lakes food web. Credit: NOAA

The impact this has had on the food web is significant. Some species of fish that historically have lived offshore or in the water column are willing to enter nearshore or benthic regions for food. Round goby, an invasive fish that feeds on the mussels and other invertebrates, has a ready food source in the nearshore region. This has led to some native predatory fish, like the brown trout, steelhead trout and Atlantic salmon, venturing into the nearshore areas to feed on the gobies. Other species, such as Chinook salmon and coho salmon, don’t feed on round gobies and aren’t making that move into the nearshore. Instead, their food supply is declining as the offshore plankton production is limited by the mussels, and their populations are suffering.

The expanded Cladophora mats could be causing other problems too. Bootsma said studies have shown Cladophora can harbor higher concentrations of bacteria as it decomposes on beaches. In northern Lake Michigan there have been an increasing number of birds killed by avian botulism. Bootsma said there is evidence suggesting the Cladophora could be promoting growth of the bacteria that cause botulism. When round gobies end up eating the toxic bacteria and in turn get eaten by birds, the birds get sick and die.

This nutrient shunt has led researchers to conclude that more stringent controls on the amount of phosphorus and other nutrients making it into the Great Lakes are needed to improve water quality. While mussels are the primary culprit behind the resurgence of Cladophora, on Lake Erie it’s believed this is why harmful algal blooms and other water quality issues associated with excessive nutrients rebounded in the 1990s, despite existing regulations of phosphorus and other nutrients, and have continued to plague the lake in the decades since.

The United States and Canada have agreed to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie by 40 percent of 2008 runoff amounts, though neither government has unveiled its plan yet. Bootsma said based on historical data and numerical models, that reduction amount should be enough to reduce the problems of toxic algae and deep-water hypoxia – the formation of oxygen-deprived zones in the water – to acceptable levels. The IJC recommended similar reduction amounts in a 2014 report released as part of the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority.

While reduced phosphorus loading may help to address phytoplankton blooms in Lake Erie, Bootsma said there’s still uncertainty as to how nearshore Cladophora growth will respond to a reduction in phosphorus entering the water. Lake Michigan, with its lower phosphorus concentration compared to Lake Erie, still has problems with the nearshore algae. This is leading scientists to question whether localized phosphorus reductions will impede Cladophora growth or if phosphorus concentrations in the entire lake need to come down first. Lower phosphorus concentrations in the offshore areas could further reduce the amount of plankton in those areas, hurting the food web in those areas even more than the mussels already have.

“What we need now is models, based on solid research, that tell us how both the offshore and the nearshore zones will respond to changes in phosphorus loading,” Bootsma said.

Bringing Invading Plants Under Control with Machines, Poison and Bugs

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

purple loosestrife
Purple loosestrife grows alongside a path in the Cooper Marsh Conservation Area in Cornwall, Ontario, near the St. Lawrence River. Credit: Saffron Blaze

The term “invasive species” doesn’t just include animals. Invasive plants also can upset local habitats and food webs, threatening ecosystems along the Great Lakes shorelines and inland waterways thanks to a lack of predators and prodigious methods of reproducing.

While non-native plants are nothing new to the basin, invasive species differ in how quickly they can spread out of control according to Beth Clawson, natural resources educator with Michigan State University Extension. For example, Clawson said a non-native butterfly bush brought in for a garden isn’t going to become a nuisance and overtake everything else, but bringing in an invasive plant like purple loosestrife, which can produce more than 2 million seeds a year, can quickly see the available space for native species spiral out of control.

Non-native plants have been in the Great Lakes basin for decades, but only a relatively small number have been deemed invasive. To be considered invasive, a species must threaten the diversity or abundance of native species, or the ecological stability and water quality of infested waters. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration counts 58 non-native plants in the basin, while the US Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of those to be invasive. The province of Ontario has 27 aquatic invasive plants listed as either already in the region or on the watchlist in case they expand into the Great Lakes.

“That’s why (purple loosestrife is) invasive,” Clawson said. “They’re hard to kill, they’re broad spectrum in the sense they can live in a large variety of environments, they don’t have (native) predators, and they come to reproduction (age) fast and reproduce quickly.”

Purple loosestrife quickly crowds out native wetland plants like wild rice, destroys fish and wildlife habitat, and also survives on drier land. Since the 1990s, the Canadian and US governments have released natural predators – European beetles and weevils – to control severely infested areas without damaging native plants in the process. Biological control has proven successful; though purple loosestrife will not be completely eliminated with this control method, its abundance can be greatly reduced to the point where it is only a small component of the plant community.

Besides purple loosestrife, Phragmites, or the common reed, has become an increasingly problematic invasive species according to Kyle Borrowman, terrestrial invasive species outreach liaison with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Phragmites has become a menace along the coastlines of Lakes Ontario, Erie, Michigan and Huron, and is slowly making its way north; large stands have already been found as far as Green Bay on Lake Michigan and Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Like purple loosestrife, Phragmites can choke out native plants in coastal zones, reducing biodiversity and destroying habitat used by animals. Borrowman said they also can pop up in irrigation canals, degrading farmland, and in strips of land along roadways, reducing visibility. Dead stalks are a fire hazard, particular as stands become thick. Unlike purple loosestrife, no biological control methods are currently available to deal with Phragmites, Borrowman said.

tall phragmites
A photo showing how tall Phragmites can grow. Credit: Ontario Phragmites Working Group

That isn’t to say there aren’t other methods of dealing with the plants. Both invasive species are vulnerable to herbicides, though Ontario currently does not allow their use over water except in specific circumstances. Mechanical removal, hand-pulling and controlled burns are viable methods to remove Phragmites, while hand-pulling, herbicides, biological control and lengthy flooding can help eradicate purple loosestrife. Ideally, landowners and management officials can use a combination of multiple techniques to make sure these plants are cleared out.

Phragmites can be identified as a tall beige plant of up to five meters (16 feet), single stalked with narrow, long bladed leaves, and a seed head at the top of the plant in the latter part of the growing season. It also bears some resemblance to a native reed, though the native reed does not grow as tall or push out other native plants. Michigan Sea Grant reports that a mature purple loosestrife plant can be as high as six or seven feet (two meters) high and about four feet (1.5 meters) wide, with 30-50 stems growing from a common root ball. It also has multiple purple flowers sticking out from it during the flowering season of July-August, Borrowman said. Both species can sometimes be found as garden options, but Borrowman suggested that landowners who want to decorate their waterfronts consider native plants like common cattail, native reeds or hard stem bulrush.

Inland waterways face other kinds of invasive species, like hydrilla, Eurasian water milfoil, water soldier, starry stonewort and European frogbit. Much like purple loosestrife and Phragmites, these plants reproduce quickly and in multiple ways, Clawson said, growing from seeds or cloning through roots and cuttings. They can even be transported accidentally by watercraft when parts get cut off and are carried to a new water body or location. Clawson recommends boaters follow boat-cleaning and quarantine procedures before entering new water bodies to prevent the plants from spreading, and landowners consider native plants for erosion control, gardening and restoration of inland waterways.

If someone spots an invasive species, Borrowman said they should contact the state or provincial regulatory agency that covers invasive species, such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, or the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Michigan State University released a field guide to identify invasive aquatic plants in the region to make it easier to pick out these species. The Ontario Phragmites Working Group also has a toolkit for landowner’s proposing to remove invasive Phragmites from privately owned property.

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

Great Lakes Advocates Urge Lawmakers to Protect Restoration Initiative

By Beth Wanamaker, Great Lakes Commission

great lakes restoration at work
The Great Lakes Commission’s website features an interactive map of GLRI projects, as well as state-by-state factsheets and an overall GLRI one-pager.

Members of the Great Lakes Commission and other leaders from the US and Canada took to Capitol Hill in March to attend the Semiannual Meeting of the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), as well as Great Lakes Day, an annual event that brings together regional organizations with federal policymakers to discuss Great Lakes restoration and protection.

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, delivered a keynote address that focused on protecting the lakes overall and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which would be zeroed out in US President Donald Trump’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

GLC members urged elected officials to protect the bipartisan GLRI, which serves as the most important line of defense against Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes, helps protect drinking water for 48 million people in the US and Canada, and accelerates the cleanup of Great Lakes toxic hotspots.

“This is an all-hands on deck moment for the Great Lakes,” Stabenow said. “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been critical to cleaning up our waterways, restoring fish and wildlife habitats, and fighting invasive species, like Asian carp.”

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks at the Great Lakes Commission’s Semiannual Meeting, held March 15, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

As part of Great Lakes Day events, the GLC and Northeast-Midwest Institute hosted a breakfast on Capitol Hill for lawmakers and advocates. Twelve congressional leaders from across the political spectrum and Great Lakes basin addressed an attendance of more than 100 stakeholders. Every lawmaker in attendance said the GLRI must be protected.

US Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minnesota, was among the speakers at the breakfast. “Our Great Lakes are not just a local and state issue,” Nolan said. “They benefit our entire nation.”

US Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, added, “This isn’t a partisan issue – it’s American to protect our Great Lakes and the waters that helped develop our economy.”

The GLRI is the result of the previous two US presidential administrations (Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama) who both recognized the need to protect the Great Lakes. President Bush called the lakes a “national treasure” and brought together a broad coalition of regional leaders to create the first restoration blueprint for the lakes. President Obama built on this blueprint by providing funding to implement the GLRI.

The GLRI has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress since it began in 2010 and was formally authorized in 2016. It is coordinated by the US Environmental Protection Agency but is largely a collaboration among multiple federal agencies, the eight Great Lakes states, local communities, businesses and conservation groups.

Muskegon Lake toxic Area of Concern
In Michigan, the Muskegon Lake toxic Area of Concern has been mostly cleaned up and redeveloped thanks to the GLRI and coordinated efforts by state, federal and local agencies and citizens. This project is projected to increase property values by nearly $12 million, contribute $600,000 in new tax revenues annually, and attract 65,000 new visitors to the lake generating more than $1 million in new recreational spending. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

While Canada doesn’t receive GLRI funding, they are a strong partner in restoring and protecting the Great Lakes. Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna delivered remarks at a Great Lakes Day event in D.C. after meeting with new US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier in the day. In addition, the environment ministers from Ontario and Quebec recently teamed up to send a strong letter to US House appropriators on the importance of GLRI funding. “Since its inception in 2010, the GLRI has proved to be an indispensable engine for environmental and economic revitalization throughout the region,” they wrote.

While Trump’s proposed budget zeroes out Great Lakes restoration, Congress has final authority. In a March 30 letter, 23 Republicans and 40 Democrats requested that the GLRI be fully funded.

For more updates on the GLRI and Great Lakes restoration funding, follow the Great Lakes Commission on Twitter and Facebook.

Beth Wanamaker manages communications for the Great Lakes Commission, which works on behalf of the Great Lakes states and provinces to protect and enhance the region’s economic prosperity and environmental health. To learn more about the GLC visit

What Happens at IISD Experimental Lakes Area During the Winter?

By Sumeep Bath, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

Lee Hrenchuk snowmobile Experimental Lakes Area
IISD-ELA Researcher Lee Hrenchuk rides a snowmobile at the research site. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

It‘s no secret that the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) is remote. The research site, operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, is comprised of 58 lakes and their watersheds and located in a sparsely populated region of northwestern Ontario, Canada.

The facility’s remoteness is the reason the location was originally selected almost 50 years ago. It’s only by ensuring the lakes on which we experiment are pristine and untouched by other human activity that we can ensure our results are based on us, and us alone, manipulating those lakes.

The images you might recognize of the site are in glorious summer, with sun reflecting off the lakes, beautiful sunsets and researchers basking in the heat. But the IISD-ELA is open and functioning 365 days a year.

While most of the freshwater science, fish work, tours and educational programming take place during the official summer research season, researchers and facility managers are at the site during icy and bitter northwestern Ontario winters as well.

experimental lakes from above
One of IISD-ELA’s experimental lakes from above. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

What are we doing out there? First, we collect data for our Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which includes meteorological, hydrological, water quality, and fisheries information from five IISD-ELA lakes and their watersheds. This dataset has been unbroken since 1968, even when the site was threatened with closure. We work on various data, ranging from the oxygen and temperature profiles of the lakes to the depth of the snow and the ice, and use this control data to compare the results between lakes and monitor changes over longer periods of times, such as the effects of climate change.

To physically capture the samples to generate this data, we snowmobile out onto the lakes, set up a contraption akin to a hut for ice fishing, use an electric or manual auger to break through the ice, and get the sample through the newly formed hole.

lake sampling in the winter
IISD-ELA researchers undertake lake sampling in the winter. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We also track vital meteorological data at the site throughout the year for Environment and Climate Change Canada, so our meteorological site needs to be tended to daily. In winter we can service our equipment and make any necessary repairs and potential upgrades to the site as well.

Where do the other IISD-ELA researchers go and hibernate for the winter? They can mostly be found in Winnipeg, Canada, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s headquarters, working on and analyzing results collected during the summer, writing up research, and catching up on emails (which can pile up when you’re working in the field).

IISD-ELA’s doors also stay open for its perennial educational outreach program. In 2016, 12 courageous high school students from Winnipeg’s St John’s-Ravenscourt School braved an IISD-ELA March to take their Winter Survival Course at our research site.  Pauline Gerrard, our deputy director, worked with the school’s staff to arrange three days of survival skill building as the students learned how to build quinzhees (a shelter made by hollowing out a large pile of snow); survive a night outdoors; transport themselves through the snow; and read and understand the weather.

At the same time, the students are exposed to the world-class, unique freshwater science that takes place at the research site and broaden their skill sets as we showed them hydrological tasks on Lake 239. The course proved such a success that more intrepid explorers from St John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out to camp to take the course last month.

With the arrival of spring, IISD-ELA’s fourth research season will expand as the regular researchers and staff return to camp.

Be sure to visit to stay up to date with all the new research and education and outreach opportunities at the world’s only whole-lake experimentation research site.

Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

Great Lakes Water Levels Expected to Stay Above Long-Term Average

(See also: “Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River“)

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

chicago coastline lake michigan
Extremely high water levels can cause erosion and increase flood risks in coastal areas, such as along the Chicago coastline off Lake Michigan. Levels are not expected to be high enough to significantly increase those risks in the coming months, however. Credit: L.S. Gerstner

Water levels on the Great Lakes are likely to remain above the long-term average through the spring and summer, according to forecasts assembled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the US Army Corps of Engineers. But none of the Great Lakes are expected to reach record high water levels set mostly in the 1980s or 1950s.

While each lake is unique, they all tend to follow a similar cycle based on seasonal changes. Water levels typically reach their seasonal low during the winter months before increasing in the spring due to snowmelt and precipitation. Water levels tend to peak during the summer months, before beginning to drop in the fall and early winter.

There are three main factors that impact lake water levels, said Drew Gronewold, physical scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: the precipitation over the lakes, evaporation of water on the lakes into vapor, and the runoff that comes into the lakes.

These variables, in turn, are affected by changes in air and water temperatures. For example, Gronewold said the timing of big runoff pulses is dependent on the amount of snow building up in the winter months and when it melts in the spring.

A water level decline in the fall is generally driven by evaporation, as air temperatures drop while surface water temperatures are still relatively warm. While water temperatures were relatively warm during the fall and winter months of 2016-2017 – leading to a lack of ice cover – evaporation amounts have been typical for this time of year due to a relatively mild winter air temperatures, Gronewold said.

These recent conditions, coupled with historical data, lead agencies to expect the water level rise to remain fairly typical this spring and into the summer. As water levels are already above their long-term average for this time of year, researchers expect that they’ll remain above average in the coming months, Gronewold explained.

There is still plenty of uncertainty, he added, as the amount of snow on the ground is less than it has been in some recent winters. It’s also difficult to predict continental-wide meteorological and climate patterns that impact Great Lakes weather patterns and temperatures. These can range from an El Niño effect like the one seen in the winter of 2015-2016 or a “polar vortex” that hit the region in the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. This uncertainty is expressed as a range of possible water levels in the forecasts released by the US Army Corps and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Great Lakes water levels also can be influenced by human management. Hydropower plants and a gated dam on the St. Marys River are used to manage outflows from Lake Superior into Lake Michigan-Huron, while a hydropower plant on the St. Lawrence River is used to manage outflows from Lake Ontario. Outflows through these structures are managed binationally by boards and according to orders and criteria established by the IJC. Nonetheless, the control of water flows through these lakes is limited, and weather conditions and water supplies remain the most significant factor affecting water levels.

Water levels are measured based on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. Agencies have been measuring lake levels since the 1860s, with more reliable levels going back as far as 1918. They base the lakes’ long-term average water levels on that information.

“We expect a range of water level conditions depending on water supplies,” said Jacob Bruxer, senior water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “There’s a lot of variability and uncertainty in weather and water supply forecasts, particularly when looking beyond a few weeks’ time, so we don’t try to forecast any specific trends and instead consider a full range of water supply scenarios that could be expected.”

According to recent forecasts, through September 2017 Lake Superior is likely to remain at or above seasonal averages, with a small chance of falling below its long-term average in July. There is less uncertainty for the spring months; water levels were about 5.5 inches (0.14 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March, and by May that range could be between 2.7 inches to 10 inches above the average (0.07 meters to 0.27 meters). By September, water levels could be as high as 1 foot (0.3 meters) above the long-term monthly average for Superior.

low water levels grand traverse bay
Low water levels can limit boat access to the water – as seen with these docks off Grand Traverse Bay in Michigan – and cause shipping problems in the Great Lakes. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Lake Michigan-Huron, considered as one lake hydrologically, was about 9.4 inches (0.24 meters) above the March long-term average by the end of the month. By September, Michigan-Huron is expected to remain above the long-term average, in a range of 1-16 inches (0.02-0.4 meters). Gronewold said Michigan-Huron saw water levels fall slightly more during the fall months of 2016 than is typical, but that is unlikely to make a discernible difference during this spring and summer.

Higher-than-average water levels are anticipated on Lake Erie, which has seen water levels on the rise in recent months, reaching more than 17 inches (0.44 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March. Water levels are expected to continue to remain above average this spring, before starting to fall around June to a range of 3.9-16 inches above average (0.10-0.41 meters).

Lake Ontario has a slight chance of being just barely below its long-term average going into summer, but will more likely be above it by up to 15 inches (0.38 meters). The forecasted peak is in May, when water levels could be 3.9-21 inches above average (0.10-0.55 meters). Water levels are then expected to fall at about the same degree as they usually do, according to the long-term average.

The US Army Corps publishes 12-month forecasts for Lakes Erie, Huron-Michigan and Superior, as well as Lake St. Clair, based on current conditions and similar historical weather data. Uncertainty grows substantially more than six months out, but most outcomes for Lakes Erie and Michigan-Huron suggest a greater likelihood of continued higher-than-average water levels through the year. Lake Superior also has a better chance of higher-than-average water levels, but faces a substantial possibility of being below that long-term average, too.

(See also: “Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River“)

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

Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Levels Rise Following April Rains

By Jacob Bruxer, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

A series of storm events passed through the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system from April 4-10, resulting in significant precipitation across the region. Some eastern parts of the Lake Ontario basin received as much as 80 millimeters (3.2 inches), while areas around the St. Lawrence River near Montreal saw as much as 90 mm (3.5 inches) during the same series of events.

Total precipitation accumulation, April 4-10. Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada
Flooding near Rideau River, Ottawa, Ontario, on April 10. Credit: David Fay, IJC

With the ground already fully saturated, the recent rain, coupled with snowmelt in some areas, resulted in high amounts of runoff and rapidly increasing streamflows across the basin. Flood warnings were issued by many agencies in Canada and the US, and many reports of localized flooding have since been received.

Daily Lake Ontario levels. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Daily Lake Ontario levels. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

The wet conditions have resulted in rapidly rising water levels throughout the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River system. Lake Ontario’s level has risen approximately 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) since April 4, increasing the risk of storm damages and leading to concerns among many lake riparians.

Daily St. Lawrence River levels at Lake St. Louis. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Daily St. Lawrence River levels at Lake St. Louis. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Downstream of Lake Ontario on the St. Lawrence River, levels at Lake St. Louis near Montreal, Quebec, have risen almost twice that amount during the same period, by about 37 centimeters (14.6 inches), due to rapidly rising Ottawa River and other local tributary flows. To prevent Lake St. Louis levels from rising further and causing more extensive damage, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board reduced outflows from Lake Ontario in accordance with Plan 2014, in effect since January.

Lake St. Louis flooding begins at a level of 22.19 m (72.80 feet), on April 17, 2008. Credit: Rob Caldwell, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Lake St. Louis flooding begins at a level of 22.19 m (72.80 feet), on April 17, 2008. Credit: Rob Caldwell, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Plan 2014 sets flows to balance the risk of flood damages, both on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River downstream, by keeping the level of Lake St. Louis below a given threshold for a corresponding Lake Ontario level. As the level of Lake Ontario rises, the threshold level on Lake St. Louis also rises, allowing more water to be released from Lake Ontario.

Recent water levels of Lake Ontario and Lake St. Louis in comparison to Plan 2014’s tiered “F-limit” rule. Plan 2014 prescribes outflows from Lake Ontario that attempt to balance the impacts of high levels both upstream on Lake Ontario and downstream on the St. Lawrence River. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board
Recent water levels of Lake Ontario and Lake St. Louis in comparison to Plan 2014’s tiered “F-limit” rule. Plan 2014 prescribes outflows from Lake Ontario that attempt to balance the impacts of high levels both upstream on Lake Ontario and downstream on the St. Lawrence River. Credit: International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

However, it’s important to note that while Plan 2014 tries to balance these impacts, it cannot and does not eliminate the risk that high levels may occur during periods of extreme weather like we’ve experienced recently. In fact, no regulation plan can do so.

To illustrate the limitations of regulation, consider that it would have taken an increase in outflow of more than 6,000 cubic meters per second (211,900 cubic feet per second) above the average flow since April 4 of 7,010 cubic meters per second (247,600 cubic feet per second) to have maintained Lake Ontario at a stable level. A flow increase of that magnitude would be nearly impossible to achieve, physically. It also would cause levels at Lake St. Louis to rise more than 1 m (3 feet), resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the lower St. Lawrence River.

Extremely high water levels are a concern to all riparians throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. While impossible to avoid entirely, balancing the risk of high levels and associate impacts, both upstream and downstream, is a key aspect of Plan 2014.

Jacob Bruxer is the alternate regulation representative of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board and senior water resources engineer at the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Regulation Office, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Cornwall, Ontario.