Code Blue: Great Lakes Water Needs a Doctor

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

water quality buoy monitoring epa
An EPA Water Quality Monitoring Buoy, which collects live water quality data, providing valuable information to continue the monitoring of pollution and the health of Great Lakes waters. Credit: EPA

Imagine waking up one morning to hear news that your city is under a “do not drink” advisory, or receiving a text from your local government to remain indoors because of a toxic release at the local chemical plant. What would you do; how would you feel?

Unfortunately, the above scenarios aren’t fiction; they already occur. Great Lakes beaches get closed, drinking water advisories are issued and some fish are unsafe to eat. One of the starkest examples of this occurred in 2014, when Toledo, Ohio, a city of nearly 300,000 people, and many of its suburbs were under a “do not drink” advisory for three days due to high microcystin levels in western Lake Erie as a result of extensive harmful algal blooms. This emergency impacted nearly 500,000 people. Serious water quality events also occurred in Walkerton, Ontario, where seven people died and 2,300 fell ill in 2000 due to high levels of E.coli bacteria in their water supply. Similar dangerous scenarios occur basinwide in rural and urban communities. Many First Nations communities in Canada are plagued with boil water advisories.

It’s no secret the Great Lakes have been severely impacted by human development. However, more than 35 million citizens in the US and Canada rely on the lakes for drinking water, food and recreation. The importance of protecting human health from preventable hazards cannot be overlooked.

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement highlights the importance of maintaining the quality of human health in the Great Lakes basin. But the Agreement doesn’t have dedicated human health annexes addressing activities associated with the objectives of drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters. The IJC believes there should be a greater focus on protecting human health through these objectives.

The IJC’s first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report states, “The IJC has consistently expressed concern about the need to increase attention to the human health implications of the quality of Great Lakes waters. One of the most vital concerns of the public is the safety or risk to human health or exposure to Great Lakes contaminants through fish consumption, drinking water and swimming.”

Year-after-year, water quality issues continue to affect millions of Great Lakes citizens. For example, the third-largest algal bloom occurred in Lake Erie in 2017. While this didn’t result in the drinking water advisories witnessed in 2014, city drinking water supplies were still impacted. When the algal blooms die and decompose they create dead zones of low oxygen, causing the water to emit a noxious odor and  kill fish. Toledo’s municipal drinking water system, for example, has used multiple preventative measures  including treating the water at the intake with potassium permanganate to oxidize algae and ensure drinking water quality.

cyanobacteria bloom lake erie intake
Cyanobacterial bloom at a drinking water intake in Lake Erie. Credit: EPA.

To reduce human health risks from drinking water contamination, the TAP report recommends that both governments protect source water supplies for drinking water, rather than simply treating the water after it is withdrawn. Source water is a supply of water eventually used to withdraw drinking water. Ontario measures data at source water locations and reports if they meet Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standards at more than 450 drinking water systems in Ontario. However, the US does not have a similar program to track and monitor source water.

Another threat to water quality and human health occurs from effects of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). CSOs have major health and economic impacts, resulting in increased treatment costs to drinking water supplies and beach closures in order to protect humans from dangerous pathogens. The IJC recommends zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes and its connecting waters.

recommendations drinking water great lakes
IJC TAP recommendations on drinking water. Credit: IJC.

The Great Lakes also are a source of food and recreation for millions of anglers. But, every Great Lake has some type of fish consumption advisory. Harmful substances like mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have entered the lakes for decades, where they persist and contaminate species throughout the food web. Better communication of fish consumptions advisories is needed throughout the Great Lakes, particularly for populations who eat a lot of Great Lakes fish or those who are at greater risk, such as women of child-bearing age or young children. Major communication discrepancies need to be addressed. A 2005 study found that Caucasian residents were six times more likely to be aware of state fish consumption advisories compared to their African American neighbors. The IJC concludes in its TAP report:  “An understanding of knowledge gaps in advisories along with message refinement and alternative outreach efforts are needed to increase compliance with fish consumption guidelines, particularly among subpopulations.”

graphic contaminants fish consumption advisories
Graphic highlighting the main contaminates that cause fish consumption advisories in each of the Great Lakes and IJC TAP recommendations relating to fish consumption. Credit: EPA/IJC

The Great Lakes have 10,900 miles (17,549 km) of coastline. Recreation is a vital part of the region’s culture and economy. Visitors who frequent beaches for swimming and boating contribute to local communities by purchasing goods and services. If beaches are closed due to pollution, local businesses are the first to feel the impacts. The opportunity to enjoy the lakes is a key element of the quality of life for residents throughout the region.

An Agreement objective states that the Great Lakes “should allow for swimming and other recreational use, unrestricted by environmental quality concerns,” yet studies show adverse health effects associated with recreation in Great Lakes waters polluted by human and animal waste. The IJC found in its TAP report that Great Lakes beaches are open 96 percent of the season in the United States and 78 percent of the season in Canada. But inconsistent monitoring of beaches for their safety, as well as posting warnings or closings, is endangering human health in some areas.

Extreme weather conditions and climate change also exacerbate the impacts of pollution on Great Lakes beaches. According to Martin Denecke, director of Youth Recreation and Senior Services for Hamburg, New York, beaches have been closed frequently for swimming, “The creeks that run in to the lake are flowing faster, some of the creeks are polluted so those pollutants get into the water and that affects the quality of the water,” Denecke told a local TV station.

The discharge of industrial chemicals also threatens public health and the tourism economy. In April 2017, a steel plant near the Indiana Dune National Lakeshore caused several beach closures after 346 pounds of chromium spilled into Lake Michigan. Beaches near the plant, including those in the town of Ogden Dunes and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, were closed for almost a week.

While the IJC does not include specific recommendations in the TAP report about safe swimming, it concludes that “governments at all levels must strive to further improve safety and beach health” by standardizing monitoring and adopting consistent indicators of beach health that will “improve reporting, protect beaches, and increase public safety when using Great Lakes beaches.”

skip rocks lake erie pa
Father and son, Steve and Tyler Kaminski, skip rocks on Lake Erie at Fisherman’s Beach in North East, Pennsylvania. Credit: Michael Mezzacapo

Finally, the IJC also finds in its TAP report that improving reporting on domestic and binational actions related to drinking water, recreation and fish consumption objectives by both countries would promote better analysis of the progress toward achieving the related Agreement objectives.

For example, an improved and more comprehensive collection of health data could be assembled around watersheds or ecosystems, rather than political boundaries. By using a broader, more inclusive approach, this method would support a more thorough analysis of the connections between water quality and human health, and be more likely to prompt appropriate action. By creating easily accessible visual products which show the scale and distribution of impacts, such as beach closings, the public  could be better informed and thus more likely to follow warning and closure guidelines.

Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Make It Mandatory: Voluntary Programs Aren’t Enough to Stop Lake Erie Algae

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

stormwater great lakes tap
Untreated stormwater can flow into the Great Lakes, bringing runoff, high in nutrients, along for the ride. Credit: Annis Water Resources Institute-GVSU

While commending governments for establishing targets to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie, the IJC concluded in its first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report that the condition of water quality in Erie’s western basin is unacceptable.

In its 2014 Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report, the IJC recommended that governments use more regulatory mechanisms and certification standards on nutrient pollution as a way to accelerate progress in reducing the size and intensity of harmful algal blooms in the lake’s western basin. The TAP report, released Nov. 28, 2017, further recommends mandatory standards and controls, and states that over the past 10-15 years, governments at all levels have been focused on incentive-based and voluntary programs to reduce nutrient loadings. Other organizations such as the Alliance for Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council counter that these voluntary programs aren’t enough to reach the 40 percent nutrient pollution reductions that the governments agreed to target. Those groups – and the IJC – maintain that mandatory efforts are necessary to get harmful algal blooms under control, as 10-15 years of government supported voluntary measures haven’t resulted in meaningful improvements to Lake Erie’s water quality.

The federal governments, as well as the states and provinces that link to Lake Erie either directly or through tributaries – Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana – have to come up with domestic action plans on how they’re going to help reach those 40 percent reduction targets. Some of those governments have already put draft plans forward, including Michigan, Ontario, Indiana and Ohio, but a reliance on voluntary programs in those three states and Ontario leaves the IJC skeptical that they can reach those targets as is.

noaa nutrients lake erie
Nutrients such as phosphorus entering western Lake Erie are causing harmful algal blooms to spring up each year in late summer. This photo is from Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

This isn’t to say the IJC doesn’t find merit in these voluntary programs; the TAP reports that promoting incentive-based and voluntary best practices are a critical component to improving the health of Lake Erie. But the domestic action plans should include enforceable standards and timetables for reaching reduction goals, and measurable methods to quantify whether the state or provincial governments are hitting those benchmarks. This may include restoring lost wetlands or constructing new ones, which are an effective way to filter out nutrients before they reach the lake.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t limited to the western basin, where phosphorus and other nutrients enter the lake primarily from the Maumee River, and to a lesser extent the Detroit River and the Thames River via Lake St. Clair. Although the problem is much worse in the western basin, pockets of nearshore nutrient and algae problems can be found around the lake. The TAP finds that a major source of nutrients (such as phosphorus) entering western Lake Erie are agricultural operations, including fertilizer applications and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Legislative measures to address these sources have been limited; Ohio has passed legislation to keep manure and fertilizer from being placed in winter months to reduce runoff from CAFOs and farms, but there are still thousands of animal feeding operations in Michigan, Ontario and Ohio that aren’t required to get any kind of permit. The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board has a project underway to look at different manure regulations throughout the Lake Erie region, with a report expected in early 2018.

harmful algal bloom maumee
A harmful algal bloom spreads into the Maumee River in 2017. Credit: NOAA GLERL, Aerial Associates Photography Inc./Zachary Haslick

While agriculture is the primary contributor, failing and leaking septic systems and urban runoff are   important sources of nutrient pollution, too. The IJC recommends governments require periodic testing, maintenance and replacement of septic systems in Canada and the United States.  Urban nutrient runoff from pipes has declined over the past 40 years thanks to a concerted effort to upgrade sewer systems and close off other major direct single sources. But rainstorms and snowmelt can cause sewer overflows and nutrients from lawn care and construction activities to enter waterways. The IJC recommends the promotion and usage of green infrastructure (like rain gardens, filter strips, and engineered wetlands) to continue reducing runoff in those areas.

Finally, the IJC recommends that Ohio follow Michigan’s lead in declaring western Lake Erie impaired under the US Clean Water Act, which would require a tri-state maximum daily load of phosphorus be developed for those two states and Indiana, under US Environmental Protection Agency oversight. This would provide a mechanism to determine how much phosphorus can enter the water system without compromising water quality, and ultimately help restore the lake.

For its part, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Science Advisory Board have been studying nutrient pollution issues in Lake Erie. These projects include comparing the influence of manure versus fertilizer, reviewing various policies on CAFOs and how progress toward nutrient reduction goals can be measured, as well as studying the link between nearshore nutrient enrichment and offshore nutrient declines.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t improving, and more needs to be done to help the lake get healthy again.

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

Understanding and Solving Lake Erie’s Nutrient Problems

By Jeffrey M. Reutter, retired director of Ohio Sea Grant

lake erie landsat
A large phytoplankton bloom in western Lake Erie on Sept. 26, 2017. Credit: Landsat 8/NASA

Lake Erie is the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes. Yet it receives the most nutrients of any of the five lakes, from sources like urban and agricultural runoff. In turn, it produces the most fish of any of the lakes. But nutrients also fuel the growth of the wrong kind of algae in Lake Erie, particularly in the western basin of the lake.

These algae, called cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, have contributed to large “dead zones” where there isn’t enough dissolved oxygen for fish and aquatic organisms to survive. The dead zones form in the cold bottom layer of the Central basin between Sandusky, Ohio, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Similar problems occur in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Saginaw Bay, Michigan, and in many other lakes in the US, Canada and around the world.

These problems are not new to Lake Erie. We faced these same problems in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) between the US and Canada was originally signed in April 1972, and allowed US and Canadian scientists to reach agreement that excessive phosphorus loading was driving blooms and dead zones, and set targets for total phosphorus (TP) loads to Lake Erie—11,000 metric tons annually.

TP is composed of particulate phosphorus (PP) attached to soil particles, and dissolved phosphorus, most of which is dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP), or phosphorus dissolved in the water. PP is about 25 percent bioavailable (usable by plants and algae) while DRP is 100 percent bioavailable.

A reduction to a 11,000-metric ton target for total phosphorus under the Agreement was reached in the mid-1980s and the lake responded by becoming the “Walleye Capital of the World.” Coastal economic development and tourism grew rapidly. Today, tourism in the eight Ohio counties that border Lake Erie supports almost 124,000 jobs and has an annual economic value in excess of US$14 billion.

Today, the annual load of TP to Lake Erie is still close to the 11,000-metric ton target, but the amount of DRP in that load has increased by 132 percent. This is the primary driver of harmful algal blooms (HABs) we are seeing today. Elevated numbers of cyanobacteria in the Western Lake Erie basin began to reappear in the late 1990s and have grown rapidly since 2002 with the five worst blooms occurring since 2011.

In May 2015, the Objectives and Targets Task Team of Annex 4 of the 2012 GLWQA issued a final report calling for a 40 percent reduction from 2008 loads in spring TP and DRP loading to the Western basin to address HABs and a 40 percent reduction in Western and Central basin water year loading to address the dead zone.

harmful algal bloom western basin lake erie sept 25 2017
A harmful algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie on Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: Aerial Associates Photography Inc. by Zachary Haslick/NOAA-GLERL

These reductions are designed to reduce the severity of HABs, resulting in HABs like the small blooms observed in 2004 and 2012 or smaller, nine years out of 10, or 90 percent of the time. The reductions also are designed to raise the average dissolved oxygen concentration in the dead zone of the Central basin to above 2.0 mg/l (the definition of hypoxic conditions). The US and Canadian governments approved the recommendations in February 2016.

Each of the states surrounding Lake Erie, the province of Ontario, and both countries are currently working on Domestic Action Plans that describe the actions they will take to reach the 40 percent reduction target. A team of scientists prepared a 14-page white paper that summarizes research results and identifies possible strategies to aid managers, decision-makers, and elected officials in developing the best domestic action plans.

The white paper notes that the Maumee and Sandusky rivers are the largest tributary loaders of phosphorus to Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, and 87 percent of this phosphorus is coming from nonpoint sources, of which agriculture is the dominant land use. Mean TP concentrations in these rivers (0.42 mg/l) are about 30 times greater than in the Detroit River (0.014 mg/l), and the Detroit River concentration is not high enough to cause a HAB. While the Detroit is not a major driver for Western basin HABs, the Task Team identified it as one of 14 priority tributaries, and its approximate 2,500-ton load is a contributor to the Central basin dead zone.

Between 2002 and 2013, 70-90 percent of the phosphorus and nitrogen discharged from the Maumee River occurred during the 10 largest storm events each year, according to an article in the Journal of Great Lakes Research by David Baker from Heidelberg University and several co-authors.

According to the white paper, it appears that the four most important sets of actions for farmers to reduce nutrient loading are:

  • Soil-test-informed application rates (i.e., following tri-state guidelines and only applying the phosphorus that is needed)
  • inserting fertilizer into the soil, as opposed to applying it above the soil or mulch layer using techniques known as banding or in-furrow with seed
  • working to control erosion (e.g., filter strips, grass waterways, blind inlets)
  • working to manage and minimize the amount of water leaving a field (e.g., drainage water management).

There are three common mechanisms that can be used to promote adoption of specific management practices:

  • Outreach and education to encourage voluntary adoption of recommendations
  • incentives to encourage voluntary adoption of recommendations.
  • regulations to mandate action.

Voluntary adoption of recommended practices will not occur unless outreach focuses specifically on building farmer’s confidence in their ability to implement a set of cost-effective solutions.

Survey data in the Maumee River watershed indicates that about a third of farmers (equivalent to about one-third of the acres in the basin) are engaged in best practices or are willing to do so, another third are hesitant but considering best practices, and the final third are unlikely to change their practices in the short-term (specific numbers depend on the practice). Those least willing to take additional action to reduce nutrient loss tend to be closer to retirement, and/or farm more rented acreage.

Results from ongoing watershed modeling efforts indicate that there are multiple pathways to reach the 40 percent P reduction target by packaging groups of best management practices together. Each of these pathways typically requires a total adoption level of 50 to 75 percent for each of the practices within the package. A good deal of action will be required to reach those adoption levels as current adoption rates for recommended practices range from 20 to 50 percent on average.

Survey data indicate that targeting those individuals who are currently willing to consider the practice or focusing on the larger farms may be sufficient to achieve necessary adoption levels. Farms greater than 50 acres represent 45 percent of the farms, but 97 percent of the total acres. Over half of the land that is planted is rented, raising the importance of conservation on rented and owned land.

Dr. Jeff Reutter is former director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab at Ohio State University. He retired in November 2017 but continues to participate on advisory groups concerned with protecting Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, including serving as US Co-Chair of the Task Team.

Sometimes, It’s Hard to Pick Just One Watermark

By Jeff Kart, IJC

David Ullrich has devoted his life to Great Lakes issues.

He’s also contributed at least three times to the Watermark Project by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. The group has partnered with IJC to document personal connections to the five lakes via video and written submissions.

Ullrich serves many roles in the basin. He’s US chair of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, and has contributed to policymaking in the freshwater seas in roles with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations.

Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t choose just one lake when recording a Watermark.

david ullrich watermark
David Ullrich

“My Watermark is Lake Michigan, but like with a family you can never pick your favorite child …” he says in one Watermark, recalling improvements due to a cleanup of contaminated sediment from the Sheyboygan River in Wisconsin.

In another Watermark, Ullrich focuses on growing up on Cochran Lake in Wisconsin, part of the Lake Superior watershed.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the lake was suffering from serious problems with algal blooms and excessive weed growth. “It bothered me a great deal that my lake was getting contaminated,” he remembers. Ullrich worked with a microbiology professor to sample the lake, and discovered fecal coliform and other contaminants, which led to cabin owners replacing their septic systems.

Finally, Ullrich talks more about what got him interested in environmental work.

He majored in English in undergraduate school and thought he’d be a teacher, but tried it, practiced it and decided he didn’t really like it. Spurred in part by a Time magazine cover story on the Cuyahoga River fire, Ullrich decided to pursue environmental law “which didn’t really exist at the time.”

He graduated on a Saturday afternoon in May 1973 from the University of Wisconsin, and two days later was working for the EPA in Chicago.

“The Great Lakes are one of the wonders of creation,” he says. “I think we just have to have a tremendous amount of respect for that which is created for us.”

Do you have a Watermark (or more) to tell? Look for recording stations at upcoming IJC and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper events, and find out how to submit your own at the Watermark Project website.

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

Getting the Word Out on Great Lakes Science

By Jeff Kart, IJC

The IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board includes two committees, on Research Coordination and Science Priority.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of research to coordinate and science to prioritize.

Under the Science Priority Committee, there are five work groups, one of which focuses on Information Coordination and Flow. The goal of the work group’s project is to identify and assess programs and platforms that collect, deliver, and use data and information in the Great Lakes to support management and policy decisions. This is intended to help improve the flow of data and information to decision makers.

The committee recently completed its report on “Information Coordination and Flow in the Great Lakes Basin.” Some highlights of the findings are contained in an infographic below. The full report is available here.

information coordination flow great lakes basin science advisory board infographic