Although water quality in the Great Lakes is generally good, Canada and the US still lag behind in meeting goals to identify Chemicals of Mutual Concern and develop strategies to address pollution.
All of the Great Lakes have been degraded by human and industrial activities. The IJC has for many years called on governments to strengthen efforts to identify and stop these chemicals from entering the lakes.
Chemical pollution comes in many forms, from tiny invisible particles in the air or water that aren’t detectable by human senses to toxic substances like mercury from power plants in and outside the region. These harmful chemicals can pose risks to human health and affect drinking water quality.
Many chemicals build up over time (bioaccumulate) in the food web. Substances like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can remain in the Great Lakes ecosystem for long periods despite being banned by Canada and the US several decades ago. The good news is these banned substances are slowly diminishing over time in these ecosystems.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1978 required Canada and the U.S. to prohibit the discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts and virtually eliminate the discharge of all persistent toxic substances. However, these goals have yet to be met. The list of hazardous and potentially hazardous substances created at the time included hundreds of substances and chemicals.
Over time, both governments have passed bans or regulations to reduce and eliminate production and use of toxic substances like PCBs, but new substances are continuously created that might pose health risks to humans, fish, and wildlife.
Canada regulates chemicals through the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), adopted in 2006. Canada has evaluated nearly 23,000 chemicals which were in commercial use during the previous two decades. That process identified about 4,300 chemical substances that will require additional testing or evaluation. The CMP seeks to address the safety of all 4,300 substances by 2020.
The updated 2012 GLWQA continues to call for both countries to virtually eliminate all Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs). CMCs are substances from human sources that pose a threat to human health and the environment. This is different from approaches in past versions of the GLWQA where a long list of hazardous substances was used.
As of 2018, only eight chemicals or categories of chemicals have been designated as CMCs. Public concern has been expressed about the slow pace of the CMC process, and the IJC shares these concerns. In its First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC recommends governments accelerate work on binational strategies for elimination or continual reduction of CMCs with clear timelines set and met for strategy development and implementation. The IJC also recommends the governments implement the GLWQA principles of zero discharge, virtual elimination, accountability and public engagement, as well as Extended Producer Responsibility. The IJC further believes strategies to reduce pollutants in Great Lakes waters must contain clear timelines for the implementation of actions.
The IJC concluded in its TAP report that expanding and expediting the process of identifying more CMCs, and developing clear binational strategies to reduce or eliminate toxic substances are needed to meet each countries’ GLWQA obligations.
Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
Since the 1970s, Great Lakes researchers have had a friend to help them learn more about chemical pollutants in the waters and food chain: the herring gull. With old contaminants phased out and new ones entering the system, sampling these sentinels of the skies is more valuable than ever.
The Canadian Wildlife Service – part of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) – has collected gull eggs from 15 sites across the Great Lakes basin each spring since its Great Lakes Herring Gull Monitoring Program began in 1974, according to Robert Letcher, an ECCC research scientist on chemistry and ecotoxicology.
“The herring gull was chosen given its presence and breadth of nesting sites across the Great Lakes,” Letcher said. “And because the herring gull sits atop the aquatic food web – it’s a fish-eating bird, a top predator – it’s a good indicator species, or sentinel, on what’s getting into the aquatic food web from a chemical standpoint.”
This binational effort by Canadian and US scientists to sample gull eggs has proven to be a cornerstone indicator of Great Lakes health. A State of the Great Lakes 2017 report from Canada and the U.S. used herring gull eggs as an indicator for pollutants, with its data echoed in the IJC’s first Triennial Assessment Report.
Researchers check gull eggs for contaminants passed down by bird parents (a process known as bioaccumulation), and can gauge the presence of bioaccumulated contaminants in species up the food web. They also look at shell thickness, check for embryo mortality and fetal deformity, get an idea of how many gulls are using a particular nesting site – all indicators of reproductive health – and use atomic isotopes to understand how gull diets have changed over time.
Researchers then compare these factors between colony sites. Since the sample sites and lab work have been largely consistent over the course of the program, Letcher said, a comprehensive archive through time has taken shape. The samples are held long-term in the National Wildlife Specimen Bank in Ottawa where they can be sub-sampled for other chemicals that may become more prominent in the years after they were collected.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has assisted the Canadian Wildlife Service and ECCC in collecting eggs from some colonies throughout the life of the program. More recently, it worked with the state of Michigan to add an additional 10 sites on the US side of the lakes, said Lisa Williams, environmental contaminants branch chief and biologist with the USFWS Ecological Services Field Office in Michigan. Samples from the United States are typically sent to the same ECCC lab to keep the analysis and scientific methodology as consistent as possible, and also held in Ottawa. Funding from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been critical in expanding the number of sites and chemicals analyzed.
Legacy contaminants that were on the scene when the program first started, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or DDT, have long since been banned, and concentrations saw steady decreases in the late 1970s before flattening out in the past decade, Letcher said. Contaminants phased out more recently such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) have shown signs in recent years of decreases in herring gulls, due to the time lag in the chemicals moving through the system.
On the flip side, mercury amounts haven’t decreased much since monitoring started in the 1970s, Letcher said. And with a constant churn of new chemicals entering the lakes all the time, more contaminants are being examined using the herring gull eggs.
These include polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and related chemicals. PFOS were phased out by producer 3M in the early 2000s but are still produced elsewhere in the world, and as such concentrations haven’t dropped in gull eggs over time, Letcher said. The urban landscape still contains large amounts of PFOS and PFAS chemicals that are getting into the lakes and food web.
Some sampling sites have been dropped from research due to birds abandoning them because the location has degraded, such as Fighting Island on the Detroit River, or from natural changes in nesting preferences, Letcher said. But other colonies, like those on the mouth of the River Raisin in Michigan, can see year-to-year swings in reproductive success, Williams said. Those sites continue to show indications of depressed immune systems in the gulls, even as legacy contaminants decrease. This suggests that with enough stressors in a given year, the birds won’t achieve as much success reproducing, Williams said.
Williams said research also suggests that herring gulls in contaminated areas may have descended from gulls who were more tolerant of these chemicals and thus were able to reproduce successfully, though that may have come at the cost of other aspects of their health.
“Herring gulls can be our canaries on the Great Lakes,” Williams said. “They can also help us learn, when compounds are being phased out, how rapidly the system can respond to that phase out, and when concentrations drop beneath the level of concern.
“The take-away message of this is not to release bioaccumulative chemicals into the environment.”
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Many of us don’t realize that when we buy a new couch, stove or computer, we may bring flame retardant chemicals into our homes.
Flame retardants have been used in a wide variety of commercial and consumer products since the 1970s, including electronic devices, plastics, mattresses, furniture and carpet. While one group of such chemicals – polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs – have been phased out in Canada and the United States due to negative impacts on the environment, other flame retardant chemicals are still used in both countries.
These substitute flame retardants often have been found to be just as toxic as the ones they replaced. In addition, imported products may still contain PBDEs. PBDEs are persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic to humans and the environment, and have been found in the Great Lakes at levels that could be harmful to human health and wildlife.
Efforts by Canada and the United States to phase out the manufacture and import of some PBDE chemicals and develop strategies to reduce their levels in the environment have been somewhat successful, as shown by declining concentrations of PBDEs in the Great Lakes environment. However, residual PBDE flame retardants are still present throughout the Great Lakes basin at higher levels than necessary to protect human and wildlife health. Substitute but still harmful flame retardants also are now building up in the environment.
Canada and the US governments designated PBDEs as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) in May 2016 under Annex 3 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This designation requires that a binational strategy be developed and implemented to prevent, control and monitor the chemical’s presence in the Great Lakes ecosystem.
The International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) has studied how to reduce the release of PBDEs into the Great Lakes and released its second report on polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in late January. While the first report, released by the Commission in November 2016, outlined elements of a successful binational control strategy as required under the Agreement, this second report proposes several actions for the Commission to consider recommending to the governments to address challenges in seeking safer alternatives to the use of PBDEs and other toxic chemicals as flame retardants.
In its second report to the Commission, the WQB recommends several actions to eliminate inputs of PBDEs and other toxic flame retardants into the Great Lakes environment (see infographic). These range from redesigning options to protect from flammability that do not use toxic substances to developing extended producer responsibility programs as a method to avoid the release of PBDEs and other flame retardants during production, use, recycling and disposal of products.
The WQB also is concerned that recycling products containing PBDEs or other toxic flame retardants will result in the new products, such as bottles and toys, unintentionally containing these toxic substances. The board recommends that governments and responsible industries explore ways to avoid this contamination of products made from recycled materials. The WQB also recommends that the public have easy access to information on whether a product they are buying contains unintended contamination by flame retardants.
The WQB concludes that public education is essential so that the next time we bring a new laptop or recycled products into our home, we know we’ve chosen those that don’t contain harmful flame retardant chemicals.
There is a long history of IJC involvement on flame retardants.
“The Commission is concerned that the number of chemicals being monitored to establish the chemical integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem is inadequate for that purpose. Of particular concern are many unmonitored chemicals, especially pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and high-volume chemicals, such as a new generation of biodegradable pesticides, which have the ability to dissolve in both water and fat and therefore often show unusual patterns of bioaccumulation and environmental degradation …
Many flame retardants are brominated organic compounds similar in structure to PCBs, and can have even greater toxicity than their chlorinated counterparts. Some have been appearing in waters and biota of the Great Lakes system where they have not been previously documented.”
The Canadian and US governments have each issued domestic action plans to combat Lake Erie’s algal bloom problem and reduce the flow of nutrients into the lake.
The governments hope to reduce the amount of nutrients – notably total phosphorus and soluble reactive phosphorus (a type mixed into water and readily usable by plants) – entering Lake Erie by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels by 2025. It’s an effort to reduce the size and intensity of algal blooms (including toxic cyanobacterial blooms) in the western basin and of hypoxic – or low-oxygen – zones in central Lake Erie.
To aid in this, each country has come up with a plan to reach that goal. The Canadian government developed and issued a singular joint plan with the province of Ontario, finalized and published in February following a public comment period in 2017. A United States plan summarizing federal and state actions was published in March, and is based in part on draft plans by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.
The plans identify actions each government can undertake to support phosphorus reduction efforts, along with areas where new legislation could strengthen efforts. They also commit Canada and the US to research phosphorus loading into Lake Erie’s eastern basin, and find out reductions the nations should target in the future to deal with excess Cladophora algae growth.
A Triennial Assessment of Progress report issued by the IJC in November included several recommendations to governments on the nutrient issue. It noted that blooms have worsened in recent years despite voluntary agricultural programs to reduce phosphorus loads. Both domestic action plans rely on voluntary programs and initiatives to reduce loads, with few mandatory measures.
the IJC finds that current knowledge is sufficient to justify immediate additional effort to reduce external loading of nutrients to Lake Erie. In particular, the IJC highlights dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP) as a primary concern and focuses on the Maumee River watershed as the highest priority for remedial action, recommending a 37 percent reduction for the spring period (March-June) compared to the 2007-2012 average.
The Canada-Ontario plan commits the province and federal government to improve watershed planning with stronger ties to municipalities, conservation authorities and indigenous communities to identify phosphorus sources and the best ways to reduce the amount reaching the water, and to restore wetlands and other natural barriers that can hold phosphorus back from the open waters of Lake Erie. The plan includes specific proposals to promote changes to wastewater management and infrastructure in urban areas, and for agricultural land practices.
The US plan echoes the Canadian plan in many respects, seeking out areas where new regulations will be needed, identifying where governments could beef up voluntary programs, and restoring streams and wetlands where possible. The plan notes there are new technologies that could help reduce phosphorus loads entering the water, and that more data needs to be collected on the more bioavailable forms of phosphorus – which could help identify potential sources. Some states have more work to do than others; while Michigan, Ohio and Indiana are working on reductions to the western and central basins of Lake Erie, Pennsylvania is contributing very little to the central basin’s nutrient pollution, and the US plan indicates the state expects its targets to be met without much trouble. New York has agricultural and municipal sources of phosphorus that can enter Lake Erie, but the action plan says not enough is entering the lake from the state to be impairing water quality; it nevertheless plans on reducing phosphorus loads.
On the urban side of things, most single-point sources for pollutants – such as water treatment plants or industrial sites – have already seen drastic reductions in phosphorus since the 1970s, leaving what’s known as “nonpoint sources.” These may be pollutants from sewer overflows, or waste washed into the water system during a storm.
Ontario is aiming to establish a legal effluent discharge limit of 0.5 milligrams per liter of total phosphorus from municipal wastewater treatment plants that push through 3.78 million liters of water each day by 2020. Ontario also will work with municipalities to upgrade those water treatment plants, reduce the number of combined sewer overflows through infrastructure improvements, and promote green infrastructure that can help reduce runoff. The communities of London and Leamington have specific goals to upgrade wastewater collection facilities, and for the former, separate the wastewater and storm sewer systems.
The US is aiming for upgrades and inexpensive optimization methods of water treatment plants to reduce phosphorus releases, alongside encouraging green infrastructure investments to reduce runoff from stormwater. The United States also wants to identify and correct failing home sewage treatment systems, which can leak phosphorus into surface and groundwater, incorporate watershed considerations into land use development planning, establish buffer zones to intercept runoff, and phase out residential phosphorus fertilizer applications.
Due to changes in agriculture in Ontario, the Canadian action plan says less hay and wheat is being grown on farmland. These cover crops can help keep soil and nutrients from running off into the water system during the spring melt. As part of its action plan, Canada wants to encourage farmers to plant cover crops to help hold the soil in place. The government also plans on expanding its promotion of voluntary best management practices to get farms to use several at once, where applicable. Ontario will work with communities to restore native wetlands and riparian habitats, focusing on areas where phosphorus loads are high and natural cover is low.
The US plan targets cover crops and crop rotation to reduce soil erosion, and promotes reductions in nutrient applications on frozen ground, saturated soils and prior to major rainfall – which Ontario is considering doing legislatively. Much of what’s in the US plan involves voluntary best management practices (albeit with continued evaluation of effectiveness), and no new regulations are being called for on the federal level. The plan notes that an estimated 99 percent of farms in the western Lake Erie basin are already using at least one conservation practice, and will need to implement multiple ones to make progress.
On the legislative side, Canada is working on changes to its Feeds Regulations that would remove minimum nutrient levels for livestock feed – in turn giving the industry more flexibility to decrease levels of phosphorus in animal feed where it makes sense.
On a federal level, the US has been working on a variety of research and modeling programs, as well as financial and planning assistance for conservation practices through the US Farm Bill and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. These can help local stakeholders and state governments as they work to achieve their respective phosphorus reduction goals.
Even with nutrient reduction efforts, government agencies will still be contending with climate change, which could bring changes to the frequency and severity of rainfall events that can wash more nutrients into the water system, new sources of phosphorus, and the amount of nutrients already in the lake. To contend with those factors, both nations follow “adaptive management” principles for their domestic action plans. What this means is that as knowledge of the ecosystem improves and as efforts get underway to bring down phosphorus loads, Ontario, the states, and the federal governments will regularly review the domestic action plans and adjust them accordingly.
An IJC Fertilizer Application report released in February found gaps in information gathering, policy and management that should be addressed to get a better handle on the nutrient issue. These could include changes to tilling and crop management and tile drainage in agricultural areas, and adjusting future phosphorus targets as the climate changes and potentially becomes wetter.
Should the reduced levels of phosphorus called for in the domestic actions be achieved, the governments hope to minimize hypoxic dead zones, drastically reduce bloom conditions similar or smaller to those seen in 2004 and 2012, and keep the biomass of cyanobacteria low enough that it won’t pose a threat to human or ecosystem health.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Projected changes to the Great Lakes region’s climate suggest milder winters will become the norm, bringing with them more rainfall. That’s going to put a strain on older infrastructure, leading to the possibility of additional combined sewer overflows and floods like those seen across the Great Lakes basin in late February 2018.
This year, a warm snap caused snowpack and ice cover to melt throughout the region. Several parts of the Great Lakes saw serious rainfall, exacerbating those issues. In older cities like Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Brantford, Ontario, these conditions led to combined sewer overflows. Communities there still have old pipes that combine stormwater from runoff of melting snow and rain and sewage waste from homes and businesses. In normal circumstances, all that water is treated and released. But when too much water enters at once, it can overwhelm a treatment plant and divert dirty water directly into rivers and lakes.
“It’s a chronic issue right across older communities,” said Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. “(And) when you have milder winters, what used to be snowpack now comes in as rain and then you get these floods very early in the season. We may need to get ready for that kind of thing more often.”
Schwartzel added that global climate change models suggest increasing air temperatures will lead to more energetic storms on average through 2050. A joint research team from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that would play out as more frequent, intense storms, particularly as rainfall during winter months. Summer precipitation could potentially decline or simply increase less compared to other seasons.
Climate change has been one driver for more frequent combined sewer overflows and flooding, but Schwartzel said another is readily overlooked: human development. This can further strain combined sewer systems in older cities with growing populations, such as Toronto, Ontario.
Sprawling growth into undeveloped areas has its own impacts. When the landscape is paved over and built upon, that reduces the permeable surface area where precipitation and snowmelt can seep into the ground. Water is then stuck on these hard surfaces until it can run into stormwater drains and potentially contribute to an overflow.
“Whenever you do get rainfall, you get these rapid runoffs,” Schwartzel said. “You get a flashy kind of watershed that you didn’t used to have.” At the same time, it means that in drier times, streams and rivers don’t have the same supply of groundwater to draw from, which also reduces water flows.
Cities Adapting With Green Infrastructure
With more frequent and intense storms and earlier snowmelts due to milder winters expected in the Great Lakes region, municipalities are turning to green infrastructure in response to increasing stormwater discharges , said hydrologist Ralph Haefner, deputy director of the US Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Water Science Center. Also known as “low impact development,” this might involve using permeable concrete, green rooftops, rain gardens, swales, and other methods that can reduce water runoff.
“A lot of urban planners want more green space, more open areas, and more trees – they’re underestimated in their value for stormwater control and reduction,” Haefner said. “It’s just thinking about how the environment can accept the water that’s supposed to be there. Rather than channeling it out when it rains, how can we utilize it on site? Can we grow plants with it?”
A growing number of municipalities are considering or implementing stormwater charges for property owners, too. Unlike traditional water bills based on how much water a property is using, the stormwater charge is based on how much runoff a property is contributing to the stormwater sewer system. For example, a parking lot owner may pay very little in a traditional water usage bill, but could see a bigger stormwater charge due to it being paved with asphalt.
The money from those stormwater charges can provide a reliable source of funding for storm-related infrastructure, Schwartzel said, including general maintenance to build out separated stormwater and wastewater sewer lines – mitigating the problem of combined sewer overflows. A separated stormwater line can still discharge without treatment in heavy runoff events, but there would be a smaller amount of pollutants entering the water system and a smaller likelihood of an overflow to begin with.
Haefner said some communities – Hamilton and Kingston in Ontario, and Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee – have opted to construct stormwater storage devices that can hold onto stormwater surges, allowing the water to slowly drain. That way, sewer systems aren’t overtaxed and those communities can avoid combined sewer overflows. These can be large underground tunnel systems or above-ground, reservoir-style “impoundments.”
Overflow Events Cause Public Health Dilemmas
Avoiding overflows is important not just to get around potential flooding, but for health and safety reasons. Haefner said that in conditions where there isn’t an overflow, a combination of stormwater and sanitary sewer discharge is treated before being discharged. But when a combined sewer overflow occurs, this can flush pathogens, viruses and toxic chemicals into rivers and lakes. With people using waterfronts in the Great Lakes region to swim or go boating, these can cause health risks that users aren’t always aware of. Ontario and US states require reporting sewer bypasses to the state and provincial governments, but historically these aren’t generally required to be reported to the public.
The US Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a rule requiring public notification of combined sewer overflows into the Great Lakes, specifically for entities seeking new permits or renewing a permit to discharge those into the lakes.
Schwartzel said Utilities Kingston recently developed a map to alert residents to releases of contaminated water due to storms and how long outflows from the sewer system will be running.
“When people are aware that we’re doing this to our waterfronts we all want to enjoy, these patches of the Great Lakes, they begin to see the connection between these (bypass) events and the lack of funding,” she said.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
We’ve dug into the archives and found several fitting examples of Watermarks, which have been recorded for years by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. These video and written vignettes help document what makes the lakes special to people, and lasting memories they have.
See below for samples of how pollution has inspired residents throughout the basin to get involved.
Joyce McClean of Toronto, Ontario, describes herself as a longtime environmentalist. McClean says “My ‘aha’ moment came in my teenage years when I realized how polluted the Great Lakes were becoming.”
She later became involved with Greenpeace and adds, “… the entire ecosystem is just so beautiful and most people are not connected to it in a way that I think we all should be because it’s such an important natural resource.”
Anne Brummit of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says she’s felt a calling to do something about the environment ever since 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated (and spearheaded by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson).
“… We need to respect these lakes – they’re powerful,” says Brummit, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons. “Other places have mountains, but we have our lakes.”
Natalie Robertson calls Lake Ontario “a source of great inspiration, wonderment – and concern” that fueled “my passion for nature, wildlife, and conservation.”
The IJC began partnering with LOW in 2016 to help collect additional Watermarks from the Great Lakes.