Mattress Recycling as an Example of Extended Producer Responsibility Programs

By Raj Bejankiwar, IJC
Jessica MacKinnon, former IJC

mattress recycling extended producer responsibility
Credit: Michael Dougherty

The Waters of the Great Lakes should be free from pollutants in quantities or concentrations that could be harmful to human health, wildlife, or aquatic organisms, through direct exposure or indirect exposure through the food chain.”

So states a General Objective of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. The agreement was last updated in 2012, but the IJC has since issued a Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) that includes discussion about work by the two governments in addressing pollutants. In this report, the IJC recommended “the Parties adopt and extend policies and programs based on the principles of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to prevent introduction of toxic and non-toxic contaminants into the Great Lakes.”

Extended Producer Responsibility is an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. This recommendation largely originates from the IJC’s Water Quality Board, which recommended in late 2016 that the approach be embedded in binational strategies developed by the Canadian and US governments.

The IJC determined a need to better understand how a program for products containing toxic chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers  (PBDEs) could be implemented in the Great Lakes basin by the governments of Canada and the United States.

(See also: “IJC recommends comprehensive actions to keep toxic flame retardants out of Great Lakes“)

In the TAP report, the IJC notes that the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment established a task group to provide guidance on the development and implementation of a harmonized approach to Extended Producer Responsibility programs that could be applied across Canada. This effort resulted in a Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility, “an approach that should be considered for adoption by other governments,” the report states.

The Canadian council is working on improving the consistency of Extended Producer Responsibility programs in Canada, in collaboration with industry in northern and remote areas, and in the management of construction, renovation and demolition waste. However, a 2016 benchmark study of the program has found consistencies and inconsistencies across programs in Canada.

The Water Quality Board also conducted preliminary research into Extended Producer Responsibility programs around the world, including what has been done in the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, Chile, and South Africa, to better understand how a transboundary  program for the Great Lakes basin could be developed. Based on this research, the Water Quality Board has identified barriers to implementation, such as the difficulty in implementing a program for a legacy contaminant, the challenges of implementing an Extended Producer Responsibility program as either regulated or voluntary, and the difficulty in determining where responsibility should lie in product life cycles.

While many Extended Producer Responsibility programs exist, most of the programs focus on the recycling and safe disposal of electronics and appliances. However, the Water Quality Board identified examples of programs in the U.S. that focus on mattresses, a consumer product containing toxic chemicals such as PBDEs, and their recycling as required by state law.

what happens when a mattress is recycled infographic
Credit: Mattress Recycling Council

In the U.S., states such as California, Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted laws that require mattress recycling. To offer resources and guidance on this program, a nonprofit called the Mattress Recycling Council was created. Depending on the state in which the consumer, retailer, producer and renovator resides, they have certain rules to follow in accordance with the mattress recycling law.

For example, in California, retailers must not allow the sale of mattresses from manufacturers who have not registered with the recycling council; they must charge a recycling fee on the sale of all mattresses for use in California ($11, which is then sent to the recycling council); and they must allow for the free pick up of a customer’s used mattress.

The recycling council has focused on education on the life cycle of a mattress (through campaigns, events, news articles, etc.) and on the reimbursement of retailers for administrative costs when complying with the program. In 2016, the $11 recycling fee created a revenue stream of more than $40 million, with program expenses (such as collection, transportation, recycling, education and outreach, illegal dumping initiatives, administration, and oversight) of more than $20 million.

The IJC’s TAP concluded that “Extended Producer Responsibility is an approach that should be further implemented in the Great Lakes basin to prevent pollutants from entering the Great Lakes during product use and disposal.”

Raj Bejankiwar is a physical scientist and deputy director at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Jessica MacKinnon is an environmental engineer who is completing her master’s in Bioresource Engineering-Integrated Water Resource Management at McGill University. MacKinnon interned with the IJC in 2015.

New Report Confirms 2017 Floods on Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Caused by Extreme Weather

By IJC staff

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Flooding on Little Sodus Bay in New York, May 2017. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

A new report by the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board provides a detailed account of the record-breaking flood of 2017, and what the board did to reduce the levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

A key finding of the report is that outflow rates during 2017 were determined by extreme weather and record-setting water supply conditions. During the winter of 2017, flows were set to avoid ice jams under highly variable temperatures. In spring and early summer, the flows were repeatedly adjusted to reduce and balance upstream and downstream flooding. The board made every effort to minimize impacts and maintain the highest possible outflows without threatening navigation safety.

The report concludes that the board would have faced these same conditions under the previous regulation plan, and that outflows would have been very similar to those prescribed under Plan 2014, a new plan for regulating Lake Ontario outflows that went into effect in January 2017.

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The cover of the report, dated May 25, 2018.

Lake Ontario started 2017 slightly below its long-term average level and rose a record-breaking 1.4 meters (about 4.5 feet) by late May. This was due to extreme wet conditions in the Lake Ontario basin, including record precipitation in the April-May timeframe, and above-average inflows from the upper Great Lakes. The widespread wet spring weather also led to record flows in May from the Ottawa River into the St. Lawrence River near Montreal and severe flooding conditions that extended further downstream.

Throughout the spring, the board was faced with releasing water from a flooding Lake Ontario into a flooded St. Lawrence River.

The record rise on Lake Ontario was followed by a record decline of 1.1 meters (about 3.6 feet) from the start of June through December. This was due in part to record outflows from Lake Ontario set by the board during the summer and continued high outflows prescribed by Plan 2014 thereafter. Declining inflows, including a much-needed dry spell at the end of August through September, were also major contributing factors.

Plan 2014 released significantly more water from Lake Ontario than would have been possible prior to the removal of bed rock to enlarge the St. Lawrence River channel when hydropower and Seaway projects were built in the 1950s. In 2017, the peak level on Lake Ontario would have been about 18 centimeters (7 inches) higher without regulation, and extreme high Lake Ontario levels would still be occurring as of June 2018.  Without regulation of outflows, ice jams (that occurred more frequently prior to regulation) would likely have made the flooding worse. And peak levels downstream also would have been significantly higher without regulation.

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An aerial photo of flooding of the St. Lawrence downstream of Montreal. Credit: Transport Canada

The report relied on data provided by water management and weather agencies in Canada and the United States, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, US Army Corps of Engineers, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Canadian Hydrographic Service.

The events of 2017 once again demonstrate the vulnerability of shoreline communities to flooding and erosion. To reduce the risk of future damages, the most effective approach is to make property and infrastructure more resilient to coastal hazards and redouble efforts to prepare for future high water events. This will be a long-term undertaking, but all levels of government and organizations such as the IJC with knowledge about coastal impacts must work together if we wish to reduce the risk of catastrophic damages from the next extreme event.

The board’s report, “Observed Conditions and Regulated Outflows in 2017” is available online, along with a short video on the Causes of the 2017 Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Flood.

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Flooding in Olcott, New York, in May 2017. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The Contaminated Rouge River Gets Cleaned Up

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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The Rouge River’s old channel runs around Zug Island. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

When a project to remove contaminated sediment from Michigan’s Rouge River gets underway, it will pull nearly a century of pollution with it, bringing a longstanding effort to rehabilitate and clean up the waterway one major step closer to its goal.

The sediment removal project is expected to begin as soon as the fall, said Jennifer Tewkesbury, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area of Concern coordinator for the Clinton and Rouge Rivers. It will take place in the Lower Rouge River’s old channel region, located near the industrial Zug Island and the Detroit River. Tewkesbury said the project is in its final design and shoreline stabilization stage, and that sediment removal is expected to begin after that’s finished. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, it should be completed by fall 2019. The sediment removal part of the old channel work will cost $22-25 million via the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with additional funding from Honeywell.

During the removal process, a curtain is dropped into the water to prevent any silt from escaping while a clamshell scoop is dropped in by a barge. The scoop pulls out the material and deposits it on another barge for disposal at the Army Corps’ Pointe Mouillee confined disposal facility. Once this process is completed, sand, clay and rock will be placed over the remaining sediment to serve as a cap and prevent any contaminants that were missed from escaping or otherwise impacting aquatic life. About 53,500 cubic meters (70,000 cubic yards) of sediment will be removed through this process, enough to fill a football field almost 11 meters (12 yards) deep.

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The Rouge River is a 204 kilometer (127 mile) river in the Metro Detroit area of southeastern Michigan, which flows into the Detroit River, a connecting channel between Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. Credit: EPA

A different 8-kilometer (5-mile) stretch of the Lower Rouge River’s main channel from the river mouth to Dearborn needs contaminated sediment removed too, but the DNR is still building baseline data of the contamination throughout that stretch and working on funding from nongovernment sponsors to complete it.  An assessment is ongoing for the main channel sediment removal project, Tewkesbury said, which she expects could end up costing tens of millions of dollars.

According to an EPA official, the contaminated sediments in the main channel are the result of contamination from Ford Motor Co., Marathon Oil and other major industries that have existed along the water. Experts are trying to figure out who is responsible for what amount of contamination so that funding cleanup can be worked out.

While the sediment contamination is the most high profile work being done on the Rouge, Tewkesbury said there are multiple habitat restoration projects that have either been completed, are being done now, or are scheduled for the coming years, with funding through the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Currently, three habitat projects are underway. The first is building a fish passageway around a dam on the Henry Ford estate in Dearborn, which will reconnect migrating fish from lower portions of the Rouge River to the broader system. Further upstream at the Greenfield Village Oxbow, an outdoor museum is reconnecting fragmented parts of the river to the rest of the upstream Rouge system, allowing migrating fish a place to rest and move on.

Finally, Tewkesbury said, the DNR and the US Army Corps are discussing ways to enhance habitat around a 6.4 km (4- mile) flood control structure the Corps built in the 1960s-70s.

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The US Army Corps of Engineers channelized a section of the Rouge River in the 1970s to deal with flooding, but this inadvertently caused habitat loss, reduced oxygen, and higher water temperatures. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

“(The Army Corps) straightened the river and put in a concrete channel,” Tewkesbury explained. “Looking back 40 years, that wasn’t the best thing for habitat. Even if fish get into the channel it’s a long way to go, and it’s stagnant and barren for them.”

That project is still in the early stages, with experts doing habitat and hydrology sampling to figure out the best way to improve conditions in that channel without losing out on flood control, since the area surrounding it has been built up. Potential solutions range from removing concrete to add habitat and reconnect small portions of the floodplain, and targeting the needs of specific fish species, Tewkesbury said.

For these habitat projects, the Wayne County Parks & Recreation Department has been helping out, Tewkesbury said, as a number of the projects have taken place on parks property. Downstream communities (such as Inkster and Dearborn) that are more heavily impacted by the river’s water quality issues than those upstream have been involved as well.

The Rouge River has been an area of concern long before the formal “Area of Concern” (AOC) designation was announced as part of 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement revisions. Running through heavily industrial parts of Dearborn and Detroit, the river’s connection to the Detroit River and the Great Lakes has made it part of a major port system for manufacturing companies. In the era before any real environmental regulations in the United States, the river became a dumping ground for metals, oil and municipal sewage systems. On top of that, its urban course led to severe habitat degradation in its lower regions.

Over the years there have been multiple efforts to heal the waterway and restore it to a fishable and swimmable location, as agreed upon in the original 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The first major effort came in 1992 with the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Project to keep combined sewer overflows caused by heavy rain events from pushing raw sewage into the river. The project ran until 2014, and was a joint effort between state, federal and local agencies funded primarily through the EPA. An EPA official said that it didn’t reduce the amount of water entering the Rouge River system, but the reduction in untreated waste reaching the water was dramatic.

Tewkesbury is optimistic about the rehabilitation and restoration of the Rouge River. She said all the restorative actions the river needs should be doable in the next decade. At that point, it would be monitored to determine whether it can be delisted as an AOC, which requires a request for review and comment to the IJC by the  governments of Canada and the United States.

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The Rouge River as seen in 1965 following decades of industrial pollution and habitat degradation. These conditions led to it being named as one of the first Areas of Concern under the 1987 revision to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Credit: EPA

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

Air Your Views Until Aug. 8

By IJC staff

air quality clouds comments
Credit: Jayden Yoon

“Pollution from Canadian refineries an ‘embarrassment’ compared with U.S.,” read a May 2 headline in The Star of Toronto. The article went on to report that Canadian refineries pump out far higher levels of some key pollutants compared to their U.S. counterparts.

“Smog alert could be linked to U.S. coal-fired generators,” The London Free Press, also in Ontario, declared on May 29, focusing on fossil fuel power plants in Michigan and other Great Lakes states.

Air pollution doesn’t respect borders. And the effects are felt in Canada and the United States.

The two countries signed an Air Quality Agreement in 1991, committing to cut emissions of pollutants that cause acid rain and contribute to smog. The agreement also set up an Air Quality Committee to report every two years on progress.

The public comment period on the latest report comes to a close on Aug. 8. If you care about air quality, you should make your voice heard.

Some questions to consider: What do you think about the ongoing efforts of our two countries to address transboundary air quality issues? What issues do you think should have the highest priority?

You can comment online, or via email or snail mail. More information is at You do not need to register to submit a comment.

IJC Welcomes David Burden as Director of Great Lakes Regional Office

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

What would drive someone to return to work after retiring with 38 years of public service? Passion for the Great Lakes, says David Burden, who was welcomed as the new director of the IJC’s binational Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, on June 4.

“My career has always involved water but the Great Lakes quickly become a part of your DNA,” Burden said. “You can’t come to them and not be in awe. When you talk with scientists and the other folks who work on Great Lakes issues, their passion for what they do is infectious.”

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David Burden

Burden has had a chance to work on water issues many times throughout his career, most recently as regional director general of the Central and Arctic Region of Fisheries and Oceans Canada from 2011-2016 and associate regional director general from 2009-2011.

He coordinated the department’s efforts to establish regulations to manage and control aquatic invasive species, was the Canadian representative for the binational sea lamprey control program, and responsible for the agency’s Asian carp  program. The program aims to prevent invasive carp from entering and establishing in the lakes by creating early warning and rapid response protocols and engaging the public through various outreach efforts.

Burden said aquatic invasive species are a perfect example of how the region must learn from past mistakes.

“Sea lamprey decimated the fish population when they reached the Great Lakes. It took decades to learn how to control the invader and bring fish back to some level of health, and that fight will never end,” Burden said.

“Quagga and zebra mussels are having an enormous impact financially on cities and industries, let alone the environmental impact on the lakes’ ecosystems, and we’re still trying to learn if and how we can respond effectively. We know from this experience that it will be far too costly, and difficult if not impossible, to control Asian carp from expanding throughout the lakes if they get in, so we must prevent them from entering every way we can.”

Burden is an alumnus of Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, specializing in political science, business administration and psychology.

He also worked in various positions for the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada. While his previous positions focused on program management to meet operations and regulations, he plans to broaden his focus while at the IJC to help leverage opportunities for progress on a variety of challenges facing the lakes.

“There is great value in working for an organization with more than 100 years of success and experience in building consensus around protecting the Great Lakes and other boundary waters,” he said. “It’s amazing how people volunteer so much of their time and attention to serving on the IJC’s advisory boards, which reflects the passion that everyone in the organization has to protecting the Great Lakes.”

Burden will serve as director of the IJC’s binational Great Lakes Regional Office for four years, when the position will switch to a United States citizen.

Thanks to Outgoing Director Trish Morris and Acting Director Mark Burrows

Patricia A. “Trish” Morris, previous director of the IJC’s binational Great Lakes Regional Office, left in February to become region counsel at the US Navy southwest region based out of San Diego, California. Morris also worked at the Pentagon as an attorney and adviser, and for the Army Corps of Engineers and Army headquarters. The IJC thanks her for her service and wishes her continued success in San Diego and later in Hawaii, where she intends to retire.

Mark Burrows, who has worked at the IJC as a physical scientist since 2000, served as acting director at the office before and after Morris. Burrows took on the administrative duties in addition to his responsibilities as project manager for scientific and technical projects in support of the IJC’s Great Lakes advisory boards. He also coordinated production of the IJC’s First Triennial Assessment of Progress report under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Thanks very much, Mark!

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

Connecting Water Levels to Water Quality: The Case of Mercury

By Michael Twiss, Clarkson University

Graduate student Evie Brahmtsedt of Clarkson University
Graduate student Evie Brahmtsedt of Clarkson University (left) and summer intern Jaycee Hall of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation sample wetland soils at Brandy Brook, New York, during the flood year of 2017. Credit: Michael Twiss

The creation of the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam across the St. Lawrence River in the late 1950s provided an ongoing abundant supply of electricity, but the regulation of river flows it allowed constrained water levels on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River unnaturally. As a consequence, cattail marshes proliferated at a time when atmospheric deposition of contaminants such as mercury was rampant. Cattail wetlands can purify waters, so their ecosystem service has been to accumulate mercury and other contaminants across the region.

The mercury present in river shoreline wetlands is a legacy of past coal burning for electricity generation and industry, which deposited this toxin across the landscape. The latest water level regulation plan for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River seeks in part to restore a more natural diversity of plants in cattail-dominated wetlands. Since mercury is a harmful neurotoxin and can bioaccumulate in fish and humans, the key to understanding the impact of changing water levels on water quality will be to determine how fast mercury is released, where it goes, and in what form.

Researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, in collaboration with scientists at the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences in Cornwall, Ontario, are investigating how changing water levels could impact water quality. As a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Science and Engineering program of Clarkson’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, graduate student Evie Brahmstedt seeks to bridge the gaps in knowledge between environmental change and environmental policy.

“The new water level management plan for the St. Lawrence River is designed to reduce the extent of cattail wetland area by 29 percent with concomitant gains in wetland meadow and submerged aquatic vegetation. This will increase biodiversity in the river and support greater fish production,” Brahmstedt said.

Her 2016 study estimated that about 87 kilograms (190 pounds) of mercury will be mobilized with this change in wetland community structure. Changing water levels change the type of bacteria that are active in the wetland soils: some bacteria are able to convert mercury into methlymercury, the chemical form of this toxin that accumulates in higher organisms. Stimulating these bacteria may accelerate mercury moving from soils into the aquatic food chain.

With funding from the Great Lakes Research Consortium in New York and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, the project was expanded in 2017 with Canadian partners to measure the threat of mercury in 80 wetlands in the river from Lake Ontario to the Moses-Saunders power dam.

Once researchers have a firm understanding of the extent of mercury content in these wetlands and the mechanisms by which it is mobilized, they can work with hydrologic engineers and ecosystem modelers to predict how much mercury will be mobilized and estimate if new fish guidelines need to be put in place. The project ends in 2019.

The work by Clarkston University and its partners seeks to know what the impact will be in the future so people can plan and adapt for it ahead of time. Informing the public of the risk is essential to limiting the damage from mercury exposure so that appropriate actions can take place, such as increased monitoring of fish mercury levels and revised fish consumption guidelines if necessary.

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Thousand Islands archipelago looking west to Lake Ontario. Due to more stable water levels following the regulation of flows through the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam in 1958, extensive cattail marshes have filled in shallow areas normally occupied by wetland meadows and submerged aquatic vegetation. Credit: Michael Twiss

Michael Twiss supervised the Brahmstedt study and is a Great Lakes limnologist in the faculty of Clarkson University, in Potsdam, New York, and a member of the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board.

Lessons Learned from Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern

By John H. Hartig, International Association for Great Lakes Research

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River Raisin in Monroe, Michigan. Credit: City of Monroe

The cleanup of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOC) has proven difficult and spanned more than three decades.

Recent experience is showing that restoration work is helping reconnect people to their waterfronts in ways that enhance community well-being and return economic benefits.

One example is the River Raisin off western Lake Erie in Monroe, Michigan.

Nearly $100 million has been spent on remediation and restoration in the River Raisin. This cleanup has been an essential building block in the revitalization of Monroe.

The city is now rebranding itself as a vibrant urban center with an ecologically significant river, historical assets, a new national park, a state park, and an international wildlife refuge within its city limits – all connected by greenway trails.

The River Raisin National Battlefield Park already has more than 230,000 annual visitors and park attendance is projected to increase to 635,000, improving the local and state economies by more than $53 million annually.

Such economic benefits assessments are proving to be important tools to sustain long-term momentum in this restoration work and help with transition to community revitalization, manifest return on investment, and attract champions for sustained funding to finish the job of restoring all AOCs and reaping the many benefits of healthy waters.

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River Raisin habitat restoration. Credit: Melanie Foose

Remedial action plans, or RAPs, to restore Areas of Concern date back to 1985. In response to a recommendation from the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the Great Lakes states, province of Ontario, and the Canadian and US federal governments committed to developing and implementing RAPs to restore impaired “beneficial uses” in each Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC) within their political boundaries. This commitment was codified in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Each RAP was to identify impaired uses and causes, actions needed to restore these impairments, the agencies or organizations responsible for implementing the actions, and the timeframe for implementation to increase accountability. Further, RAPs were to adopt an ecosystem approach that accounts for the interrelationships among air, water, land and all living things including humans, and involves all user groups in management.

Key lessons learned from recent research on the cleanup of these toxic “hot spots” include:

  • Adopt an ecosystem approach to build capacity for use restoration and create a sense of local ownership
  • Ensure meaningful public participation toward a viable desired future state
  • Engage local leaders and recruit a high-profile champion
  • Establish a compelling vision with clear goals
  • Establish measurable targets for use restoration and delisting as an AOC
  • Practice adaptive management and involve research scientists
  • Build partnerships
  • Pursue collaborative and creative financing
  • Build a record of success and celebrate it frequently
  • Quantify benefits.

As of 2017, seven AOCs have been delisted, two have been designated as Areas of Concern in Recovery, 67 of 146 known use impairments have been restored in Canadian AOCs, and 73 of 255 known use impairments have been restored in U.S. AOCs.

In 2017, on the 32nd anniversary of the commitments to RAPs and the 30th anniversary of inclusion in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a two-day symposium titled “Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern” was convened at the 60th annual meeting of the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

Sponsors included the IJC and the Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society, International Association for Great Lakes Research, Great Lakes Commission, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

The purpose was to review what has been achieved and learned since the onset of RAPs to restore AOCs. In total, 27 papers and five posters were presented. Selected papers from this symposium will soon be published in a special issue of the Journal of Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management (AEHMS). In addition, an AOC book is being written that will be published as part of AEHMS’s Ecovision World Monograph Series.

John Hartig recently completed an appointment as a Fulbright Scholar at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, where he performed interdisciplinary research on AOCs.  He is the Great Lakes Science-Policy director of the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

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River Raisin contaminated sediment remediation. Credit: Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant


Indigenous Communities Work to Keep Wild Rice from Disappearing

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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Wild rice growing in the Kakagon Sloughs, a wetland off Lake Superior. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department

For centuries, wild rice has been harvested in the shallow waters of Lake Superior and nearby waters. The species and its distinctive grain is a vital part of the Anishinaabe culture, but climate change is threatening the plants with invasive species, extreme water levels and high winds.

Wild rice – known as manoomin or manomin in the Anishinaabemowin language – has a number of vulnerabilities to climate change based on its physiology, according to the 2016 Seventh Generation Climate Monitoring Plan issued by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The tribe’s reservation includes the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs, a wetland area extending into Lake Superior on the Wisconsin side that contains about 13 percent of all coastal wetlands in the lake’s basin, providing important habitat for fish, aquatic mammals, migratory birds, and wild rice.

Too Much Water Can Breed Fungus

According to the plan, wild rice needs low and high water level years to out-compete other species, but extreme water levels in either direction can adversely impact the species, either by drowning the plant or by reducing its beds to mudflats. The latter happened in 2007 due to a low-water event, which Climate Change Coordinator Devon Brock-Montgomery of the Bad River Natural Resources Department said was the first dramatic example of climate change there.

According to the Bad River Band’s traditional ecological knowledge, climate-related changes to wild rice’s habitat date back to the 1950s. On a more immediate time scale, anticipated increased heavy rain events could cause rapid water level increases that uproot the plants, particularly in early summer while the species is at its floating-leaf stage, which happened in June 2012.

That 2012 storm caused massive losses of wild rice across western Lake Superior region, into the Duluth area where the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reside, said Peter David, wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. It was followed by another major storm in the same area in 2016, also causing major losses.

“These 100-year floods are becoming (more frequent),” David said.

Heavy rains also can wash more nutrients from farm fields and lawns into wetlands, which can cause turbidity and algal blooms, David said. That can hurt the germination and development of wild rice plants.

More dramatically, the changing climate appears to be promoting the growth of a fungal disease called brownspot. David said it is ubiquitous to the region, and in the right conditions it will show up on wild rice plants. In wet conditions where the plants don’t get a chance to dry off, the fungus can start growing and wipe out seed production.


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Compared to a healthy 2009 season, top, an outbreak of brownspot disease, bottom, overtook wild rice stands by Lower Dean Lake in Minnesota in 2010. Credit: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

“In the first 20 years of my career, (brownspot disease) didn’t have a significant impact, but then in 2005 it was the first time we had a regional outbreak of it,” David said. “In 2010 we had a massive outbreak in Wisconsin which led to the poorest harvest season I’ve ever seen.”

Wind patterns have been increasing in recent decades as well, and since wild rice is wind-pollinated it needs a mild summer wind to be most successful, the Bad River plan notes. High winds or long periods of calm in the summer can interfere with it successfully pollinating. And invasive species such as carp, Phragmites, invasive cattails and purple loosestrife can kill the wild rice plants or out-compete it.

Paradoxically, a lengthier growing season from global warming can harm wild rice, which evolved for harsher conditions. Warmer winters may shorten the seeds’ dormancy period, which reduces the germination rate the next year. At the same time, it gives competing invasive plants an advantage over the wild rice by giving them more time to grow. Prolonged dry conditions also can kill wild rice seeds.

While climate models still have a great deal of uncertainty on what future water levels might look like, there is a clear trend indicating that warmer air temperatures, alongside more severe storms dropping more water in short bursts, are developing in the Great Lakes region. Observed trends also indicate that summertime multi-day heat waves are increasing, while the number of extremely cold weather events in the winter are decreasing. Models suggest a trend toward warmer nights and more humidity, which would fuel brownspot outbreaks. Adapting to climate change will be a necessity throughout North America, and in the case of indigenous communities around Lake Superior, that will include precautions to make sure wild rice continues to survive in a future of potential stressors.

Safeguarding Wild Rice for Future Generations

The Bad River Band came up with several potential approaches in its climate monitoring plan to try and reduce the degree of threats wild rice populations are facing. These range from improving water quality in wetlands and streams that discharge into wild rice beds to improving riparian buffer zones and connections to the floodplain to reduce flashiness around the rice beds, planting wind and storm resistant vegetation to protect rice beds from high winds, and carp control measures such as protective fencing. As a worst-case scenario, the plan suggests collecting wild rice seeds for long-term seed-bank storage in case something occurs to wipe out the wild rice population. Brock-Montgomery said the tribe is fleshing out remaining data gaps through continued monitoring, which will be used to determine what adaptation measures will be pursued and when.

First Nations in Ontario have similarly been concerned with climate change’s impact on wild rice. Participants at a December 2016 Northern Ontario First Nation Climate Change Workshop found that, among other impacts, climate change is diminishing wild rice harvests due to changing swampland: drying out in some areas and flooding in others. The First Nations attendees indicated that community-driven climate change adaptation efforts have been underway for more than a decade, including food security and access to traditional foods and monitoring/data collection.

However, David said wild rice is adapted to such a limited habitat that addressing stressors will be difficult. At some locations, mechanical adaptations – such as remote water level sensors or increased spillway capacity on dams – could help deal with some likely climate impacts, but these approaches are expensive and limited in scope.

Habitat restoration can go a long way toward recovering from the historical losses in rice abundance driven by other causes. David said rice abundance in Wisconsin has improved about 25 percent due to habitat restoration compared to 20 years ago, but now all these beds are facing new threats from climate change.

He said there has been growing interest from people in Canada and the United States in better stewardship of the wild rice. New relationships and partnerships are forming, and people across the basin are working out the best ways to collectively address these stressors.

“For (indigenous peoples) there’s a spiritual commitment to this rice, an appreciation of this gift from the Creator,” David said. “This is a plant that only grows in a small portion of the world.  We who are fortunate enough to live in this area have to be responsible stewards of this precious gift.”

bald eagle wild rice bad river
An immature bald eagle is perched in the Kakagon Sloughs wetland. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department.

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

Great Lakes Boards Provide Latest Water Level Forecasts

By IJC staff

lake huron waves water levels great lakes
Lake Huron. Credit: Beverly Pearl

Following 15 years of generally dry weather, the Great Lakes basin has experienced wetter conditions during the past four years. The four upper lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie – are all well above average.  Lakes Huron, Michigan and Erie are at their highest levels for this time of year since 1998. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River were inundated with record-setting floods last year, but are now at lower levels than they were a year ago.

Water levels on the Great Lakes rise and fall in response to natural water supplies and levels change from day to day. Natural water supplies are the total inputs from rain, snow, runoff and inflows from upstream, minus evaporation from the lake surface. Outflows from lakes Superior and Ontario are regulated at dams approved by the International Joint Commission, allowing a limited degree of influence over high and low water levels. Lakes Michigan and Huron, connected by the Straits of Mackinac, rise and fall as a single lake.

Lake Superior was near the upper end of its historical range during the winter, but did not rise as much as usual in April. The level as of May 3, 2018, is about 1 inch (3 centimeters) below its level from a year ago. The IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control expects Superior to remain above its long-term average over the next six months, unless conditions are extremely dry. Regulated outflows from Lake Superior have been above average for the past six months and are expected to remain above average through the summer.

Water levels as of May 3 on lakes Michigan and Huron were about 3 inches (7 centimeters) above their level at the same time last year, according to the board. Levels are expected to remain above average over the next six months, even under extremely dry conditions. As of May 3, Lake Erie was about 4 inches (10 centimeters) above its level at the same time last year. It is expected to remain above average over the next six months, even if conditions are extremely dry. Strong winds can vary the level along the Lake Erie shoreline by several feet from one end of the lake to the other, causing short-term flooding and wave damage as seen along the western end of the lake on April 14-15.

storms lake erie great lakes water levels 2018
Storms caused flooding along western Lake Erie’s northern shore in April 2018. Credit: Essex Region Conservation Authority, Ontario

Water supplies to Lake Ontario have been above average for more than a year, including record high monthly supplies in May 2017 and February 2018, and the highest-ever two and three consecutive months of supplies from April through June 2017. Regulated outflows have been extremely high throughout this period, including all-time record releases during the summer of 2017. February 2018 outflows were the highest in any February on record.

As of May 3, the Lake Ontario water level was 8.5 inches (22 cm) above average, according to the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, although about 16 inches (41 cm) below its level this time last year. With normal supplies, Lake Ontario is expected to fall toward average by mid-summer and remain near average through the end of the calendar year. Outflows are as high as possible without creating significant flooding in the St. Lawrence River.

(See also: Learning Module – 2 – Lake Ontario-Upper St. Lawrence Rivers Levels and Outflows)

Binationally coordinated data on forecasted, current and historical water levels are available from the US Army Corps of Engineers and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Information on regulated outflows from lakes Superior and Ontario is available from the IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control and International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.

Great Lakes Water Utility Leaders Rise to the Challenge

By Dr. Lauren Bigelow, Growth Capital Network

In the spring of 2017, five US water systems in the Great Lakes region embarked on a utility world series of sorts.

It’s a one-year competition to reduce energy-related pollution emissions, especially mercury. Funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund and managed by the American Water Works Association, the inaugural Water Utility Energy and Efficiency Challenge was aimed at connecting the utilities with cutting-edge tech while promoting an awareness of the emissions associated with their energy use.

“I am using the challenge as incentive to step back from my day-to-day duties and reexamine our routine operations from the perspective of energy conservation,” said Donald Jensen, superintendent of water production for the City of Highland Park in Illinois. “While it is easier to follow the old ‘tried and true’ practices, improvement can only come from challenging the status quo.”

In addition to Highland Park, the participating utilities include the City of Bayfield in Wisconsin, City of Ann Arbor in Michigan, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in Southeastern Michigan, and OCWA, central New York’s water authority. They were chosen from a broad field of applicants and range in size from the GLWA, which serves more than 4 million residents, to Bayfield, at less than 1,000. The program also is open to Canadian utilities.

Using innovative software developed by Dr. Carol Miller, Wayne State University engineering professor and director of the WSU Healthy Urban Waters Program (and co-chair of the IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board Science Priority Committee), participating utilities have been reducing emissions from energy use and saving thousands of dollars in energy costs.

The five competing utilities received the software, step-by-step instruction and technical assistance. They submitted monthly reports and reported hourly energy usage at each energy consumption location, such as pump stations and buildings. At the end of the competition, utilities were scored on their reductions in energy-related pollution emissions. The reductions are weighted, with mercury reductions earning the highest number of points.

First place wins $20,000 in cash, and second place receives $10,000. The competition wrapped up in April 2018 and the awards are to be announced on May 21 in Chicago.


The utilities are using two new software technologies. Polluting Emissions Pump Station Optimization (PEPSO) is a package that incorporates emission modeling technology (called LEEM) to optimize pump operations of water distribution systems for energy and emission reduction.

LEEM is the Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology
LEEM is the Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology, a data service that uses a sophisticated system of databases and models to specify the marginal power plant emissions attributed to energy use by location. Credit: Wayne State University, Healthy Waters Initiative

GLWA, a regional water authority established in 2014, is using LEEM. Shaker Manns, the utility’s energy program manager, said the challenge will help his utility establish a carbon footprint baseline.

“I’ve already created a baseline for electricity, but I don’t have a carbon footprint baseline yet,” Manns said. “The challenge allows me to compare this water authority to other water authorities to see where we really stand, and hopefully highlight areas that we can work on and things we are doing well.”

When he first heard about the competition last year, Manns said he immediately knew he wanted GLWA to participate.

“The Water Utility Challenge helps me balance energy usage and carbon footprint at the same time,” Manns said, “and make the environmental just as important as the economic considerations.”

leem process
The LEEM process. Credit: LEEM

Lynne Chaimowitz, a financial analyst for water treatment in Ann Arbor, noted that she has seen estimates that between 2 and 4 percent of electrical consumption in the United States is due to water production, so focusing on water utilities to impact emission from power production seems logical.

Although reducing mercury emissions is the principal focus, reductions in carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides typically go hand in hand, “so the procedural modifications that we are making have a general positive impact on the environment.”

While participating in the challenge, Ann Arbor has worked to ensure that its operational changes do not impact the level or cost of services.  “It has provided us an opportunity,” she said, “to see where we have, and do not have, flexibility in how we operate and maintain the water system.”

How can you be involved?

Because of support from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, the PEPSO and LEEM technologies are available for free to U.S. and Canadian local water utilities. Make them aware that they can download it directly from the technology website and receive technical support for its installation.

Dr. Lauren Bigelow, CEO of the Growth Capital Network, is an innovation competition expert and board member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.