Chemical pollution of Great Lakes waters was subject of great interest at IJC’s recent public meetings, especially discussion in Sarnia, Ontario, of actions by Canada and the United States on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs).
Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes basin have historically posed risks to human health and wildlife over many years. The latest 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States seeks to address these risks and “… restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”
Both countries committed to action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) under Annex 3 in the 2012 Agreement. Under Annex 3, Canada and the United States identify CMCs from human sources, which both nations agree are potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Once identified, the countries work to reduce both humans’ releases of CMCs through personal, government or business activities, and the use of products containing CMCs.
Both governments engaged with partner groups and university, government and industry experts to consider the question of harm to health or environment for a list of CMC prospects. The effects of human and animal exposure to CMCs depend upon the toxicity of the chemical and amount of exposure. Chemicals also can be passed up the food chains and food webs of aquatic systems, leading to higher levels of contamination in predator species.
Governments’ nomination and scientific review of CMCs proceeded in 2015, and their success with these actions resulted in the identification and designation of eight CMCs in May 2016:
Effects in humans include neurologic (mercury), skin rashes (HBCDs) and cancer (PCBs).
Management action to control CMC’s environmental release and use are expected as a next step in the process. Binational strategies for each CMC guide these actions, and development of strategies for PCBs and HCBDs is underway.
The IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress noted the success of the governments in completing the first round of CMC identification, where developing processes for CMC nomination and review is a positive first step. The draft assessment indicated that governments also could rely on lessons learned from the first round of CMC nominations to improve actions toward GLWQA objectives. For instance, governments’ development of binational strategies to control CMCs are well behind schedule, and the sheer number of potential CMCs argues for streamlining of the CMCs process. Finally, progress in reducing levels of legacy chemicals is encouraging but emerging contaminants are of concern.
Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
Ships moving within the Great Lakes could be carrying viral passengers inside ballast tanks from one port to another.
These viruses are seemingly entering the Great Lakes from a variety of potential pathways: they may be spread by waterfowl, infected fish migrating from the Atlantic coast, bait transport or aquaculture. They also could be hitchhiking along in ballast water tanks that ships use to maintain balance, according to a 2015 study published in the American Chemical Society journal. What’s more, a followup study published since then suggests some viruses can make it to marine ports around the globe.
State and provincial governments around the Great Lakes have issued an advisory for an invasive virus called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in fish in the Great Lakes, first detected in Lake Ontario in 2005. The disease has led to major fish die-offs in all Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. Although researchers aren’t sure how VHS entered the Great Lakes, it has proven to be a challenge to fisheries management.
Ballast water is used to fill these ballast tanks when a ship has less cargo to keep a ship stable. As more cargo is loaded onto the ship, ballast water is discharged to balance out the weight. Aquatic and marine life can get sucked up in that ballast water and discharged in completely different parts of the world, which accounts for the bulk of the invasive species in the Great Lakes. Canada and the United States have taken steps to prevent new invasive species from getting a lift from ballast water, by instituting one of the most stringent ballast water management regimes in the world, halting new aquatic invasive species from entering the basin from ballast water since 2006. This largely constitutes exchanging freshwater for seawater.
The 2015 study sampled ballast water from ships in a variety of locations on the lakes, including harbors like Toledo on Lake Erie, Essexville on Lake Huron, Burns Harbor on Lake Superior, and Hamilton on Lake Ontario. The ships were heading to Duluth on Lake Superior, one of the busiest harbors on the Great Lakes, and the ballast water was compared against the waters there as well, according to researcher Dr. Yiseul Kim, a recent graduate from the Michigan State University Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics studying under Dr. Joan Rose (a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board).
The ballast waters contained virus communities, Kim said, corresponding to the harbors from where the ships had picked up their ballast water. By comparing the virus’ genetic sequences against those in a database for Duluth’s harbor, she was able to determine whether they were local to the area or unwanted passengers. These viral communities targeted life in a variety of scientific kingdoms, including algae, plants, invertebrates (like insects), and vertebrates (like fish). More than half of these sampled viral communities target bacteria, the study said.
“Viruses influence microbial communities because they require a host to replicate,” according to Rose. “When you consider the ecological, economic and public health problems associated with taking up and discharging ballast water, we’re talking about potentially a large impact if waterborne viruses and diseases are spread over these long distances.”
The study didn’t investigate viruses coming into the Great Lakes from other parts of the world, but Kim said a study she worked on that was published in 2016 looked at virus communities in ballast water traveling around the world to marine ports. She had similar findings in that study, with seemingly nonnative viruses riding along to different parts of the globe. Limiting the spread of these viruses by shipping would require ballast water treatment technology that Kim said is still in the research phase, as well as more information about virus types and their impact. Ballast water treatment systems are going to be required for ships entering the Great Lakes in the coming years, however, as regulations include new discharge limits for microbes for human health concerns.
A virus not native to a particular region does not necessarily mean it’s invasive. An invasive species is a nonnative species that is having a detrimental impact on its new environment and disrupts the ecosystem.
“I found that ballast water contains viruses,” Kim said. “It can potentially bring viruses (to new areas) but to confirm if they are invasive species I need to investigate the impact of the viruses on the new water system.”
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Huge algal bloom fossils appear in rocks that are 3 billion years old. These organisms survived when other life couldn’t, and helped to form our atmosphere. Today, similar blooms are visible from outer space. Cyanobacterial blooms continue to form around the world where waters have abundant or excess nutrients, like nitrogen or phosphorus.
In the Great Lakes, these blooms often float on surface water as a mat of blue-green scum. Some blooms of cyanobacteria may produce toxic compounds (cyanotoxins), which can harm animal and human health. As a result, cyanobacteria blooms and cyanotoxins threaten Great Lakes recreational waters and drinking water supplies. These bacteria deserve our respect, and the stakes are huge: the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people and millions rely on it for recreation.
To better understand the human health and management challenges for cyanobacteria and toxins common to the region, IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board undertook a science and monitoring assessment of the Great Lakes basin. Reviews of current literature indicate that blooms appear to be getting more frequent and long lasting than in the past, with new cyanobacteria appearing in the Great Lakes that have not been discovered here before. The report cites evidence which suggests we could reduce the risk of cyanobacterial blooms by controlling fertilizing pollutants and slowing the temperature rise in the lakes.
The review also highlights health surveillance gaps, and potential actions toward protecting public health. For instance, the ability of health care providers to associate environmental cyanotoxin exposure with individual cases and illness diagnoses remains a public health challenge. There also are questions as to how well existing public health guidelines for cyanotoxin exposure protect children, and the report makes a case for additional numeric criteria for more toxins.
The report notes that public health risk of cyanotoxin exposure can be reduced with improvements in drinking water monitoring and laboratory testing, though it is difficult to monitor beaches and drinking water to determine cyanotoxin presence. Challenges include the blooms, which can contain many cyanobacterial strains and multiple forms of toxins, complicating the search for simple testing strategies. Other challenges relate to current water treatment strategies, which may remove some toxins while making others worse. As a result, effectively managing cyanotoxin drinking water treatment remains a critical issue for Canada and the United States.
The threat to drinking water isn’t just theoretical: a 2014 bloom shut down the water system of Toledo, Ohio, a major US city. Canada has undertaken large investments in water infrastructure and monitoring, and the US is considering action toward a huge investment in infrastructure.
If the region is to improve water infrastructure the right way, binational efforts are needed. The HPAB report recommends identifying sound cyanotoxin treatment strategies, with technologies to remove mixtures rather than just individual toxins, and shifting treatments if a new toxin appears. These would be improvements over current water treatment practices.
Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, and secretary of the Health Professionals Advisory Board.
Building a watershed movement for restoration and healing of the Great Lakes comes with several challenges, as noted by authors Peter Lavinge and Stephen Gates. These include increasing public understanding of rivers and lakes, enhancing ecological literacy, recruiting and empowering leaders, building citizenship organizations, and linking water activists. The draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also notes increasing need for public engagement, especially from indigenous nations and other under-represented groups.
At the University of Toronto, an initiative called Great Lakes Waterworks will serve as a hub for social scientists and humanities scholars and social justice activists to think collectively about community building and public engagement. Supported by an ATLAS (Advanced Teaching and Learning in Arts and Science) grant from the University of Toronto, the initiative has three key goals:
to establish an identifiable cluster of courses linked to water-based issues in and on the Great Lakes, including more experiential approaches to education
to train undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities to do hands-on research generated by emerging needs linked to ongoing environmental initiatives in their community
to forge teaching and research networks with organizations in Toronto working actively on environmental and social justice initiatives.
Great Lakes Waterworks also dovetails with 2016 recommendations from a Canadian federal Truth and Reconciliation report for transforming relationships with indigenous nations. The University of Toronto’s version of the report, released in January, notes the need for indigenous approaches to spaces on campus, with a particular call for attention to a buried water body on campus (Taddle Creek), and deepening commitments to land-based education.
This year’s courses in Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies, taught at University of Toronto-St. George by Bonnie McElhinny and at the University of Toronto-Mississauga by Andrea Muehlebach, included “Living on the Water’s Edge in Toronto,” “Water and Social Justice,” and “Anthropologies of Water: On Values, Meanings and Futures.”
The courses introduced students to a range of ways to represent debates about water, such as photography, fiction and ethnography, to debates about water extraction, pipelines and approaches to city infrastructure. All were inflected by indigenous understandings of water and land. Instructors blurred classroom boundaries by inviting local activists from such organizations as Wellington Water Watchers to discuss ongoing work.
Students also had the opportunity to participate in a Digital Campfire called “Water Pedagogies: Confluence in the Great Lakes,” which allowed 12 educators working with undergraduate students, elementary school students and general audiences to discuss ongoing work, how they engaged students, problems, questions and resources that are unaddressed or unavailable, and opportunities and needs for connecting educators and students around the Great Lakes. The audio file and a summary of presenters’ key points can be found at GreatLakesCommons.org.
Initiatives planned for the next year include:
a Great Lakes Circle convened with the support of Great Lakes Commons and the University of Toronto for 60-80 academics, activists, artists and others
a canoe build by an Anishinaabe activist with indigenous teachings
podcasts by students on water issues for a campus radio station
joint projects and courses for social science and planning students with Sheila Boudreau, a landscape architect with the City of Toronto who works on green infrastructure
joint initiatives with New College, integrating water-curriculum into ongoing initiatives on land and food security in residential, curricular and extra-curricular activities
A research partnership to support land and water protection and indigenous governance with Nancy Rowe, Mississaugas of the New Credit, and Kevin Best, Rivercourt Engineering/Indigenize or Die.
Bonnie McElhinny is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and can be contacted at email@example.com for further information. A website and Facebook page will be launched for the Great Lakes Waterworks project in late summer 2017.
Video is one way to share your Great Lakes story. Words are another.
The IJC and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper are working together to capture memories about the five lakes as part of a Watermark Project. Some people have recorded videos at public events about personal, emotional and cultural connections to the lakes. Others are putting those thoughts into words on paper, or in this case, computer screens.
More than 70 Great Lakes Watermarks have been collected so far, most recently at March public meetings on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
A sampling of written Watermarks is included below. They include the good and bad, from dirty water and debris to romance and recovery.
“Though I live in Buffalo, NY and have ancestry here and in southern Ontario, I grew up in Boston, MA and never liked the Great Lakes,” says Elizabeth Oldfield, near Lake Huron in Ontario.
“They were smelly, we weren’t allowed to swim in them when we visited, I didn’t bond with the lakes when we moved here to Buffalo in 2010. When I first swam in Lake Huron in Saugeen Shores, Ontario at Southhampton and Port Elgin, in the summer of 2012, I fell in love with the Great Lakes.”
Judith Russo, near Lake Erie in New York, wrote: “Lake Erie is important to me because it gives us life and it feeds our soul.
“About ten years ago we started picking up plastic trash off the shore. I would bring 1 or 2 5-Gallon buckets, some days I would fill them both up with plastic trash that washes up on the shore.
“So I try to contribute to help make this planet more green. I moved to the area about ten years ago so we assume the trash was there before, but it’s become more of a problem recently.
“I’ve always been a water child and been close to the water, especially in the summer when I can go swimming as often as I like, and in between swims I collect plastic.”
Jo Johnson, also on Lake Erie in New York, shared a love story.
“Lake Erie was where me and my now husband had our first date, we went there really late at night and it smelt horrible, there was dead fish everywhere. We were in between the Windmills and Woodlawn beach. We were overwhelmed by the smell and it was only our second date ever, but we still had the time of our lives. There was a huge pile of wood debris from the water that washes up on shore and our dog was playing with the wood when all of a sudden a huge storm came. It was magical and we had our first kiss and that’s my fond memory of Lake Erie.”
John Bacher says 12 Mile Creek in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is getting better.
“12 Mile Creek is the mouth of the Niagara River and feeds into Lake Ontario … It’s important because it provides habitat for the frogs and breeding amphibians like salamanders. It was shocking because I visited different urbanised areas of Niagara Falls and in the spring time which is breeding season, I couldn’t hear a single frog call.
“But now through awareness and eleven years of hard fought battling you can now go to those same spots and hear frog calls to the point where it drives people crazy. But it shows that with enough initiative you can drastically help to save habitats and ecosystems in your own backyard.”
Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s Great Lakes Connection and Water Matters newsletters.
We often refer to the world’s only whole-lake experimentation site as a living laboratory, where researchers manipulate real-life ecosystems to research the effects of pollutants on freshwater.
You also could call the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) an open-air classroom. With year-round experimentation, breathtaking vistas, educational and recreational activities and a fully equipped camp, it’s the perfect venue for a unique scientific educational experience.
Since 2014, when the International Institute for Sustainable Development took over operation of the IISD-ELA, we have been working on opening our doors. One major facet of that is developing learning experiences and field courses for students and budding scientists.
We want to make sure that today’s students are as excited and informed about freshwater issues as we are, and that the skills, expertise and experience particular to IISD-ELA are transferred to subsequent generations. Threats to our freshwater supplies aren’t going away, especially with the more-pronounced effects of climate change, so we need to continue this vital work.
First up, we reach out to universities. So much of what we do at IISD-ELA comes from partnerships with universities and professors. Students from Lakehead University, the University of Manitoba, Trent University and more who are already studying a related topic have come to hone field research techniques in topics such as limnology, biogeochemistry, fisheries and aquatic sampling. While they are here, they can work side-by-side with world-class researchers to gain invaluable experience.
What ELSE, you might ask? Well, the Experimental Lakes Students Expertise (ELSE for short) is now ready to be rolled out at many more schools after having been piloted with St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. This two-week field experience for high school students gives youth a unique perspective into ecological literacy, freshwater research and systems thinking. The students work with their peers, adult leaders and participating scientists throughout the day, observing, helping, asking, answering, participating and learning about environmental science, limnology, the “whole-ecosystem” concept, chemistry, ecological interactions, human impacts and more.
So far, ELSE has received a resounding thumbs up. When St.John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out on a pilot field course last year, they learned everything from quinzhee construction, fire-making, outdoor cooking, snowshoeing, skiing to general outdoor survival — all in the frigid March temperatures of northwestern Ontario, where the IISD-ELA is located. The full ELSE course will be rolled out in July 2017.
But students need not even visit the site to experience the importance of IISD-ELA’s freshwater research. We recently, with funding from Canada’s RBC Blue Water Project, hosted an essay contest for Canadian high school students, asking them “How can we improve Canada’s fresh water?”
The response was impressive. More than 30 students from across the country entered with essays exploring how to save Lake Winnipeg, how we can improve water quality in the Great Lakes, and ideas for overall watershed management in Canada. Two deserving winners are about to be announced soon. Stay tuned to future issues of Great Lakes Connection.
Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.
At five IJC public meetings on the Great Lakes held March 21-29 around the basin, standing-room-only crowds packed venues in Canada and the United States to learn from presentations about topics reflecting local issues as they relate to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to share their own thoughts and concerns.
The IJC held the meetings to obtain comment on the governments’ progress report released last fall, its own draft assessment of progress report released in January, and other issues that Great Lakes residents wished to address. All comments – from presenters and the public – will be reviewed as part of the public input into a final Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report to be released later this year. The report is part of the IJC’s responsibilities to evaluate progress by Canada and the US every three years to accomplish the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including gathering comment on the government’s Progress Report of the Parties (PROP). Obtaining public input is essential to both the IJC assessment and to providing that comment as the Commission is directed to do under the Agreement. The IJC is grateful to everyone who took the time to attend and provide their thoughts and concerns. A public comment period on the reports ended April 15; the first public meeting was held March 2 in Sault. Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Issues raised over the course of the six meetings included: access to safe, affordable drinking water, and the role of agricultural runoff and urban infrastructure in creating harmful algal blooms and contributing pollution to the lakes as well as proposed US funding cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; risks from nuclear power plants and the storage and transportation of nuclear waste; and threats to the lakes from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Some issues mentioned at every meeting were agricultural runoff, identifying radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern, and the threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Videos of each meeting as well as a summary video are available at ParticipateIJC.org. Here’s a brief summary of the presentations and comments received at the meetings.
Two sessions were held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Activity Center in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 21: an afternoon roundtable with scientists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, citizens and others to discuss the unique issues facing the Detroit community; and an evening public meeting.
During the afternoon, issues raised included access to affordable and clean water, threats from the proposed US federal budget to continued funding for local and regional restoration projects, and incorporating social science, environmental justice and economics into the IJC’s Great Lakes work, as well as specific responses to the IJC’s draft TAP report.
Leila Meikas of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council and Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization urged the IJC to include more discussion of fair access to clean water and environmental justice in the final TAP report. “There’s a political separation between water and people, such as corporations being able to extract (Great Lakes) water cheaper than a person in poverty would be paying,” Orduño said. “Protecting the Great Lakes as a whole must also come back down to the household level, so everyone understands how environmental justice, affordability and public health relate to Great Lakes water quality.” Other participants encouraged the IJC to include experts in social science and economics on its Great Lakes advisory boards to expand the range of topics and research they can provide to the IJC.
These issues and others also were raised by the public in the evening meeting after brief presentations focused on the drinkability, swimability and drinkability of local Great Lakes waters. Participants expressed concerns about the threat from radionuclides as a result of possible emissions from existing nuclear power plants and proposals for nuclear waste storage and transport in the region, and urged that radionuclides be listed as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) by the governments. Speakers also urged that the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down and the oil transported on land instead, where a spill could be more fully contained than in the lakes. Proposals also were provided to designate the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, establish Lake Erie as a binational marine park from the Point Pelee Islands to the mouth of the Detroit River, and to address the imminent threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Residents from as far as northern Ontario to mid-Ohio traveled to attend the afternoon public roundtable at the Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre in Sarnia, Ontario, on March 22. After presentations about progress to remediate the St. Clair River Area of Concern, CMCs, and sustainable agriculture and harmful algal blooms, participants discussed the topics in small groups. These discussions included the need to: ensure adequate funding for cleaning up toxic Areas of Concern; identify radionuclides and other chemicals as CMCs on a timelier schedule; investigate pharmaceuticals in water from wastewater treatment discharges; and provide greater education and training on best management practices to reduce phosphorus loadings into the lakes.
Joe Hill, Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee member, and others expressed concern for nuclear power production. “How do you know how safe is the drinking water that is being pumped in the area as far as nuclear is concerned? … We do not need nuclear power plants.” Sandra Sahguj, from Thunderbird Water Panther Circle, Walpole Island First Nation, identified dredging for shipping on St Clair River as a concern. “There is a plan for the St. Clair River to be dredged at Walpole Island. No more big ships on the St. Clair, and I don’t want any nuclear waste to be traveling through that water. It’s too dangerous.”
Attendees filled the Lake Erie Center meeting room and adjacent hallway on the evening of March 23 in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo to hear about the latest Lake Erie research, as well as updates on the state’s Lake Erie protection and restoration plan and the connection between the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and domestic action plans to restore Lake Erie, before providing their own comments. Many participants expressed a need to regulate animal waste from CAFOs, which is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, in the same way that limits on fertilizers are regulated for crops. “Without mandatory regulations the objective of no nutrients into the lakes from human activity won’t be accomplished,” said Nick Mandros of the Ohio Environmental Council. Rick Graham of the Izaak Walton League’s Great Lakes committee added, “The western Lake Erie basin needs to be declared impaired to force people who are creating the problem to change their actions and restore our waters.”
Other comments focused on the effect of climate change on the lakes and the increased environmental justice issues it will cause over time, the need to preserve funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the US to restore the Maumee River Area of Concern, and restoring wetlands on agricultural and common lands to slow water drainage and filter pollutants naturally. Effective public notice of beach closings also was raised as a primary need in all five lakes. “Ohio does a great job of monitoring,” said Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn, “and can be used as a model to assess how other states and provinces are doing to monitor microcystin and let the public know quickly of those results, and closing beaches as needed.”
The WBFO-WNED public broadcasting studios hosted two sessions on Tuesday, March 28, that brought more than 270 people together to learn and talk about the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York. Eight presentations on topics ranging from restoration of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, the effect of emerging contaminants on fish and wildlife, and wetland habitat restoration, to the Great Lakes Coast Initiative and reclaiming accessible shorelines for recreation at restored urban waterfronts started the afternoon session, followed by questions and statements from the audience.
Among issues raised during the afternoon and the evening public meetings were the impacts of combined sewer overflows and nuclear waste storage. Paul Grenier, regional councilor for the City of Welland, Ontario, said, “Local governments … need consistent sewage discharge regulations, they are not the same across states and provinces.” Charley Tarr added that the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan is flawed for the same reason. “We need a regional plan that addresses upstream and suburban inputs,” Tarr said.
Several speakers raised concerns about possible leaks and the long-term viability of the West Valley nuclear waste facility in the Lake Ontario drainage basin. “Because of the extreme storms we have here, this facility is in serious danger,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “The facility is on glacial till so it is not secure. All nuclear waste facilities should be looked at in light of the more extreme weather events throughout the region.” Others raised concerns about hydrofracture waste, continued US funding for Great Lakes restoration projects, erosion and sediment loadings into tributaries to the Buffalo River, and the potential for water diversion as the climate warms. “The No. 1 priority is to keep Great Lakes basin water in the Great Lakes basin,” said Philip McIntyre.
The last public meeting at the St. Catharines, Ontario, Rowing Club on the afternoon of March 29 was in roundtable format. Four presentations discussed regional initiatives for sustainable agriculture and the Niagara River Area of Concern. Participants then divided into small groups to discuss these issues, agriculture and nutrients, and the Grand River and Lake Erie. Issues raised by these groups included the lack of access to beaches and waterways, beach closures due to pollution and bacteria, and the need for collaboration between regulators and farmers to identify common causes and sources of nutrients entering the lakes to develop plans with targeted reductions or each jurisdiction.
Concerns also were raised about possible decreases in funding for the binational Niagara River Area of Concern, which would impede progress, and how sewage is managed in the region. “I am concerned about the sewage lagoons in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie and the E. coli that is generated from the lagoons, which cause medical problems,” said George Jardine, from Citizens Against Unsanitary Sewage Effluent. “The temporary sewage lagoon was only supposed to last 20 years but it is still in force and was never shut down.”
As well, the rampant growth of Phragmites, an invasive grass plant with a feathered plume that increasingly can be seen along highways in ditches and in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes region, was brought up by Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. “I think our biggest threat to our coastal areas right now is Phragmites. We are losing our habitat, we are losing our biodiversity, we are losing our native species. We need our government to help us get the herbicide that controls the Phragmites and we need a program in place in the province.”
Go to ParticipateIJC.org to read and watch more from the IJC’s Great Lakes public meetings, as well as comments provided online by others. The final TAP report will include all comments, as part of the body of the report and in an appendix of public comment, when it is released later this year.
Sally Cole-Misch is public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
Our Great Lakes public meetings have concluded, wrapping up a six-city tour of the basin. For this month’s Watermark series, we go back to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where we held our first meeting on March 2 to gather comments on the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report, and the governments’ Progress Report of the Parties.
Both reports deal with work on protections under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. Both Watermarks below, like others in the series, touch on personal Great Lakes stories. What’s your personal connection to the Great Lakes?
Thanks to all who attended our meetings and all who volunteered to record Watermarks. Stay tuned for more videos in future issues of Great Lakes Connection. Find other IJC watermarks here and on a special Lake Ontario Waterkeeper site, where you can add your own Watermark.
Invasive zebra and quagga mussels are taking nutrients that would otherwise be in deeper waters and shunting them closer to the shore, which could make it more difficult to halt harmful algal blooms.
Known as the “nearshore nutrient shunt,” this migration of phosphorus and other nutrients used as food by plankton has led to some severe negative impacts in the existing Great Lakes food web. Algae, particularly Cladophora which grows on the hard surfaces near the mussels and feeds on the nutrients the mussels excrete, are thriving in those nearshore regions where nutrients are stockpiling.
The shift in nutrient locations also has benefitted other species that prefer nearshore and benthic – or lake floor – environments, according to Dr. Harvey Bootsma, associate professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Historically, a greater chunk of phosphorus entering the lakes has found its way offshore, where it serves as food to phytoplankton. Those in turn are eaten by zooplankton, and fish can feed on both types of plankton, as well as other aquatic species that eat them. Some phosphorus ends up finding its way into the benthic level, periodically getting kicked back up dissolved into the water, where it can continue to serve as fertilizer for phytoplankton.
With invasive mussels, more phosphorus is staying in the nearshore environment, cycling through and never making it into deeper waters. Nearshore currents also tend to keep dissolved phosphorus in the water column, where Cladophora gets the first crack at this food supply. Coupled with the mussels’ voracious appetites clarifying the water column, this can lead to greater harmful algal growth, resulting in the blooms seen on Lake Erie and in bays throughout the Great Lakes. The mussels also are capable of scavenging offshore plankton as it drifts into the nearshore zone, ultimately retaining the nutrients from the plankton in the mussels’ nearshore home.
The impact this has had on the food web is significant. Some species of fish that historically have lived offshore or in the water column are willing to enter nearshore or benthic regions for food. Round goby, an invasive fish that feeds on the mussels and other invertebrates, has a ready food source in the nearshore region. This has led to some native predatory fish, like the brown trout, steelhead trout and Atlantic salmon, venturing into the nearshore areas to feed on the gobies. Other species, such as Chinook salmon and coho salmon, don’t feed on round gobies and aren’t making that move into the nearshore. Instead, their food supply is declining as the offshore plankton production is limited by the mussels, and their populations are suffering.
The expanded Cladophora mats could be causing other problems too. Bootsma said studies have shown Cladophora can harbor higher concentrations of bacteria as it decomposes on beaches. In northern Lake Michigan there have been an increasing number of birds killed by avian botulism. Bootsma said there is evidence suggesting the Cladophora could be promoting growth of the bacteria that cause botulism. When round gobies end up eating the toxic bacteria and in turn get eaten by birds, the birds get sick and die.
This nutrient shunt has led researchers to conclude that more stringent controls on the amount of phosphorus and other nutrients making it into the Great Lakes are needed to improve water quality. While mussels are the primary culprit behind the resurgence of Cladophora, on Lake Erie it’s believed this is why harmful algal blooms and other water quality issues associated with excessive nutrients rebounded in the 1990s, despite existing regulations of phosphorus and other nutrients, and have continued to plague the lake in the decades since.
The United States and Canada have agreed to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie by 40 percent of 2008 runoff amounts, though neither government has unveiled its plan yet. Bootsma said based on historical data and numerical models, that reduction amount should be enough to reduce the problems of toxic algae and deep-water hypoxia – the formation of oxygen-deprived zones in the water – to acceptable levels. The IJC recommended similar reduction amounts in a 2014 report released as part of the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority.
While reduced phosphorus loading may help to address phytoplankton blooms in Lake Erie, Bootsma said there’s still uncertainty as to how nearshore Cladophora growth will respond to a reduction in phosphorus entering the water. Lake Michigan, with its lower phosphorus concentration compared to Lake Erie, still has problems with the nearshore algae. This is leading scientists to question whether localized phosphorus reductions will impede Cladophora growth or if phosphorus concentrations in the entire lake need to come down first. Lower phosphorus concentrations in the offshore areas could further reduce the amount of plankton in those areas, hurting the food web in those areas even more than the mussels already have.
“What we need now is models, based on solid research, that tell us how both the offshore and the nearshore zones will respond to changes in phosphorus loading,” Bootsma said.
The term “invasive species” doesn’t just include animals. Invasive plants also can upset local habitats and food webs, threatening ecosystems along the Great Lakes shorelines and inland waterways thanks to a lack of predators and prodigious methods of reproducing.
While non-native plants are nothing new to the basin, invasive species differ in how quickly they can spread out of control according to Beth Clawson, natural resources educator with Michigan State University Extension. For example, Clawson said a non-native butterfly bush brought in for a garden isn’t going to become a nuisance and overtake everything else, but bringing in an invasive plant like purple loosestrife, which can produce more than 2 million seeds a year, can quickly see the available space for native species spiral out of control.
Non-native plants have been in the Great Lakes basin for decades, but only a relatively small number have been deemed invasive. To be considered invasive, a species must threaten the diversity or abundance of native species, or the ecological stability and water quality of infested waters. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration counts 58 non-native plants in the basin, while the US Environmental Protection Agency considers seven of those to be invasive. The province of Ontario has 27 aquatic invasive plants listed as either already in the region or on the watchlist in case they expand into the Great Lakes.
“That’s why (purple loosestrife is) invasive,” Clawson said. “They’re hard to kill, they’re broad spectrum in the sense they can live in a large variety of environments, they don’t have (native) predators, and they come to reproduction (age) fast and reproduce quickly.”
Purple loosestrife quickly crowds out native wetland plants like wild rice, destroys fish and wildlife habitat, and also survives on drier land. Since the 1990s, the Canadian and US governments have released natural predators – European beetles and weevils – to control severely infested areas without damaging native plants in the process. Biological control has proven successful; though purple loosestrife will not be completely eliminated with this control method, its abundance can be greatly reduced to the point where it is only a small component of the plant community.
Besides purple loosestrife, Phragmites, or the common reed, has become an increasingly problematic invasive species according to Kyle Borrowman, terrestrial invasive species outreach liaison with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Phragmites has become a menace along the coastlines of Lakes Ontario, Erie, Michigan and Huron, and is slowly making its way north; large stands have already been found as far as Green Bay on Lake Michigan and Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Like purple loosestrife, Phragmites can choke out native plants in coastal zones, reducing biodiversity and destroying habitat used by animals. Borrowman said they also can pop up in irrigation canals, degrading farmland, and in strips of land along roadways, reducing visibility. Dead stalks are a fire hazard, particular as stands become thick. Unlike purple loosestrife, no biological control methods are currently available to deal with Phragmites, Borrowman said.
That isn’t to say there aren’t other methods of dealing with the plants. Both invasive species are vulnerable to herbicides, though Ontario currently does not allow their use over water except in specific circumstances. Mechanical removal, hand-pulling and controlled burns are viable methods to remove Phragmites, while hand-pulling, herbicides, biological control and lengthy flooding can help eradicate purple loosestrife. Ideally, landowners and management officials can use a combination of multiple techniques to make sure these plants are cleared out.
Phragmites can be identified as a tall beige plant of up to five meters (16 feet), single stalked with narrow, long bladed leaves, and a seed head at the top of the plant in the latter part of the growing season. It also bears some resemblance to a native reed, though the native reed does not grow as tall or push out other native plants. Michigan Sea Grant reports that a mature purple loosestrife plant can be as high as six or seven feet (two meters) high and about four feet (1.5 meters) wide, with 30-50 stems growing from a common root ball. It also has multiple purple flowers sticking out from it during the flowering season of July-August, Borrowman said. Both species can sometimes be found as garden options, but Borrowman suggested that landowners who want to decorate their waterfronts consider native plants like common cattail, native reeds or hard stem bulrush.
Inland waterways face other kinds of invasive species, like hydrilla, Eurasian water milfoil, water soldier, starry stonewort and European frogbit. Much like purple loosestrife and Phragmites, these plants reproduce quickly and in multiple ways, Clawson said, growing from seeds or cloning through roots and cuttings. They can even be transported accidentally by watercraft when parts get cut off and are carried to a new water body or location. Clawson recommends boaters follow boat-cleaning and quarantine procedures before entering new water bodies to prevent the plants from spreading, and landowners consider native plants for erosion control, gardening and restoration of inland waterways.