Code Blue: Great Lakes Water Needs a Doctor

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IJC’s Assessment of Great Lakes Water Quality: Progress, But Much More Effort Needed

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The IJC’s first triennial assessment report on Agreement progress
The IJC’s first triennial assessment report on Agreement progress. Credit: Fe Wyma/Kapwa Communications

The first triennial cycle under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement completed its full circle on Nov. 28, when the IJC released its First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality. The report is the culmination of extensive research by the IJC’s Great Lakes advisory boards and staff, as well as a comprehensive consultation process with the public, to determine if Canada and the United States are meeting their Agreement obligations.

“While significant progress has been made to restore and protect the lakes,” the report says, “the governments of Canada and the United States and Great Lakes civil society as a whole are living with the costly consequences of past failures to anticipate and prevent environmental problems. The Commission urges both countries to adhere to the prevention principle they wisely incorporated in the 2012 GLWQA.” This emphasis on prevention is reflected in many of the IJC’s recommendations.

Progress includes accelerated cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, setting new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, stopping new aquatic invasive species from entering the lakes, and establishing the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. However, work needs to be increased in these and several other key areas.

Protecting Human Health

The IJC identifies gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes. To achieve this goal, the governments also must increase funding for infrastructure and provide support to communities to improve their capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows. These events directly relate to beach closings throughout the region, when bacteria levels are too high for swimming and other recreational uses.

For drinking water, the report concludes that governments provide safe drinking water nearly everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, but unsafe drinking water incidents have occurred in major cities, and some First Nations and Tribes have had longstanding boil water advisories. The IJC recommends that infrastructure be improved to eliminate all longstanding boil water advisories and persistent drinking water violations for communities everywhere in the Great Lakes basin, and that governments monitor and report on source water protection plans.

Increased efforts are needed to disseminate fish consumption advisories to Great Lakes anglers
Increased efforts are needed to disseminate fish consumption advisories to Great Lakes anglers. Credit: Daniel Thornberg, Fotolia

While most Great Lakes fish are safe to eat if consumers follow guidelines from state, provincial and First Nations, Tribal and Métis governments, the IJC concludes in the report that more effort is needed to ensure that people are aware of these advisories. This includes those who consume fish frequently or may be vulnerable to contaminants in the fish, such as women of childbearing age and young children.


The IJC also finds that the water quality of western and central Lake Erie remains unacceptable. In order for governments to achieve their new phosphorus loading targets and reduce harmful algal blooms, the IJC recommends that they include the following in their federal, state and provincial action plans:

  • details on timelines
  • responsibilities for action
  • expected deliverables and outcomes
  • quantifiable performance metrics to assure accountability.
 Imbalanced nutrient levels in the Great Lakes. Some areas are nutrient-rich, shown in red, while others are nutrient-poor
Imbalanced nutrient levels in the Great Lakes. Some areas are nutrient-rich, shown in red, while others are nutrient-poor. Credit: 2017 State of the Great Lakes report

Actions must include enforceable standards for applying agricultural fertilizer and animal waste, better linkages between agricultural subsidies and conservation practices, and designation by Ohio of the western Lake Erie basin as impaired under the US Clean Water Act. As shown in the figure above, western Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and Green Bay are having problems from excessive nutrient input. At the same time, some offshore areas in lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario are experiencing very low nutrient levels, which impact fish populations and commercial fishing.


Given the IJC’s belief that prevention is the best approach to restore and protect the lakes, it concludes that progress to address toxic chemical releases under the Agreement has been disappointingly slow. In the first three years of Agreement implementation, only eight chemicals of mutual concern have been identified and no binational management strategies for these chemicals have been completed. To improve progress, the IJC recommends that the governments accelerate work on binational strategies with clear timelines set and met for development and implementation. These strategies should have the principle of zero discharge at their core. Governments also should focus on policies and programs based on extended producer responsibility for a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to help prevent releases toxic contaminants at every stage in a product’s lifecycle. These policies and programs can encourage producers to develop environmentally friendly products, recycling programs and other approaches to lessen the impact of their products.

Combatting Invasive Species

Rigorously enforced binational requirements for ballast water exchange and saltwater flushing in ocean-going ships entering the Great Lakes have resulted in no new discoveries of aquatic invasive species from these ships since 2006. Species such as zebra and quagga mussels that have already invaded the lakes are spreading, however, and negatively impacting the ecosystem.

Phragmites are quickly spreading in the Great Lakes region, altering wetlands, wildlife habitat and increasing the potential for fires. Credit: Abobe stock, norrie39

While governments have spent significant resources to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes, continued diligence is required to ensure they are not able to invade. Terrestrial plants such as invasive Phragmites, a common reed that may grow up to 6 meters or 19 feet tall, are spreading rapidly and need to be controlled to protect the health of wetlands.

Climate Change

The IJC’s assessment report finds that “looming over all challenges to the Great Lakes is the unprecedented threat of climate change.” A changing climate has been influencing the region for some time, from reduced winter ice cover to stressed wildlife and aquatic life and more frequent and intense storms. The 2012 Agreement includes a new annex to address climate change, which provides an opportunity for both countries to demonstrate global leadership by developing a binational, basinwide approach or strategy to climate change adaptation and resilience.

Engagement, Accountability and Funding

The IJC also finds that the governments need to strengthen public engagement, accountability and funding to achieve the Agreement’s objectives. Governments need to incorporate more robust public engagement into their activities, including engagement with diverse communities and Tribal, First Nations and Métis governments. Clear, time-bound targets for action are needed as are long-term aspirations for improvements in the status and trends of Great Lakes indicators against which progress can be more definitively assessed. And to support further progress, the IJC recommends that governments’ financial investment in restoration and prevention continue at current or higher levels.

additional reports tap 2017
Additional reports available to supplement the Triennial Assessment of Progress report. Credit: Fe Wyma/Kapwa Communications

In addition to the 182-page First Triennial Assessment of Progress on Great Lakes Water Quality, the IJC also released three additional reports to provide a thorough evaluation for governments and the Great Lakes community:

The IJC sincerely appreciates the time, thoughts and experiences of each person who contributed to the consultation process undertaken for the report, and hopes that its First Triennial Assessment of Progress stimulates action, as well as continued vigorous dialogue to further the goals of the Agreement. It also hopes that the federal governments will implement its recommendations, and that others can use the recommendations to support taking actions and obtaining resources to do the work needed to restore and protect the lakes.

“Despite different perspectives and opinions,” the IJC states in the report, “there is a value shared among the peoples of the lakes: that all the riches of the Great Lakes matter, and that we must do our best to preserve them for all time.”

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

Sault Ste. Marie Region Residents Urge Protecting Inherent Value of Lakes at First Public Meeting

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

st marys river
The listening session and public meeting were held in conference rooms along the St. Marys River. Credit: IJC

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where the culture and long-standing heritage of First Nations and Tribes are a vibrant part of the region’s lifestyle and economy, the inherent value of the lakes stood out as the key message to the IJC at its first public meeting in 2017 on the Great Lakes.

The conversations began in the afternoon, when several representatives from the region’s Tribes and First Nations met with Commissioners and IJC staff. Several key issues were identified, including citizen participation in the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan (LAMP), the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline carrying oil across the Straits of Mackinac, declining fish stocks and habitat, aquafarming, climate change, toxic contamination in fish, and invasive species.

tribes first nations
Representatives of Tribes and First Nations, right, speak with Commissioners and staff, left, during the listening session. Credit: IJC

Two participants active in the Lake Superior LAMP – Mike Ripley, environmental coordinator for the Intertribal Fisheries and Assessment Program representing the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, and Aubrey Maccoux-LeDuc, environmental specialist for the Bay Mills Indian Community – said the LAMP has been successful overall but progress is hindered by the elimination of the Lake Superior Binational Public Forum, which provided the education and outreach functions of the LAMP process and advised governments about critical issues in the lake. Government funding to the Forum was cut by the Canadian government in 2011 and by the US government in 2015.

“Without the Forum there’s a real gap because grassroots organizations aren’t participating,” said Ripley. Maccoux-LeDuc added, “We’re starting at square one again in terms of how to connect with people without the Forums, and we’re struggling to receive public input without the structure of the Public Forum.”

Several representatives said they had met with state and federal agencies to try to have the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline removed, which runs across the Straits of Mackinac. “We believe there is too large of a risk from an oil spill, which would be almost impossible to clean up it if did happen,” said Caroline Moellering, Great Lakes policy specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Transparency with respect to risks and potential impacts associated with the pipeline also were seen as an issue that needs to be addressed.

Despite large reductions in chemical concentrations in fish since the 1970s, continued contamination of fish from toxic substances is an ongoing concern, especially with the large percentage of the population that relies on Great Lakes fish to eat.  “In our area on the north shores of Lake Huron, contamination is still getting into the fish and affecting our people,” said Tammy Tremblay, environmental officer from Sagamok Anishnawbek in Massey, Ontario. “Smelt and pike populations are declining as well.”

Participants said the St. Marys River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) has helped to eliminate much of the pollution from direct sources in the Sault Ste. Marie area such as the steel mill and other industries, but massive amounts of contaminated sediments remain on the bottom of the river, mainly on the Canadian side.  The group agreed that pollution, habitat loss and invasive species continue to affect population abundance of commercial fish species, which in turn has impacted the Tribes’ commercial fishing industry.

The effects of climate change also are clear. “Moose are more stressed with warmer winters,” Ripley said. “Birch trees are disappearing, other plants are weakening, and the emerald ash borer and other invasive plants and insects are killing native plants.”

sault ste marie evening public meeting
The evening public meeting was attended by about 70 people. Credit: IJC

During the evening public meeting, these issues were emphasized again by participants after three presentations about local initiatives. Catherine Taddo, engineer for Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, outlined improvements in the city’s sanitary and stormwater infrastructure and the resulting significant improvements in water quality in the St. Marys River. Mike Ripley explained how fisheries and habitat are being restored as a result of the Little Rapids restoration project as part of the river’s RAP. Joanie McGuffin of the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy presented their project to create six interconnected water trails surrounding the lake, and one in particular along the north shore that will be part of the trans-Canada trail to be completed in time for the country’s 150-year anniversary this summer. The water trails include access points in communities around the lake, easy launch docks, high quality composting toilets, and signage that link people to the trails, local stories, and the lake.

Patrick Egan of Oil and Water Don’t Mix and others expanded on comments in the afternoon about the need to focus attention on the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.   In his view, the Straits are the worst place in the world to put a pipeline because of the currents.  “We are at risk in the Great Lakes of becoming an oil transporter with very little reward,” Egan said.

Other concerns raised at the public meeting included the lack of accountability for best farming practices, the effects of toxic contamination on local residents, boil advisories for First Nations, protecting the lake bottoms, and stopping the nuclear repository on the north shore of Lake Huron.

“My family, like a lot of others here, has been here for centuries,” said Cassie Baxter. “We’ve made our living from the lakes, so I was raised with a deep respect for Lake Superior and the Great Lakes. When Lake Superior is sick, you feel sick. When that’s your playground, your ancestors’ burial ground, it’s shocking when others don’t respect it in the same way.”

Councilwoman Jennifer McLeod of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians echoed the perspective of others in the afternoon and evening session when she said, “We regard water not as a resource, but in a very sacred manner as a living entity that has a spirit and is alive. We have teachings about what to do when Mother Earth is sick. And what it all boils down to is to stop doing what you’re doing and she can heal herself. That is an entirely different way to looking at water – not as an asset to be used, but as an entity to be respected and a part of us.”

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

Five More In-Person Opportunities to Provide your Thoughts on the Great Lakes – Please Join Us!

An essential part of the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore the Great Lakes is to hear from you, the region’s residents. What has improved in the lakes around you, and what concerns you? What did the IJC get right in its draft assessment report, and what recommendations should it make to Canada and the United States to accomplish the Agreement’s goals?

Please join us at the following public meetings and roundtables to share your views by clicking on the links below. Or, go to to add your thoughts to the ongoing conversation and submit formal comments until April 15.

Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, Roundtable and Public Meeting
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater, Detroit, Michigan
Roundtable discussion from 1-4 p.m., public meeting at 6-9 p.m.

Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan, Public Roundtable
Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre, 180 North College Ave., Sarnia, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m.

Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio, Public Meeting
University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Road, Oregon, Ohio
6-9 p.m.

Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York, Roundtable and Public Meeting
WNED-WBFO Studio, 140 Lower Terrace, Buffalo, New York
Roundtable discussion from 1:30-4:30 p.m., public meeting at 6-9 p.m.

Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario, and Niagara Falls Public Roundtable
Alumni Hall, St. Catharines Rowing Club, Henley Island, Henley Island Drive, St. Catharines, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m.

Contribute your Thoughts, Concerns and Ideas Online and at March Great Lakes Public Meetings

It’s Your Time to Speak Up for the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

In previous editions of this newsletter, we’ve told you about reports released by Canada, the United States and the IJC on progress to restore the vitality of the Great Lakes. Both reports are required every three years by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which provides goals to guide the two countries’ work. Just as important are your views on how the Great Lakes are faring. We’re offering a variety of ways and places to contribute your thoughts over the next few months, which will be included in the IJC’s final report. Now’s your chance to influence what actions will be taken for the Great Lakes in the next three-year or triennial cycle. Read on for ways to contribute your voice to the conversation.

six cities health great lakes tap meetings
Join us in one of six cities to provide your insights on the health of the Great Lakes: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Detroit, Michigan; the Lake Erie Center in Oregon, Ohio (top row); Sarnia, Ontario; Buffalo, New York; and St. Catharines, Ontario. Credits: City of Sault Ste. Marie, IJC, University of Toledo, City of Sarnia, Jake Haggmark, City of St. Catharines.

Read and Comment

Your first option is to review the reports – the Progress Report of the Parties and the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report – and provide written comments. The TAP report includes several questions for your consideration that were included to help in writing the final report and its recommendations. We welcome perceptions of the lakes from your unique vantage point, locally and as a Great Lakes citizen. All written comments can be submitted by April 15 at Participate IJC, by email to, or through the mail to IJC, 234 Laurier Ave. West, 22nd Floor, Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6.

Attend an IJC Great Lakes Public Meeting

The IJC’s TAP report is in draft form to gather public input before its findings are finalized into recommendations. We met with citizens in Toronto and Milwaukee last fall after the governments released their progress report, and their comments are included in this draft TAP report. Now we’re coming to six Great Lakes communities throughout the month of March to get your reaction to both reports and your unique perceptions of the Great Lakes. Each meeting will focus initially on the Agreement topics that are most relevant to that location, but any comments about the Great Lakes are welcome at each meeting. Local experts addressing key issues will provide brief presentations, and then the floor and conversations will be yours.

Here’s the lineup:

Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Michigan Public Meeting
Delta Hotels by Marriott, 208 St. Mary’s River Drive, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: St. Mary’s River Area of Concern, Lake Superior lakewide management, habitat

Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, Roundtable and Public Meeting
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater, Detroit, Michigan
1-4 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, water quality and human health, green infrastructure, environmental justice, recreational use

Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan, Public Roundtable
Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre, 180 North College Ave., Sarnia, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: St. Clair River Area of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, harmful algal blooms and Great Lakes nutrient reductions

Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio, Public Meeting
University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Road, Oregon, Ohio
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Harmful algal blooms, Lake Erie nutrient reduction, agriculture, fisheries

Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York, Roundtable and Public Meeting
WNED-WBFO Studio, 140 Lower Terrace, Buffalo, New York
1:30-4:30 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern, recreational use, and wetlands and habitat

Wednesday, March 29:  St. Catharines, Ontario, and Niagara Falls Public Roundtable
Alumni Hall, St. Catharines Rowing Club, Henley Island, end of Henley Island Drive, St. Catharines, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: Sustainable agriculture, harmful algal blooms, Great Lakes nutrient reduction, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, and Areas of Concern.

Register to attend one or more of these sessions today to receive updated information, and look for further details in the March issue of Great Lakes Connection as well as on the IJC’s website and its social media outlets.

Be Part of the Conversation through Social Media

 You may already follow the IJC on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If not, we invite you to join the conversation to receive meeting updates and reports as well as links to videos and comments from each session on Participate IJC. We welcome your input, retweets, shares and likes and will repost comments about progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. All written comments should be provided on ParticipateIJC to ensure that they are part of the official record in the final TAP report.

Join the conversation and provide us with your perspectives of how the Great Lakes are faring. Now’s the time to speak out for the lakes we love.

IJC Finds Successes and Challenges in Meeting Great Lakes Water Quality Goals

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

sherri mason suny fredonia microplastics niagara
Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY-Fredonia led a survey of microplastics in the Great Lakes aboard the research ship Niagara in 2012. The tiny pieces of plastic are a growing environmental concern on the Great Lakes. Credit: SUNY-Fredonia

Coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes basin are recovering, providing habitat and natural water filtering along the shores. Areas of Concern that have long suffered from degradation and pollution are improving. Plans are being assembled to reduce nutrient inputs to Lake Erie and get a handle on algal blooms. New aquatic species have been kept out of the lakes, and an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern has been drawn up. Canada and the United States have made significant progress to restore and protect the lakes, even though there’s still a long way to go to meet the objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

These are key findings in a new draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report from the IJC. The Agreement requires the IJC to consider how well the countries are tackling a variety of issues in the Great Lakes every three years. The TAP report, now out for public input, paints a largely positive picture. Its findings are the result of work by the IJC, its Great Lakes advisory boards and the Progress Report of the Parties report, which Canada and the US released last September.

The final TAP, to be released in late 2017, is expected to contain recommendations and suggestions for efforts by Canada and the United States to safeguard the basin. The IJC is encouraging people from both countries to add their thoughts and comments on the TAP at and at a series of March public meetings (see “It’s Your Turn”) to help develop the final recommendations.

The 2012 Agreement includes a series of objectives to guide the two countries, eight states and two provinces on Great Lakes issues.

Drinking water and pollutants

The TAP reports few changes in the quality of the overall Great Lakes for swimming and other recreational uses. Waters were safe for swimming in 96 percent of the season in the US and 78 percent of the season in Ontario, giving people plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lakes without worrying about E. coli bacteria or algal blooms.

Moreover, the IJC found that source water from the lakes, when properly treated, is safe to drink, though there have been a few notable incidents. A 2014 “do not drink” advisory in Toledo, Ohio and Pelee island, Ontario, was directly related to Great Lakes water pollution when an unsafe level of the toxin microcystin was found in treated water during an algal bloom on Lake Erie. Other drinking water contamination incidents like the one in Flint, Michigan, where elevated lead levels leached into distribution pipes in 2015 because the water wasn’t treated with anti-corrosion measures, also help serve as a reminder that how drinking water is safely delivered to the people in the basin can be improved.

There has been some progress in improving or maintaining drinking water quality in the basin. Of the 10 Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes that had drinking water impairment issues – either consumption restrictions or problems with taste and smell – seven areas no longer experience problems, and officials expect two of the remaining three expect to no longer have problems in the next two-to-three years.

Additionally, the United States and Canada are working on groundwater quality studies to determine if groundwater supplies, which are generally good, are improving. This research also should give researchers a better idea of what impact groundwater quality and quantity has on surface water supplies in the basin. Since some communities and individual wells alike can depend on groundwater, making sure supplies are strong, recharging and clean from chemical pollutants is vital for public health. Ontario’s Clean Water Act mandates source water protection plans, while on the US side, states voluntarily can develop plans under the US Safe Drinking Water Act to keep hazardous chemicals out of drinking water.

Chemical pollution continues to threaten human and ecosystem health, and Canada and the US are lagging when it comes to addressing that issue in the Great Lakes. The TAP reports that toxic chemical concentrations are a mixed bag – some legacy chemicals are decreasing, while other chemicals seem to be on the rise that could spell major problems down the road. The countries designated an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern and are developing strategies to address them, but the list wasn’t finalized until last May and binational strategies to control them are behind schedule; pilot strategies for two of those identified chemicals are incomplete and the development process isn’t transparent to the public.

When it comes to chemicals in wildlife, the two countries have made strides in reducing the amount of legacy contaminants – like DDT or PCBs – in fish frequently consumed by people, but advisories have still been issued for some species and areas due to the presence of those legacy contaminants. Both countries continue to monitor levels of contaminants in Great Lakes fish that are generally eaten by humans, though more data is necessary to determine whether the two countries are making additional progress. This is especially important to communities that eat more locally caught fish than others, and to anglers who also enjoy eating what they catch.

rouge river detroit tap report industrial chemical
Industrial and chemical facilities along the Great Lakes waterways – including tributaries like the Rouge River in Michigan pictured above – have historically been key sources of chemical pollution into the lakes. Credit: EPA

Environmental conditions, climate change and nutrient runoff

Additional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement objectives call for healthy and productive wetlands and charge the United States and Canada to protect and restore wetlands and other habitats across the lakes. The TAP report says that coastal wetlands are improving across the basin, providing habitat for a variety of native species and a protective barrier to reduce the amount of pollutants and nutrient runoff getting into the lakes.

This also supports another Agreement objective, to control nutrient runoff and associated algal blooms. According to IJC Biological Scientist Dr. Li Wang, the United States has provided habitat restoration funds to local organizations through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, while Environment and Climate Change Canada has used money from the Wildlife Conservation Fund to support almost 40 restoration projects in the basin. The recently approved Plan 2014 for regulating water flows through the Moses Saunders dam will also help restore an estimated 64,000 acres of wetlands around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that have been degraded under the previous water outflow management plans.

Nutrient runoff (mainly from agricultural sources) is a serious problem in all the lakes except Superior, and the IJC has found it’s getting worse. These nutrients contribute to unwanted algal blooms and lead to oxygen-poor zones, toxic waters and damage to the food web. The two countries have agreed to try and reduce nutrient runoff to Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025 based on 2008 levels, and are developing action plans to reach that goal. Those plans are due by February 2018.

Those plans must be rigorous to achieve these reductions, but the plans being developed don’t do enough for wetlands restoration and construction to help reach the targets, according to the TAP. These blooms are particularly prevalent in Lake Erie, though they’ve appeared in locations throughout the Great Lakes, from Hamilton Harbour in Lake Ontario to Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. The general public is advised not to swim or fish in waterways when regularly updated bulletins indicate it’s unsafe due to these blooms.

harmful algal bloom lake erie landsat
A harmful algal bloom spreads across western and central Lake Erie in October 2011. Nutrients running into the lakes and feeding algal blooms is one issue the United States and Canada are working on addressing. Credit: NASA Landsat-5

The Agreement states that the lakes should be free of new invasive species and the spread and impact of existing ones should be limited as much as possible. While the United States and Canada have been able to stop the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes by enforcing ballast water flushing requirements – based off of proposed International Maritime Organization standards – harmful species like Phragmites, zebra and quagga mussels continue to spread and wreak havoc on the native ecosystem. There’s no comprehensive estimate on the economic impact of these species, though it costs money to control sea lamprey in tributaries and clear mussels from infrastructure. Research in both countries is continuing to find new ways to contain and possibly eradicate these invasive species in a number of ways, including pheromones, electrical and acoustic barriers and chemical controls.

The TAP report covers other environmental concerns for the Great Lakes and the people and wildlife around them under the catch-all water quality objective of freeing the lakes of substances, materials “or conditions” that negatively impact the lakes.

Plastic debris known as microplastics can be ingested by animals, causing a variety of health problems that can make their way up the food chain to humans. Both countries have passed laws that will ban products containing microbeads, but these are only a small subset of all microplastics. More attention is needed to eliminate all/other degraded plastics from entering the lakes as a result of waste disposal choices.

Finally, climate change is leading to an overall downward trend in ice cover on the Great Lakes, which impacts the ecosystem and water levels throughout the rest of the year. Canada is developing climate change models specific to the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence River, but the IJC believes a binational, unified approach to adapting to climate change from the federal and regional governments is the best way forward and should be explored.

The TAP is the result of three years of work, and the first such report since the 2012 Agreement was signed. The Commission hopes that it helps guide and sustain progress for the years to come as the governments work to restore the integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.

wetlands ontario natural barriers pollutants
Wetlands such as the one in Batchawana Bay, Ontario, are important natural barriers for pollutants entering the Great Lakes, and have been improving in recent years. Credit: IJC

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

It’s Your Turn: Tell Us What You Think About IJC’s TAP Report and Progress to Restore the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The Canadian and US governments presented their progress report last fall on efforts to restore the Great Lakes by meeting the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has now released its initial assessment of that progress in a draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report. The TAP report was released in draft form so we can hear from you before it becomes a final report to both countries.

shores lake superior tap
The shores of Lake Superior. Credit: Dean Pennala – Fotolia

“Now that the IJC has released its draft assessment of progress report, we’re eager to hear from Great Lakes residents,” US Commissioner Rich Moy said at the time of the report’s release.

There are several ways you can contribute to the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. You can tell us what you think of the draft report’s findings and respond to its questions — and anything else that’s on your mind about the lakes — via email to and online at ParticipateIJC through April 15, 2017.

You’re also invited to attend a public outreach meeting that the IJC will host in six communities in March. In addition to hearing your thoughts and comments, local experts will present the latest information on specific issues in each location – including the successes and challenges still to be faced – to ensure a broad conversation about the lakes.

“We strongly encourage everyone to provide their input or participate in an upcoming public meeting,” said IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker. “Public input is essential to Agreement success.”

Public meeting dates and locations include:

  • Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
  • Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan
  • Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario
  • Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio
  • Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York
  • Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario.

Details for each meeting will be provided in early February at Participate IJC, on the IJC website, in next month’s issue of Great Lakes Connection, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Be part of the conversation by telling us how you value the Great Lakes ecologically, culturally, economically and personally, and about the commitment you and your community share to restore and protect these precious waters.

What do you think about Canada and the United States’ progress to accomplish the Agreement’s goals and objectives, and about the IJC’s draft assessment of that progress? Your voice is essential to ensure that both countries continue to make progress. The floor is yours.

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

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 30, 2017, to reflect a date change to the Toledo meeting.

Toronto and Milwaukee Meetings Show Strong Public Interest and Commitment to Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch and Allison Voglesong, IJC

Impacts of climate change and effective resiliency strategies. Nearshore pollution and implications for human health. Success of nutrient management programs and alternate control scenarios. Engagement in Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement programs by the public, First Nations, Métis Nation and tribal communities.

These are just some topics discussed at October public meetings on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement by scientists, government, nongovernment and industry representatives, and the public. Some discussions provided good news on progress to restore and protect the lakes, while others pointed to serious challenges that will require more extensive human and financial resources to tackle. It’s encouraging that almost 1,000 people attended public IJC meetings in Toronto and Milwaukee, and stated their sincere interest in learning about Agreement progress and participating in resolving Great Lakes issues.

Toronto meetings

 The Canadian and US governments hosted the Great Lakes Public Forum in early October, where joint presentations by representatives of each country provided the status of work on each topic in the Agreement’s annexes: Areas of Concern, lakewide management, chemicals of mutual concern, nutrients, vessel discharges, aquatic invasive species, native species and habitat, groundwater, climate change impacts, and the importance of science to protecting the Great Lakes.

For each annex topic they also assessed the health and trends in the lakes. The status of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes was rated as poor and deteriorating, for example, with 189 introduced since 1839 and all impacting the ecosystem at moderate or higher levels. While no new invasives have entered the lakes in the past decade due to ballast water regulations, other pathways have emerged.

Chart of overall status of issues addressed in the Agreement, as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum by the Canadian and US governments. Source: ECCC
Chart of overall status of issues addressed in the Agreement, as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum by the Canadian and US governments. Source: ECCC

The IJC livestreamed the conference in partnership with Detroit Public Television and TVO, and videos are available at You also can read the governments’ progress report and provide your comments at

The IJC hosted two sessions during the Forum. On the second afternoon, after participants had listened to the governments’ progress reports on each Agreement topic, citizens provided input to the IJC on their views of Agreement progress. Several major issues were addressed repeatedly across geographic and demographic groups:

— the need for more and enhanced public engagement by governments, which was identified as slow, process-oriented, underfunded, and often missing the voices of those communities where the least Agreement progress has occurred

— greater involvement of indigenous communities in all aspects of Agreement processes and organizations

— improved funding, coordination, and regulations for integrated watershed management to protect nearshore habitats and wetlands

— an expedited, improved process to identify, monitor and implement regulations and action plans for chemicals of mutual concern

— the need to consider radionuclides and radioactive nuclear waste from energy production as a chemical of mutual concern, and take action to prevent their storage in the basin

— a lack of specifics in the governments’ progress report on timeframes, locations for actions, and implementation funding for nutrient management. Recommendations included focusing solutions in proportion to identified nutrient pollution sources, using innovative solutions, and using existing regulations to spur action

— the need to develop adaptation actions as a result of climate change, with heightened binational commitment to research and action.

toronto collage
Scenes from the IJC’s public meetings in Toronto, clockwise from upper left: Commissioners Moy, Pollack and Bouchard listen to comments on Agreement progress during a session at the Great Lakes Public Forum; Toronto’s City Hall, site of the evening public meeting; Grand Chief Abram Benedict of the Mohawks of Akwesasne, Cornwall, Ontario, presents his thoughts to the IJC; small groups discuss toxic contaminants in Lake Ontario in the evening meeting; Lake Ontario waterfront, outside the Allstream Convention Centre; David Clark, director of Toronto Urban Fishing Ambassadors, discusses the impact of sewage overflows to habitat in a small group conversation; John Jackson of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board welcomes everyone to the evening meeting. Credit: A. Voglesong/S. Cole-Misch

The IJC also held an evening public meeting at Toronto’s City Hall to focus on local and regional efforts to restore the collective Toronto watershed and Lake Ontario.

After presentations by five local experts in the areas of waterfront restoration, the Toronto area Remedial Action Plan (RAP), wastewater treatment and combined sewer overflows, toxic contaminants, and fish habitat, attendees divided into small groups to discuss findings and recommendations in these topics.

Regional efforts to develop a waterfront trail that brings residents back to the lake were highlighted as a major success story, as was progress under the RAP. Green infrastructure was listed as a priority, as was education and outreach to improve awareness of combined sewer overflows and their impact on the lake’s nearshore region and recreational uses. While the region moves forward to upgrade its wastewater systems, participants recommended that outfall pipes are extended to prevent sewer overflows from contaminating beaches and other areas where residents can enjoy recreation and near valuable fish habitat. A summary report of the meetings is available here.

Milwaukee meetings

 Two weeks after the Forum, the IJC travelled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to hear citizen perspectives on the western side of the basin about the status of the Great Lakes, and learn about successes and challenges in that city’s watershed and Lake Michigan.

After a tour of the Milwaukee waterfront and river harbor where commissioners and staff learned about community efforts to transform the area from an industrial port to a mixed-use area for industrial, residential, recreational and natural habitat uses, several scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences presented their latest findings to the IJC and interested citizens. Presentations ranged from an overview of changes in Lake Michigan over the last 20 years to the impact of future climate change variability on lake levels, unforeseen consequences of dreissenid mussels, cladophora and avian botulism, source tracking bacteria, aging infrastructure and beach health, long-term generation impacts of mercury exposure, improving hypoxia and hypereutrophication in Green Bay and the complexities of engaging stakeholders in these issues. To view their presentations, go to this link.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, site of the IJC’s Milwaukee meetings. Credit: S. Cole-Misch
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, site of the IJC’s Milwaukee meetings. Credit: S. Cole-Misch

That evening, citizens joined with IJC, scientists and community experts to consider the status of various local initiatives. Presentations highlighted programs to develop green infrastructure, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s 2035 Vision to respond to a growing community and the effects of climate change, the city’s Water Centric Cities Initiative for sustainable growth, citizen-based water monitoring, nutrient reduction, and the status of the state’s waters. In small group discussions, participants discussed these topics further and developed a series of findings and recommendations for action on a local and basinwide basis. Read the summary report here.

milwaukee collage
Clockwise from upper left: Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn presents findings from citizen monitoring of the Milwaukee River; Mayor Tom Barrett welcomes everyone to the evening meeting; Dr. Mike Carvan discusses the long-term impacts of mercury exposure; Karen Sands of the city’s sewer district outlines green infrastructure goals; Harbor District Executive Director Lilith Fowler takes commissioners and staff on a tour of the Milwaukee waterfront aboard the school’s research vessel, the Neeskay; evening meeting participants discuss specific issues in breakout groups; IJC US Chair Lana Pollack, Dr. Kevin Fermanich, Dr. Sandra McLellan and Dr. Patrick Robinson speak to participants; Jane Elder of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters presents its 2016 Waters of Wisconsin report; the evening meeting audience; the Milwaukee skyline. Credit: S. Cole-Misch/A. Voglesong

The IJC is considering all of the valuable information received over the course of these meetings as it prepares a draft report on progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. To be part of the conversation and receive updates on this assessment, visit

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

Allison Voglesong is the Michigan Sea Grant fellow, also at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office.