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.

Nutrients

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.

Pollutants

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
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.

IJC Presents Findings for Climate Change, Crude Oil Transport, Water Quantity and Quality at Healing Our Waters Conference

By IJC staff

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition (HOW), which includes more than 145 environmental, conservation and outdoor recreation organizations, held its annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference on Oct. 17-19 in Buffalo, New York. More than 300 people attended to learn about the latest issues affecting the lakes and initiatives to address many of these challenges.

Members of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee, along with IJC staff and US Chair Lana Pollack presented findings in four sessions at the conference. Brief summaries of each workshop follow.

niagara falls buffalo how conference
Conference participants enjoyed a tour of Niagara Falls during their stay in the Buffalo region. Credit: S. Cole-Misch

Plan 2014

A new plan for managing water levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that took effect in January 2017 was the focus of a break-out session on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Pollack began the session by explaining how Plan 2014 carefully balances the needs of all interests, including shoreline property, recreational boating, hydropower, commercial navigation and the ecosystem.

Plan 2014 reduces damages to shoreline property to nearly the same degree as the old plan while allowing water levels to follow their natural up and down patterns to a greater degree. This will enable the recovery of health and species diversity in 26,000 hectares (64,000 acres) of coastal wetlands and reverse much of the environmental damage caused by the old plan. Plan 2014 also better maintains minimum water levels for navigation, extends the boating season in most years and provides a modest increase in hydropower production.

public hearings
More than 20 public hearings and consultations were held over two years to develop Plan 2014. Credit: F. Bevacqua

Unfortunately, three months after the adoption of Plan 2014, record flooding occurred on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River after record rainfall within the Lake Ontario and Ottawa River watersheds. Shoreline homeowners and businesses on the lake and river experienced a great deal of suffering and financial loss. Under the old plan, however, water levels would have been nearly identical because of the immense flooding upstream and downstream of the dam.

Bill Werick, a technical adviser to the IJC, described the 16-year process to develop Plan 2014 to workshop participants – a process that involved stakeholders in shared vision planning. Due to limitations in long-term water supply forecasting and the need to balance the needs of upstream and downstream interests, Werick said that not much more can be done to reduce high water level events. Reducing damages from future floods will require long-term planning and management to make property and infrastructure less vulnerable, and false divisions will need to be put aside for everyone to work together. The IJC can contribute to such discussions by sharing the knowledge gained through extensive study and ongoing analysis.

Crude Move

Understanding issues surrounding crude oil transportation in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River region has become a top priority for the Crude Move partnership, a group of organizations that has been advancing the topic through meetings and workshops for the last several years.

This HOW session featured presentations by Margaret Schneemann (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant), Michele Leduc-Lapierre (Great Lakes Commission) and Matthew Child (IJC) that summarized recent activities and progress related to crude oil transport science and management in binational waters. During this session, more than 30 attendees also ranked previously developed priorities regarding crude oil transport issues.

The presentations provided background information on how oil moves to and through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River region (pipelines transport more than 90 percent of oil, with most of the balance transported by rail). The findings of three previous related workshops held between April 2015 and June 2017 were highlighted. The first workshop explored the broad range of issues involved in crude oil movement, the second identified the elements of a multi-disciplinary research agenda to address benefits and risks associated with crude oil transport, and the third focused on different perspectives of risk and lessons learned from elsewhere in North America.

Priorities that emerged from previous workshops were presented to HOW session participants, who were asked to rank up to six priorities in each of several categories including crude transport, education and outreach, policy coordination, science-based decisions, healthy economy and equitable society. The participants, mostly representing nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, agreed on several priorities. For example, they agreed that adequate oil transport infrastructure condition assessments are important, that the public should have access to crude oil transport and response plan information, and that economic impacts of future energy scenarios require attention. Many participants also felt that safety considerations are an overall priority to prevent harm to communities and the environment.

The HOW session polling results will be considered by the Crude Move partner organizations as they identify ongoing activities to gain further understanding and dialogue related to crude oil transport.

Progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

Under the agreement, the Canadian and US governments are required to present a status of progress every three years, and the IJC is required, among other things, to evaluate that progress and provide recommendations for additional actions to restore and protect the lakes. In this session, Pollack presented an overview of the Commission’s evaluation of the parties’ progress to accomplish the objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Commission’s evaluation is nearing completion and once published will be known as the Commission’s first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report.

As part of the IJC’s review and evaluation process, it released a draft assessment of progress in January 2017 and held a series of public meetings around the basin to obtain input on its findings and learn from basin residents. Pollack reviewed the findings the IJC presented in its draft report and what it heard from the public in those meetings.

She reported that one of the IJC’s draft findings was that the governments have much to be proud of. They have made considerable progress in setting up a process that brings together 10 separate binational committees representing responsible departments and agencies on a semi-annual basis, based on the GLWQA’s annexes and objectives.

Pollack also noted draft findings that unprecedented progress has been made in Areas of Concern, as well as significant progress on groundwater research, developing a near shore framework, and developing a shorter, smarter list of indicators by which to assess Great Lakes health. Stronger funding in the US through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and more recent stronger funding in Canada has combined with focused work in both countries to produce long-awaited progress.

pollack how 2017
IJC US Chair Lana Pollack summarizes the IJC’s draft findings on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Credit: IJC staff

At the same time, the IJC’s draft findings point to areas of weakness in programs to accomplish the GLWQA’s objectives. For example, although protection of human health is a leading objective, beaches are too often unsafe for use, with warnings about biological contamination coming too late to prevent exposure. Drinking water is generally safe but not for everybody and not all the time. Progress to identify and control Chemicals of Mutual Concern has been disappointing, and Lake Erie continues to suffer from extensive harmful algal blooms as a result of excessive inputs of nutrients. While significant progress has been made to control the introduction of new invasive species from ballast water, the IJC found that additional actions are needed to mitigate the damage from the spread of existing invasive species.

The public responded to the IJC’s draft findings at public meetings over this past year and identified more than 70 issues they feel are important to address in the basin. Chair Pollack said each person’s comments were considered as the IJC developed its final report, and all comments will be included in an appendix to the final Triennial Assessment of Progress report.

“We know that while there are no silver bullets and no permanent fixes for healthy lakes,” she said, “we are certain that without the active public engagement which you represent, neither government will be able to muster the political will for the financial support or the protective regulatory measures that are essential to meet the agreement’s ambitious objectives.”

Climate Change

Finally, IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board members Jane Elder and James Wagar summarized work on climate resilience in the Great Lakes and the Métis Nation’s perspectives and actions to address climate change. Elder outlined board findings and other research that point to changes already occurring to the region’s climate:

  • An increase in air temperature by 2 degrees F since 1900, particularly warmer nights; warmer winters with a 71 percent drop in Great Lakes ice coverage since 1973; and nine fewer days with frost since 1958, and resulting warmer water temperatures
  • An 11 percent increase in precipitation since 1900, 37 percent increase in more extreme precipitation events since 1958, more extreme swings between drought and drench, and increased variability in lake levels
  • Changes in the distribution and vitality of cold-climate-dependent aquatic and terrestrial species.

The Water Quality Board held an experts workshop to develop recommendations to create resilience to these ecosystem changes. A coordinated, binational vulnerability assessment is needed, Elder said, that will result in a basinwide strategy on an ecosystem scale that is tailored to local conditions. This strategy would include adaption elements, such as changes in watershed planning, urban design and emergency preparedness. At the same time, it also would include how to plan ahead for climate variability and the many impacts climate change will have on natural and engineered environments. While a shared    approach is only at the conceptual stage, the board believes a Great Lakes regional strategy could  serve as a global model to maximize freshwater resilience across regions and borders.

In his presentation, Wagar summarized the history of the Métis Nation and the impacts of climate change on the Métis people’s lifestyles and traditions. In December 2016, the Métis Nation reached an agreement with Canada to work together to develop a framework for action on climate change that protects the nation’s traditional lands and ensures the well-being of their way of life.

Participants in the session provided feedback on the presentations and their own perspectives of how best to advance binational cooperation on climate resilience in the Great Lakes, including more interaction and sharing of local strategies, leveraging the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include resilience for the Great Lakes, creating a more formal community on climate challenges, greater local resilience planning, and watershed-to-watershed networks to identify and share adaptation and resilience strategies.

The next Great Lakes Restoration Conference is planned for Oct. 16-18, 2018, in Detroit, Michigan.

 

A New Approach to Stormwater Financing and Management

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

green roof
A ’green roof‘ converts a building rooftop into a garden, which holds in rainfall and allows it to evaporate without running into the stormwater system. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

With more extreme precipitation taxing existing stormwater infrastructure, municipalities in Ontario, the United States and elsewhere are considering new ways to finance existing systems – and incentives for property owners to reduce loads.

Historically, cities and towns in Canada and the United States have funded stormwater capital and maintenance costs through property taxes, said Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner with the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) office. The amount paid was based on how much that property tax was, regardless of the actual runoff volume being produced by that property that enters the water system. With a relatively light rainfall, the system works, but when heavy rains hit in a short period of time, all the excess runoff can lead to flooding and pollution.

“A parking lot, for example, may not have a high property tax base, but it produces a lot of runoff,” Schwartzel said. “Once municipalities began to think that through and realized paved over surfaces are the challenge, then they had to begin thinking of ways to connect the cost that we’re incurring to the fee that the property owner experiences.”

Given that a number of municipalities that responded to an ECO survey about stormwater said they didn’t recoup their costs, this has led to some municipalities charging property owners for the amount of runoff their built-up surfaces are producing – an approach recommended by the ECO in its 2016 Urban Stormwater Fees report. Schwartzel said if a property space has a building or paved surfaces built over the ground, it naturally limits how much absorbent surface area is remaining. Furthermore, those that are left – yards, remnant natural areas, landscaping – aren’t able to soak up all the runoff falling into them before becoming saturated.

groundwater supply storm impermeable concrete
Less water is able to seep into the groundwater supply after a storm with impermeable, concrete surfaces. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

To encourage property owners to reduce the amount of runoff their properties are causing, these municipalities can offer reduced tax bills in exchange for absorbing more runoff onsite, Schwartzel said. For example, a property owner may use permeable concrete to allow water to seep through into the ground, or install bioswales or rain gardens to capture more water. Business owners also can consider installing a green roof to help retain water in densely built areas where those other options aren’t available, she added. Collectively, these lot-by-lot green measures add up to “green infrastructure,” offering several advantages over traditional end-of-pipe stormwater treatment (such as water treatment costs).

With municipalities and cities continuing to expand, Schwartzel said, runoff issues are continuing to grow alongside them. With less water getting into the groundwater system, it’s possible to see creeks and riverbeds be reduced to small flows or dry up completely until a major storm hits, when the influx of water can lead to erosion and flash flooding.

All of these actions to reduce runoff and manage stormwater onsite can have a positive impact on water quality, too. Runoff tends to pick up pollutants as it heads into the sewer, from sediments to auto fluids to garbage – and in cities with combined sewer overflows, wastewater too. When the water from the sewer systems leaves the pipes, it carries those pollutants along with it.

Cities in the United States have been working on stormwater management as well, and water quality improvements have been a side effect to the changes Philadelphia has been implementing since 2010. The city considered replacing its meter-based stormwater billing system – where properties were charged based on how much water they used – as far back as the 1990s, according to Erin Williams, director for stormwater billing and incentives at Philadelphia’s Water Department. The city worked with a citizen’s advisory committee from 1994-96 to explore alternative methods of funding its stormwater costs of service, and participants ultimately suggested basing it on runoff and the amount of impermeable surfaces on a property. It took the city another 14 years to update its computer systems and analyze its data before it could implement that, Williams said.

In the early years of the program, Williams said property owners weren’t financially motivated to take advantage of the incentives to reduce the amount of runoff their properties were causing, as the cost of making the changes were so high. In response, Philadelphia started offering grants for retrofit projects like green roofs and porous pavement so those property owners can reduce their stormwater fees. Most recently, she said, the city is developing a new website that can “match” contractors and engineers with projects property owners would like to do.

“It’s like match.com for stormwater,” Williams said.

The water department remained revenue neutral in its transition from meter-based to property-based billing for stormwater, though stormwater fees assist the city’s long-term control plan to reduce combined sewer overflows, Williams said. The city’s program to reduce those overflows has been dubbed the “Green City, Clean Waters” program for its projected impact on water quality.

The ECO is recommending that Ontario get out ahead of climate change-related severe weather and require all municipalities adopt full cost recovery for stormwater management, providing incentives for lot-level measures to absorb and store runoff. Schwartzel said the biggest hurdle can be information – some people look at it as a new tax, when the reality is that it’s replacing a tax they’re already paying, and they could be paying more or less depending on their property. It also allows municipalities to better cover the costs of existing infrastructure and provide a reliable, long-term fund for future maintenance and investments, Schwartzel said.

rain garden
Rain gardens absorb precipitation flowing into it from a rooftop or patio, draining it into the soil. Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

Some large cities, such as Toronto, can afford to build large reservoirs to hold stormwater until it can be treated and released at a slower pace over the course of days, or holding ponds to prevent flooding. Schwartzel said smaller towns and cities are often daunted by the perceived costs and complexities of overhauling systems like stormwater financing. But if the province of Ontario were to take a leadership role and provide a common framework and best practices for municipalities to follow, it could help guide those communities toward more sustainable stormwater management, she said.

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

From Nutrients to Climate Change – An Update on the IJC’s Water Quality Board Projects

By IJC staff

A boat on Lake Erie. Credit: US Department of Agriculture
A boat on Lake Erie. Credit: US Department of Agriculture

The International Joint Commission’s (IJC) Great Lakes Water Quality Board is investigating current issues and trying to anticipate future problems when it comes to nutrients, the decommissioning of nuclear power facilities, protecting wetlands, and minimizing the impacts from flame retardants as well as climate change. Work also has begun on a new public opinion poll.

The board provides advice to the Commission on issues that can impact the quality of the Great Lakes and recommends approaches to address the problems. Several board work groups are seeking to answer a variety of questions:

How can programs and policies be strengthened to prevent and reduce nutrients from entering the Great Lakes?

The board recently began a project to evaluate how existing regulations, rules, policies and practices in the Great Lakes are applied to the use, management, storage and disposal of manure from animal feeding operations. Manure from these large farms, also called combined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, can contribute pollutants to the lakes, particularly nutrients, depending on the amounts that are land-applied and used as a source of fertilizer in crop production. This project is expected to be complete by the summer of 2018.

The work follows an August 2016 board report that included recommendations on how watershed management plans (plans that outline actions and goals to manage the land, water and resources within a specified area for a healthy ecosystem) should be used to manage nutrient pollution in Lake Erie.

In early 2017, a workshop and webinar were held to further explore the recommendations of this report, by seeking feedback and insights from those involved in watershed planning and implementation.  A report on this work is expected in late summer 2017.

Do the processes for closure of nuclear power plants adequately consider potential impacts of future radioactive releases? 

The Great Lakes region has a number of nuclear facilities in the area or near the shores. This includes nuclear power plants that are nearing the end of their expected life or being considered for closure or “decommissioning.” By summer 2018, the board hopes to have advice and recommendations on actions needed to eliminate and reduce potential threats to the Great Lakes from the decommissioning of nuclear facilities.

What actions can be taken to achieve a net gain of wetland habitat in the Great Lakes basin?

Wetlands help protect and maintain Great Lakes aquatic ecosystems by filtering pollutants and sediments, storing nutrients, reducing flooding and erosion, and providing food and habitat for fish and wildlife. One of the commitments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)  is to achieve a net gain of habitat, including wetlands. The board is researching the issue to develop recommendations on actions that can be taken to assist in protecting and restoring wetland habitats. The Great Lakes basin has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since settlement began, from agricultural, industrial and residential development. This project is expected to be complete in early 2018.

A wetland restoration project in New York. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
A wetland restoration project in New York. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

How are PBDE-containing products handled at their end-of-life and are the actions taken by governments and other institutions adequate to minimize the release of these chemicals to the environment? 

Since the 1970s, flame retardants such as PBDEs have been added to a wide range of products including carpeting, mattresses, furniture and electronics, as a means for complying with consumer safety standards. Numerous studies have raised concerns about the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and harmful effects on humans and wildlife. While efforts have been made over the past two decades to phase-out the manufacture of these chemicals, there are still substantial quantities of products containing PBDEs that are used in the Great Lakes basin.

In March 2016, the board produced a report that provided advice on strategies and actions to minimize and prevent the release of PBDEs from the products that contain them. The Commission solicited public comment on the board report in the summer of 2016 and issued a Commission report with recommendations to the governments in November 2016. Further work has been undertaken by the board, by way of a binational workshop last February, to obtain insights from experts on solutions to finding alternatives to using PBDEs and best practices for the end-of-life management of PBDE-containing products. The findings and recommendations from this work are expected to be finished in late summer 2017.

What actions by governments are being undertaken to address climate change impacts? How can these actions and programs be strengthened?

The board released a report in January 2017 on a culmination of activities to answer these questions. Climate change in the Great Lakes is expected to impact the amount, frequency and intensity of storms; increase air and water temperatures; and decrease ice cover. These changes can adversely impact the physical, chemical and biological quality of the Great Lakes ecosystem through intensified erosion, sediment and nutrient loading, loss of wetlands, and loss of fish habitat. The report provides strategies and approaches to adapt to various impacts that climate change will have on the Great Lakes region.  The Commission endorsed two board recommendations in its draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report, released in January 2017.

What gaps exist in people’s understanding and awareness of Great Lakes issues and the role that various actors play in protecting them?

The board conducted its first Binational Great Lakes Poll in 2014. The purpose of the poll is to raise awareness about Great Lakes water quality and assess public perceptions about water quality and who is responsible for protecting the lakes. Round two of the poll is planned to occur in late 2017 with the results released in the first quarter of 2018.  As with the first survey, the results of round two will be shared with policymakers, media, the public and other stakeholders. Once there is an understanding of where these knowledge gaps exist, specific communication products and messages can be developed to improve awareness and inspire action.

It Takes a Village to Adapt to Climate Change

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

ice-cover-lake-superior
Ice cover, like these slabs on Lake Superior, has been on a downward trend due to warmer winters since the 1970s, from a long-term average of 60 percent maximum coverage in 1975 to closer to 40 percent in 2015. This could lead to new climate challenges for communities looking to adapt. Credit: Sharon Mollerus

Climate change adaptation is a major challenge for the Great Lakes region, and researchers, officials and other leaders have been coming together to share experiences and ideas on how to prepare.

One hub of collaboration has been the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences + Assessments program (GLISA), which includes Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s integrated science and assessment programs, the Northeast Climate Science Center and the Midwest Regional Climate Center.

“There is a lot of really great work going on across the Great Lakes region at the state, local and regional levels,” said GLISA Program Manager Dr. Jenna Jorns. “What we need to move forward are … ongoing collaborations to draw on each other’s strengths and move all of our projects forward together.”

GLISA hosted a second biannual Great Lakes Adaptation Forum in 2016 to provide an opportunity for people to get together and share their work and strategies. The event included 150 registered attendees from the United States and Canada, representing universities, nonprofits, First Nations and tribal governments, federal agencies, and state and local officials.

Climate in the Great Lakes region has become warmer in recent decades, with relatively more of the warming during the cooler times of year, said GLISA Co-Director Jeff Andresen. While not all climate models agree on whether or not the region will get wetter or drier as a whole, he said most models suggest somewhat more annual precipitation in the future, with most of the additional precipitation coming during the winter months, and in extreme events. These conditions can impact water management, businesses and natural resources.

Since climate predictions and trends are a constantly moving target, he said it is trickier for infrastructure planners to know what to expect. Since those government officials have to plan for extended timeframes, a shifting climate introduces a new variable that’s harder to prepare for. For example, some communities in the Great Lakes region still use combined sewers that move storm water and wastewater through the same pipes. These pipes need to be built to withstand flows up to specific recurrence intervals – like a 50-year or 100-year storm – but due to climate change the pipes could see stronger storm events more frequently.

According to Alex Bryan, climate scientist and postdoctoral fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center, the unique interaction between the Great Lakes and the atmosphere has its own effect on the region’s climate – as evidenced by “lake effect” snowfall. With shrinking ice cover due to warming temperatures, the warmer, more open waters could lead to an increase of lake effect precipitation, Bryan said – possibly in the form of lake effect rain.

While another Great Lakes Adaptation Forum isn’t happening until 2018, Bryan said the event is coordinated with the National Adaptation Forum, which will take place in Saint Paul, Minnesota, from May 9-11, 2017. In the meantime, lessons learned from the 2016 workshop are helping communities work together to locate resources and strengthen adaptation efforts in the United States and Canada.

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

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on March 30, 2017, to correct the dates of the National Adaptation Forum.

The State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin

By Tricia Mitchell
Environment and Climate Change Canada

Doug Kluck
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

How and why is climate change impacting the Great Lakes? How is it affecting our future? What are we doing about it?

As part of its fifth assessment report published in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” The World Economic Forum, in its Global Risks Report this year, also recognized the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation “as the most impactful risk for the years to come, ahead of weapons of mass destruction.”

This chart shows temperature data from four science institutions since the late 1800s. While there may be some variability between each of these four lines and a fair amount of variability or scatter over time, all show that temperature has changed quite dramatically and all four lines show rapid warming in the past few decades. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
This chart shows temperature data from four science institutions since the late 1800s. While there may be some variability between each of these four lines and a fair amount of variability or scatter over time, all show that temperature has changed quite dramatically and all four lines show rapid warming in the past few decades. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Climate change is posing significant risks to communities, health and well-being, the economy, and the natural environment. These impacts are expected to become more severe, unless concerted efforts to reduce emissions are undertaken.

Climate change effects are being experienced in the Great Lakes. Effects observed across the basin include warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, decreased ice coverage, and variations to historic fluctuations of water levels. For example, over the last 60 years (1950-2010), the Great Lakes basin has experienced an increase in average annual air temperatures between 0.8-2.0 degrees C (1.4-3.6 F), with this warming trend projected to continue, according to a 2015 State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes basin report.

In the last century, surface water temperatures of the Great Lakes have increased by as much as 3.5 degrees C (6.3 F) and are projected to continue to increase. More work is needed to understand the full impact of these changes on Great Lakes water quality and the health of the aquatic ecosystem.

Recognizing the potential impacts of climate change on Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health, Canada and the United States incorporated a Climate Change Impacts Annex in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). The Annex is focused on coordinating efforts to identify, quantify, understand, and predict climate impacts on the quality of waters of the Great Lakes, and sharing information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts. Implementation of this Annex is led by Environment and Climate Change Canada and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From the cover page of the 2015 State of Climate Change Science report.
From the cover page of the 2015 State of Climate Change Science report.

Over the first three years of implementation of the 2012 GLWQA, the work under this Annex focused on a review of the current and best available, peer-reviewed climate change science relevant to the Great Lakes. The “State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin: A Focus on Climatological, Hydrologic and Ecological Effects” synthesizes the state of climate change impacts in the Great Lakes basin and identifies key knowledge gaps and provides a foundation of knowledge that will guide future work under this Annex.

In addition, a new product known as the “Great Lakes Climate Quarterly” was developed for use by government managers and practitioners, as well as stakeholders and the public. These quarterlies are available at binational.net and provide a quick and easy-to-understand overview of the latest season’s weather and water level conditions, weather and water level-related impacts, and an outlook for the upcoming quarter. Canada and the US also have a number of other interesting projects underway that are of value to this Agreement, including the Great Lakes Evaporation Network and the Lake Level Viewer.

For the next three years, the work under this Annex will involve examining what key science gaps identified in the “State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin” report can be addressed, as well as supporting the implementation of the other GLWQA issue annexes in order to ensure that climate change impacts are being taken into consideration in the overall implementation of the Agreement.

The work under this Annex to understand how climate change is affecting processes now, and may affect processes in the future, is important to making informed management decisions for the Great Lakes.

Tricia Mitchell is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex Canadian Co-Lead.

Doug Kluck is the GLWQA Climate Change Impacts Annex US Co-Lead.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 14, 2016, to clarify information on air and surface water temperature increases.

Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior, taken in July 2010. Credit: IJC files
Batchawana Bay on Lake Superior, taken in July 2010. Credit: IJC files

How Climate Change Could Impact Great Lakes Algal Blooms and Ice Cover

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Ice cover on the Great Lakes in Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response TEAM at NASA GSFC
Ice cover on the Great Lakes in Feb. 19, 2014. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response TEAM at NASA GSFC

Climate change is expected to impact locations across the globe, including the Great Lakes. Experts say warmer temperatures, more severe spring storms and reduced ice cover will make it easier for harmful algal blooms to grow and remain in lake waters. What’s more, it seems that winter isn’t putting a brake on algal growth in Lake Erie – just changing the type of algae.

Globally, this year is on track to be the warmest on record. Last year, the Great Lakes experienced a warmer and drier winter than usual thanks to the El Niño effect from the Pacific Ocean. That warmth kept ice cover low on the Great Lakes, and thanks to a relatively dry spring the 2016 algal bloom on Lake Erie was much smaller than in recent years. But are these trends or simply outliers? It’s complicated.

Common sense would suggest that as the Great Lakes climate warms up, ice cover would be reduced. There are other factors too, according to Jia Wang, ice climatologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The major player is the jet stream encircling the globe in the northern latitudes. As the jet stream fluctuates, colder and warmer air moves around to follow it. In some years, like the winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15, the jet stream’s shape drags frigid arctic air from Alaska and Canada southeastward, leading to colder temperatures and thus greater ice cover on the Great Lakes.

Wang said data on ice cover for the Great Lakes only goes back to 1973, but there appears to be a cycle   showing increasingly reduced ice cover into the ‘90s before a rebound in the 2010s. Based on the data, the basin lost 26 percent of its maximum ice cover from 1973 through 2015, with Lake Superior losing the most – about 39 percent. Cold winters starting in 2013 and 2014 brought ice cover to levels seen in the late 1970s, though.

The amount of ice cover on the Great Lakes fluctuates each year, but there is a downward trend over the past 40 years, possibly due to global climate change. Source: Draft State of the Great Lakes Report as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum
The amount of ice cover on the Great Lakes fluctuates each year, but there is a downward trend over the past 40 years, possibly due to global climate change. Source: Draft State of the Great Lakes Report as presented at the Great Lakes Public Forum

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) Research Manager Ram Yerubandi says lake water temperatures have been increasing, according to decades of available data. Less ice cover in the winter means the lakes could see increased evaporation, which in turn would reduce water levels. Climate change models for the Great Lakes are split on whether the region could see decreased water levels. Models show increased precipitation, particularly through more spring storms which could mean more nutrient runoff for harmful algal blooms to feast upon in the summer.

Warmer Temperatures and Less Ice Could Strengthen Algal Blooms

Less ice cover could bring a host of other changes to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Arthur Zastepa, research scientist with ECCC, said there are algae called diatoms that bloom during the winter in Lake Erie. These brown algae form their blooms under the ice and in cracks, attaching themselves to it so they can grow.

“Life is thriving out there in the winter time,” Zastepa said. “However, we don’t quite understand the link between wintertime production and the effect it has on hypoxia (low-oxygen conditions) and algal blooms in the summertime and the mechanisms responsible.”

Zastepa said scientists are still trying to understand what happens to these blooms when the spring hits, though recent investigations suggest that they settle into the sediment and begin to break down when temperatures rise, contributing to hypoxia.

An upturned piece of ice with brown algae growing on it was spotted during a 2008 Bering Sea expedition. Credit: C. Ladd
An upturned piece of ice with brown algae growing on it was spotted during a 2008 Bering Sea expedition. Credit: C. Ladd

Brown algae isn’t as bad as the blue-green variety known as cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins associated with harmful algal blooms. After nutrient-rich runoff enters the water system in the spring, blue-green algae can explode into blooms in July that last into October.

This year, while the larger bloom in Lake Erie had broken up by October, patches of it were still growing well into the latter part of that month. Zastepa said a warmer fall could be keeping those warm water-loving cyanobacteria going. Scientists are looking for these blooms earlier and later in their “growing season.”

A dry summer also could play a role. If major rain events drive a lot of nutrients into Lake Erie in the spring and are then followed by a drought keeping the water column stable and stagnant, those potentially toxic cyanobacteria can thrive. While forecasts for 2017 only go through February, the US Climate Prediction Center expects wetter weather in the Great Lakes region during that period.

A satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom on Lake Erie, which was the second worst bloom on record. Credit: MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS
A satellite image of the 2011 harmful algal bloom on Lake Erie, which was the second worst bloom on record. Credit: MERIS/ESA, processed by NOAA/NOS/NCCOS

Heavier Spring Rains Could Provide More Food for Algae

There are additional climate impacts, and scientists are still trying to find out how they are connected to each other. Timothy Davis, a NOAA research scientist, said more spring rainfall in the region due to climate change could mean more nutrients entering the lakes and increase the overall flow from tributaries into the lakes. More rainfall also increases the likelihood of sediment washing into the lakes, reducing the amount of light getting into the water – which in turn could impact how summer blooms form and how toxic they become.

There are studies suggesting the most dominant blooming form (and potentially toxic) cyanobacteria microcystis produces more toxins at higher water temperatures and in a more nutrient-rich environment. Those same higher water temperatures could negatively impact invasive mussel species in the Great Lakes, whose filter-feeding methods further reduce competition for microcystis. There also haven’t been any studies completed on how climate change would impact the ability of the United States and Canada to achieve 40 percent nutrient loading reductions into Lake Erie, Davis said. Those unknowns make it hard for models to predict what could happen in the future in terms of bloom size and intensity, he said.

Climate change occurs on a decadal time scale and experiments take place on significantly shorter scales. Davis says climate models have a hard time making regional predictions on what will happen in the future with the Great Lakes, though trends suggest it will be hotter and generally drier, punctuated with severe storms.

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

Great Lakes Cities Prepare for a Changing Climate

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

A tree knocked over during the December 2013 ice storm in Toronto knocked out power to parts of the Annex region of the city. More frequent ice storms are expected by the city due to climate change. Credit: Ron Bulovs
A tree knocked over during the December 2013 ice storm in Toronto knocked out power to parts of the Annex region of the city. More frequent ice storms are expected by the city due to climate change. Credit: Ron Bulovs

Preparing for a literal rainy day can save millions of dollars in the era of climate change. With the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, the climate around the globe will be changing over the coming decades. Some communities, including those around the Great Lakes, are already trying to get ahead of climate change to prepare their infrastructure and residents for what’s coming.

Toronto is one city that has been working to adapt to climate change for nearly a decade. Mark Bekkering, manager of implementation and support of the city’s Environment & Energy Division, said a 2007 Climate Change Action Plan included recommendations to reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The plan also sparked discussion and research on how the city could prepare for major and minor climatic changes.

“Since none of the research done to that date could help us identify (how) extreme weather events would change for Toronto, given the local impact of the Great Lakes and our geography and topography, we decided to commission our own climate modelling to see how extreme weather would change for the next 30-plus years,” Bekkering said.

That report, adopted by the City Council in February 2013, predicts that in the extreme range, Toronto will face more frequent extreme rain events that cause flooding by 2050, and more extreme heat events in the summer months. By a coincidence, in 2013 Toronto faced two extreme weather events in line with what the report forecasted: a severe rain event in July that flooded tens of thousands of homes and knocked out power to the west side of the city, and an ice storm around Christmas that knocked out power across town for up to a week in some areas. Bekkering said those incidents “gave the motivation” to accelerate the city’s adaptation work.

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Finch Avenue West in Toronto was washed out following an intense rain storm in August 2005, impacting a variety of surface structures. Credit: Jane-Finch.com

A consulting firm was commissioned to help the city create a “climate change risk assessment process and tool” to help identify future issues for a property, department, organization or area of the city. From there, Bekkering said, those groups can take steps to mitigate high-risk parts of Toronto. For example, the Transportation Services Department learned that control boxes for traffic signals can malfunction in extreme heat events, so workers installed cooling fans that turn on once temperatures reach a certain point. The city also is looking at backup power generation at key intersections in case of an outage.

Toronto is enhancing its culvert management system by standardizing inspection and maintenance to help reduce the risk of blockage and collapse. Bekkering said the city is bringing broader private and public sector service providers – like telecommunication companies, the Enbridge oil pipeline company,  and provincial agencies – into the discussion to see where they can identify risks and work together on understanding common priorities, such as urban flood risks. These groups also are identifying interdependencies that could be affected by extreme weather. For example, subways rely on electrical power, so spending millions to make the subways resilient to flooding and heat won’t mean nearly as much if electrical utilities don’t take action to reduce their vulnerability to flooding and heat.

On the opposite end of the Great Lakes is Milwaukee, where officials believe the greatest threat from climate change is an increased risk of severe storms causing major flooding. Milwaukee suffered “100-year storms” in 2008 and 2010 that caused stormwater and sanitary sewer system back-ups and subsequent backflows into people’s homes. Erick Shambarger, environmental sustainability director for Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, said the city put together a “flooding study task force” following the 2010 storm – recognizing that severe storms are on course to become more frequent in the future. Milwaukee’s sewer infrastructure isn’t built to withstand storms of that magnitude, he said.

The city is tackling the problem in multiple ways. Milwaukee has implemented a “Green Streets Stormwater Management Plan,” Shambarger said. That means any time a street is reconstructed due to pothole or pavement issues, it is inspected to see what sort of infrastructure would work there to contend with major rain events. These can include rain gardens, bioswales, or the use of porous pavement that allows more stormwater to go into soil rather than the drainage system. This benefits the groundwater cycle, reduces the amount pouring into stormwater lines and decreases flood risks.

Permeable pavement on Milwaukee’s Greenfield Avenue allows precipitation to pass through into the ground rather than enter the storm sewer system, which in turn helps prevent backups and flooding. Credit: City of Milwaukee
Permeable pavement on Milwaukee’s Greenfield Avenue allows precipitation to pass through into the ground rather than enter the storm sewer system, which in turn helps prevent backups and flooding. Credit: City of Milwaukee

While stormwater and sewage flow into separate pipes in some parts of Milwaukee, the pipes are combined in older parts of the city. As a result, sewage can back up into area homes during severe storms, when the wastewater treatment plant is overwhelmed by combined stormwater and sewage.

Shambarger said another problem stems from pipes connecting people’s homes to the public line: if those lines aren’t properly maintained, they can become leaky and discharge sewage and stormwater into groundwater. Milwaukee has pilot programs to help homeowners replace those private lines, but Shambarger said the money isn’t there to get a handle on the entire problem.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has its own project to help deal with flood risks with the County Grounds Basin, a way of containing heavy amounts of rain in a specific area to avoid floods. The $90 million project can retain and store 315 million gallons of water during a severe storm, bringing excess water from the Underwood Creek into the basin by way of an underground tunnel. The basin drains out to the Menomonee River, taking up to four days if the basin is completely full.

Elsewhere in the city, Shambarger said officials are considering converting unoccupied, abandoned and foreclosed properties into storm reservoirs, channeling that backflow floodwater to those properties’ basements to spare occupied homes. This can be the equivalent of 600 55-gallon rain barrels on one parcel, he said, with some properties holding up to 44,400 gallons. The basements would be covered with turf after the house is demolished so that it can better fit in within the neighborhoods.

Shambarger added that Milwaukee officials also are interested in combating the “heat island effect,” where the pavement causes the area around it to get hotter than it would otherwise. This could include removing pavement, which in turn helps the stormwater runoff issue.

Planters and rain garden along the road in Milwaukee help keep water out of the sewer system as a way to adapt to extreme storm events. Credit: City of Milwaukee
Planters and rain garden along the road in Milwaukee help keep water out of the sewer system as a way to adapt to extreme storm events. Credit: City of Milwaukee

The cities of Toronto and Milwaukee both recognize that property owners will need to adapt to a changing climate. Bekkering said Toronto has set up an extreme weather page on its website to give advice to homeowners on how they can prepare and protect their homes from rain, ice, extreme heat and wind.  The city also is working with private property management companies and owners to evaluate how resilient their buildings are to severe weather events.

Milwaukee has set up a Better Buildings Challenge to cut energy use in commercial buildings throughout the city, offering free assessments and loan financing to building owners that want to upgrade their properties. These can range from adding renewable energy sources to improving energy or water efficiency. Shambarger said the city also has residential programs to help homeowners purchase solar panels for their homes or to secure loans for energy efficiency upgrades, and is working to improve energy efficiency at manufacturing plants.

“Everything we’re talking about is adapting to climate change, but that’s all in addition to work on energy efficiency and climate mitigation,” Shambarger said.

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

ParticipateIJC: Why Should You Speak Out for the Great Lakes?

By Frank Bevacqua, IJC

For the next several months, the IJC will be talking with citizens about what kind of a job the governments of Canada and the United States are doing to restore and protect the Great Lakes. It’s one of the accountability mechanisms built into the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

In addition to holding meetings around the basin, the IJC has launched ParticipateIJC, a website for sharing conversations and videos from those meetings and gathering public comment on progress made by our governments. We also will host an online discussion every month until June 2017 on a topic related to the lakes.

In November, we’re inviting discussion on how to facilitate more meaningful public engagement in work under the Agreement, and the efforts needed to be more inclusive of First Nations, minority communities, the younger generation and other basin citizens. In December, we will talk about how to anticipate and adapt to climate change impacts.

You are invited to suggest ideas for future discussions. Monthly discussions on ParticipateIJC will focus on the conversations that people have told us need to take place.

frank bevacqua participate ijc engagement
Frank Bevacqua

When I talk about the IJC’s public engagement process, people ask me whether it is really worth their effort to participate. Do citizens have any real power to affect the future of the Great Lakes? In my experience, yes. I have organized and participated in a great many IJC public consultations and have seen how a chorus of strong voices, or even a single thoughtful comment, can change the outcome.

If citizens had not demanded action at certain times, we would not have limits on phosphorus in laundry detergent, funding to clean up Areas of Concern or conservation of dunes and other treasured natural areas. The commitment by governments to make Lake Superior the pilot project for zero discharge of persistent toxic substances and the innovative efforts that followed resulted from a comment by one person at an IJC public meeting.

five reasons participate ijcSo your voice can indeed make a difference. The IJC invites you to read comments and post about the recent progress report by the governments of Canada and the United States at ParticipateIJC.org.  The governments explain their work under the Agreement in presentations that may be viewed on the site.

Public support was critical for addressing the challenges faced by the Great Lakes in the past and will be critical for addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow. The IJC is striving to facilitate dialogue among citizens in both of our countries and we look forward to hearing from you!

Frank Bevacqua is the public information officer in the IJC’s US Section Office in Washington, D.C., office.

 

Upcoming Progress Report on Great Lakes Expected to Generate Widespread Interest

By Frank Bevacqua, IJC

The first progress report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement will cover familiar topics from earlier versions of the Agreement such as nutrients, chemicals and Areas of Concern and also bring an increased focus to newer topics including climate change impacts, groundwater, habitat and invasive species.

The Progress Report of the Parties (PROP) will be released in the near future by the governments of Canada and the United States, the parties that signed the Agreement. It will document actions to restore and protect the Great Lakes as well as work by the two countries to set binational targets and coordinate domestic actions.

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The report is known as the PROP, or Progress Report of the Parties. Credit: Gilly Walker

Excessive nutrients in the water contribute to toxic and nuisance algal blooms, and experts identified the nutrient phosphorus as a major factor. In February 2016, the governments adopted several new targets to reduce phosphorus entering Lake Erie that were largely consistent with 2014 recommendations from the IJC.

These reductions are necessary to minimize oxygen-depleted “dead zones,” maintain algal species consistent with a healthy ecosystem and prevent cyanobacteria levels that threaten human or ecosystem health. The governments are working to develop domestic action plans by 2018 to achieve the reductions.

fishing-lake-erie-ohio-sea-grant
Fishing in Lake Erie. Credit: Ohio Sea Grant

Pollution and other human activities can prevent the normal use of Great Lakes waters and result in beneficial use impairments such as restrictions on eating the fish, beach closings and habitat loss. Work to restore beneficial water uses in Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) has been sufficient to formally remove seven areas from the list of 43 AOCs designated nearly 30 years ago. Efforts are underway to restore water uses in remaining AOCs and the PROP is expected to report on the status of efforts in each of the locations.

Chemicals of mutual concern such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants known as PBDEs can damage aquatic ecosystems and threaten human health when people eat contaminated fish. Binational actions to date include designating the first eight chemicals of mutual concern. Strategies to reduce the release of these chemicals will be developed to fulfill Agreement objectives and protect human health and the environment.

The Agreement calls on the two countries to develop lake ecosystem objectives and Lakewide Action and Management Plans (LAMPs) for each of the Great Lakes and their connecting channels. In response to these commitments, a draft Lake Superior LAMP was released in November 2015 and a draft Nearshore Framework was released in May 2016.

lake-superior-wetland-prop
A Lake Superior wetland. Credit: USFWS Midwest

The 2012 Agreement recognizes that groundwater quality can impact the Great Lakes. In May 2016, the governments released a report on Great Lakes groundwater science that examines connections to surface water quality, delivery of contaminants and nutrients, role in aquatic habitats and impacts to groundwater from urban development and climate change.

The PROP is expected to report on actions to address issues such as climate change impacts, habitat conservation and discharges from ships. Both countries have implemented regulations to reduce the risk of introducing aquatic invasive species from discharges of ships’ ballast water, including stringent binational enforcement of ballast water exchange requirements. No new aquatic invasive species from ballast water have been reported in the Great Lakes since 2006.

The IJC wants to hear your views on progress by the governments to fulfill their commitments under the Agreement and whether the PROP is a useful report. There are many opportunities to join the discussion and provide comments during the IJC’s upcoming public engagement period.

Frank Bevacqua is the public information officer at the IJC’s US Section Office in Washington, D.C.