Indigenous Communities Work to Keep Wild Rice from Disappearing

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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

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

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

Too Much Water Can Breed Fungus

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Safeguarding Wild Rice for Future Generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Work Is Needed to Adapt to Impacts from Climate Change on the Great Lakes

By Jeff Kart, IJC

lake michigan storm noaa
A 2010 storm on Lake Michigan. Credit: NOAA

The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. was amended in 2012 to, among other things, include a new annex to address climate change impacts.

The new annex commits the Parties (Canada and the U.S.) “to identify, quantify, understand, and predict the climate change impacts on the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes” and to “sharing information that Great Lakes resource managers need to proactively address these impacts.”

As noted in the IJC’s recent First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) under the agreement, phenomena linked to climate change over the last several decades includes reduced winter ice cover, increased summer temperatures and more frequent and intense storms.

Canada and the U.S. have taken a significant number of domestic actions related to climate change in the years since the Agreement was last updated, the TAP report found. One of the most important was a 2015 State of Climate Change Science in the Great Lakes Basin report, which captured available science on impacts, inventoried assessment methods and summarized more than 250 studies.

In implementing the annex, the two countries have addressed science commitments related to climate change impacts, cooperated successfully on numerous measurement and communications projects and met implementation timelines.

Still, the Commission found in its TAP report that more emphasis must be placed on moving from science to action. Studies have identified climate change impacts in the basin, but more work is needed to adapt to the stresses this puts on people and infrastructure in the basin. Governments need to be better prepared.

low pressure great lakes showers noaa
A low-pressure area over the Great Lakes that brought showers in September 2011. Credit: NASA

The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board examined adaptation in a 2017 report, finding that most jurisdictions have a climate change policy or plan in place, but mitigation (such as reducing emissions) is more common than adaptation or resiliency planning.

And adaptation initiatives need to be integrated with other programs like stormwater management, since more frequent and intense storms are expected to increase sewer overflows in cities on both sides of the border.

More extreme precipitation events also mean more variability in lake levels, so land use planning and zoning needs to safeguard shoreline and coastal regions. This is an area where the IJC takes advice from its Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee, which looks at flows and levels.

In line with the Water Quality Board’s work, the TAP recommends that the Parties:

  • Demonstrate global leadership by jointly developing, in cooperation with other government jurisdictions, including indigenous governments and organizations in the Great Lakes, a binational approach to climate change adaptation and resilience in the Great Lakes
  • Invest in a binational vulnerability assessment, defining the risks posed by climate change and providing technical support for measures to adapt to climate change, to engage stakeholders and all orders of government, and to identify priorities for responsive actions in the Great Lakes region
  • Recognize the impacts of climate change on water infrastructure and provide support to communities to proactively and systematically improve the capacity to respond to extreme storm events, especially as related to combined sewer overflows, planning, zoning and adaptation.

Specific climate projections and likely environmental impacts in the Great Lakes region can be found below, in a portion of a chart from the TAP report and based on work by the Water Quality Board (see pages 147-149 for the full chart).

climate tap projections chart
Climate-related Projections. Credit: IJC Tap report

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Species Need Habitat Restoration to Survive a Changing Climate

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

frogs climate change
Spring peeper frogs may find their spring mating calls disrupted due to climate change. Credit: Brad Carlson

Human development has fragmented natural environments across the Great Lakes basin, causing problems for species that rely on those habitats to survive. These problems may be exacerbated by a changing climate. This hasn’t snuck up on the people and organizations working on restoring habitat and connectivity though – climate change has been at the forefront of their planning for nearly a decade.

On the United States side of the Great Lakes, funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has helped support habitat restoration efforts for the past seven years. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has used GLRI funding to assess how climate change might affect habitat restoration and protection efforts. Groups applying to receive GLRI funds for habitat restoration should consider how climate change might impact their work in the future, said Heather Braun, program manager for coastal conservation and habitat restoration at the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Project applicants have a variety of resources to look to for guidance of developing ‘climate-smart’ projects,” Braun said.

What’s challenging is the uncertainty of the future; some models say water levels may increase and others say they may decrease, so restoration projects should be designed to accommodate both possibilities. For example, Braun said a wetland restoration project might include a provision for a water control station or water pumping station to allow the wetland to continue functioning in a low-water future. Restored habitats also need to be able to withstand increased intensity of storms: high winds, strong waves, seiches (or waves pushed from one end of a body of water to another) and ice.

Reducing habitat fragmentation is an important part of restoration work, and for the GLRI. Braun said special consideration has been given to projects that are adjacent to one another to improve connectivity – particularly in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and Ohio’s Maumee Bay. With a changing climate, a variety of plants and animals will be seeing their habitable ranges change – connectivity can improve their chances to live in areas they can survive.

According to the 2013 Environment and Climate Change Canada report, “How Much Habitat is Enough?,” species across North America are already responding to climate change with shifts in ranges, longer stays in breeding grounds by some birds, and earlier mating calls by amphibians. But with the complexity of species, their specific needs, and environments, it’s incredibly difficult to determine what effects will be coming down the line for specific regions and habitats.

The report suggests a precautionary approach that would protect and restore more complete ecosystems beyond the minimum amount of forest, wetland, grassland and riparian areas needed to maintain species populations above an extinction level threshold. A more connected and less fragmented ecosystem is more resilient to climate change, the report says.

Setting aside habitat fragmentation, there would ostensibly be greater biodiversity as a result of global warming in more northern regions like Ontario, said Jeff Bowman, research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and faculty at Trent University. But habitats fragmented by human development in areas along the Great Lakes – such as the coastal marshlands of the Huron-Erie corridor – would inhibit movement north, which will likely result in less biodiversity than would otherwise be expected.

While the Great Lakes serve as a natural barrier for some of this movement, Bowman said, animals can still cross in some key areas like connecting channels. Animal crossings can occur in the Rainy River system west of Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the western and eastern connecting channels of Lake Erie, and the east end of Lake Ontario, Bowman said.

Landowner initiatives can provide important safeguards, such as the A2A Collaborative in New York, Ontario and Quebec. The collaborative is working on a wildlife corridor between Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and Adirondack Park in New York, including Thousand Islands National Park in the St. Lawrence River. Species have historically used this route to travel north and south across the North American continent. Having a stable connection across latitudes and habitats can shore up the resiliency of biological populations in the face of climate change, according to the project website.

A2A map
Map of the A2A Region. Credit: Algonquin to Adirondacks Collaborative

The northward expanded range of animals such as southern flying squirrels and bobcats into northern ranges is forcing them to interact with similar existing species. Already, Bowman said, there are reports of hybrids between the southern and northern flying squirrels in Ontario, and there are concerns that bobcats expanding their range north might hybridize with lynx.

“Hybridization is one of the predicted effects of climate change,” Bowman said. “And the flying squirrels are one of the first demonstrated examples of what we call climate change induced hybridization.”

There’s also a disconnect between how quickly animals can move into new areas and how slowly plants do. Bowman said that southern flying squirrels are, for example, getting ahead of trees they live alongside and are thus unable to find the acorns to eat that they rely on in their southern ranges – in turn causing them to die in the winter. So even though the squirrels could find pleasant temperature ranges and some food in their new homes, they ultimately must wait for the trees they rely on to permanently settle in these new regions.

flying squirrel
Due to climate change, the southern flying squirrel has started moving north into habitat already occupied by the northern flying squirrel. Credit: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Bowman added that some amphibians seem to be taking advantage of the expanding breeding season by emitting mating calls earlier in the year, potentially allowing them a competitive advantage for food supplies over their rivals that must wait.

Habitat restoration project managers need to balance near-term restoration goals with an increasingly variable climate and consider what species will be well-placed to survive in in the future. This includes anticipating the spread of invasive species and planning for long-term management, Braun said.

Invasive species such as Phragmites thrive on habitat disturbances and low water levels, Braun said. Anticipating such changes and improving coordination of invasive species management efforts is important to reduce encroachment on newly restored areas or in existing habitats stressed by climate change, disturbance or fragmentation already. The species’ almost virulent spread and rapid infestation rate makes that a challenge, leading to a push to track its spread and coordinate efforts across the Great Lakes.

Improving coastal resiliency to climate change  for the Great Lakes basin is an ongoing effort for all the states and provinces around the waters. Improvements done thoughtfully would make the challenges down the line more manageable.

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

Climate Projections Suggest More Winter Rains, Threatening More Flooding

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

storm drain erie
Runoff from rain or snow melt in cities is channeled to storm drains, which run directly to waterways or treatment plants that can become overwhelmed during storms. Credit: Tim Evanson

Projected changes to the Great Lakes region’s climate suggest milder winters will become the norm, bringing with them more rainfall. That’s going to put a strain on older infrastructure, leading to the possibility of additional combined sewer overflows and floods like those seen across the Great Lakes basin in late February 2018.

This year, a warm snap caused snowpack and ice cover to melt throughout the region. Several parts of the Great Lakes saw serious rainfall, exacerbating those issues. In older cities like Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; and Brantford, Ontario, these conditions led to combined sewer overflows. Communities there still have old pipes that combine stormwater from runoff of melting snow and rain and sewage waste from homes and businesses. In normal circumstances, all that water is treated and released. But when too much water enters at once, it can overwhelm a treatment plant and divert dirty water directly into rivers and lakes.

“It’s a chronic issue right across older communities,” said Ellen Schwartzel, deputy commissioner of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. “(And) when you have milder winters, what used to be snowpack now comes in as rain and then you get these floods very early in the season. We may need to get ready for that kind of thing more often.”

Schwartzel added that global climate change models suggest increasing air temperatures will lead to more energetic storms on average through 2050. A joint research team from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found that would play out as more frequent, intense storms, particularly as rainfall during winter months. Summer precipitation could potentially decline or simply increase less compared to other seasons.

Climate change has been one driver for more frequent combined sewer overflows and flooding, but Schwartzel said another is readily overlooked: human development. This can further strain combined sewer systems in older cities with growing populations, such as Toronto, Ontario.

Sprawling growth into undeveloped areas has its own impacts. When the landscape is paved over and built upon, that reduces the permeable surface area where precipitation and snowmelt can seep into the ground. Water is then stuck on these hard surfaces until it can run into stormwater drains and potentially contribute to an overflow.

“Whenever you do get rainfall, you get these rapid runoffs,” Schwartzel said. “You get a flashy kind of watershed that you didn’t used to have.” At the same time, it means that in drier times, streams and rivers don’t have the same supply of groundwater to draw from, which also reduces water flows.

Cities Adapting With Green Infrastructure

With more frequent and intense storms and earlier snowmelts due to milder winters expected in the Great Lakes region, municipalities are turning to green infrastructure in response to increasing stormwater discharges , said hydrologist Ralph Haefner, deputy director of the US Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Water Science Center. Also known as “low impact development,” this might involve using permeable concrete, green rooftops, rain gardens, swales, and other methods that can reduce  water runoff.

“A lot of urban planners want more green space, more open areas, and more trees – they’re underestimated in their value for stormwater control and reduction,” Haefner said. “It’s just thinking about how the environment can accept the water that’s supposed to be there. Rather than channeling it out when it rains, how can we utilize it on site? Can we grow plants with it?”

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A combined sewer overflow along the Ohio River in 2011. Credit: Brett Ciccotelli

A growing number of municipalities are considering or implementing stormwater charges for property owners, too. Unlike traditional water bills based on how much water a property is using, the stormwater charge is based on how much runoff a property is contributing to the stormwater sewer system. For example, a parking lot owner may pay very little in a traditional water usage bill, but could see a bigger stormwater charge due to it being paved with asphalt.

The money from those stormwater charges can provide a reliable source of funding for storm-related infrastructure, Schwartzel said, including general maintenance to build out separated stormwater and wastewater sewer lines – mitigating the problem of combined sewer overflows. A separated stormwater line can still discharge without treatment in heavy runoff events, but there would be a smaller amount of pollutants entering the water system and a smaller likelihood of an overflow to begin with.

Haefner said some communities – Hamilton and Kingston in Ontario, and Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee – have opted to construct stormwater storage devices that can hold onto stormwater surges, allowing the water to slowly drain. That way, sewer systems aren’t overtaxed and those communities can avoid combined sewer overflows. These can be large underground tunnel systems or above-ground, reservoir-style “impoundments.”

Overflow Events Cause Public Health Dilemmas

Avoiding overflows is important not just to get around potential flooding, but for health and safety reasons. Haefner said that in conditions where there isn’t an overflow, a combination of stormwater and sanitary sewer discharge is treated before being discharged. But when a combined sewer overflow occurs, this can flush pathogens, viruses and toxic chemicals into rivers and lakes. With people using waterfronts in the Great Lakes region to swim or go boating, these can cause health risks that users aren’t always aware of. Ontario and US states require reporting sewer bypasses to the state and provincial governments, but historically these aren’t generally required to be reported to the public.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a rule requiring public notification of combined sewer overflows into the Great Lakes, specifically for entities seeking new permits or renewing a permit to discharge those into the lakes.

Schwartzel said Utilities Kingston recently developed a map to alert residents to releases of contaminated water due to storms and how long outflows from the sewer system will be running.

“When people are aware that we’re doing this to our waterfronts we all want to enjoy, these patches of the Great Lakes, they begin to see the connection between these (bypass) events and the lack of funding,” she said.

stormwater storage
A stormwater storage system under construction in Toronto will hold water until treatment plants, such as the pictured Ashbridges Bay plant, can get to it. Credit: Timothy Neesam

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

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.

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 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, 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 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