Code Blue: Great Lakes Water Needs a Doctor

By Michael Mezzacapo, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make It Mandatory: Voluntary Programs Aren’t Enough to Stop Lake Erie Algae

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

stormwater great lakes tap
Untreated stormwater can flow into the Great Lakes, bringing runoff, high in nutrients, along for the ride. Credit: Annis Water Resources Institute-GVSU

While commending governments for establishing targets to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie, the IJC concluded in its first Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report that the condition of water quality in Erie’s western basin is unacceptable.

In its 2014 Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) report, the IJC recommended that governments use more regulatory mechanisms and certification standards on nutrient pollution as a way to accelerate progress in reducing the size and intensity of harmful algal blooms in the lake’s western basin. The TAP report, released Nov. 28, 2017, further recommends mandatory standards and controls, and states that over the past 10-15 years, governments at all levels have been focused on incentive-based and voluntary programs to reduce nutrient loadings. Other organizations such as the Alliance for Great Lakes and the Ohio Environmental Council counter that these voluntary programs aren’t enough to reach the 40 percent nutrient pollution reductions that the governments agreed to target. Those groups – and the IJC – maintain that mandatory efforts are necessary to get harmful algal blooms under control, as 10-15 years of government supported voluntary measures haven’t resulted in meaningful improvements to Lake Erie’s water quality.

The federal governments, as well as the states and provinces that link to Lake Erie either directly or through tributaries – Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana – have to come up with domestic action plans on how they’re going to help reach those 40 percent reduction targets. Some of those governments have already put draft plans forward, including Michigan, Ontario, Indiana and Ohio, but a reliance on voluntary programs in those three states and Ontario leaves the IJC skeptical that they can reach those targets as is.

noaa nutrients lake erie
Nutrients such as phosphorus entering western Lake Erie are causing harmful algal blooms to spring up each year in late summer. This photo is from Sept. 25, 2017. Credit: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

This isn’t to say the IJC doesn’t find merit in these voluntary programs; the TAP reports that promoting incentive-based and voluntary best practices are a critical component to improving the health of Lake Erie. But the domestic action plans should include enforceable standards and timetables for reaching reduction goals, and measurable methods to quantify whether the state or provincial governments are hitting those benchmarks. This may include restoring lost wetlands or constructing new ones, which are an effective way to filter out nutrients before they reach the lake.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t limited to the western basin, where phosphorus and other nutrients enter the lake primarily from the Maumee River, and to a lesser extent the Detroit River and the Thames River via Lake St. Clair. Although the problem is much worse in the western basin, pockets of nearshore nutrient and algae problems can be found around the lake. The TAP finds that a major source of nutrients (such as phosphorus) entering western Lake Erie are agricultural operations, including fertilizer applications and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Legislative measures to address these sources have been limited; Ohio has passed legislation to keep manure and fertilizer from being placed in winter months to reduce runoff from CAFOs and farms, but there are still thousands of animal feeding operations in Michigan, Ontario and Ohio that aren’t required to get any kind of permit. The IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board has a project underway to look at different manure regulations throughout the Lake Erie region, with a report expected in early 2018.

harmful algal bloom maumee
A harmful algal bloom spreads into the Maumee River in 2017. Credit: NOAA GLERL, Aerial Associates Photography Inc./Zachary Haslick

While agriculture is the primary contributor, failing and leaking septic systems and urban runoff are   important sources of nutrient pollution, too. The IJC recommends governments require periodic testing, maintenance and replacement of septic systems in Canada and the United States.  Urban nutrient runoff from pipes has declined over the past 40 years thanks to a concerted effort to upgrade sewer systems and close off other major direct single sources. But rainstorms and snowmelt can cause sewer overflows and nutrients from lawn care and construction activities to enter waterways. The IJC recommends the promotion and usage of green infrastructure (like rain gardens, filter strips, and engineered wetlands) to continue reducing runoff in those areas.

Finally, the IJC recommends that Ohio follow Michigan’s lead in declaring western Lake Erie impaired under the US Clean Water Act, which would require a tri-state maximum daily load of phosphorus be developed for those two states and Indiana, under US Environmental Protection Agency oversight. This would provide a mechanism to determine how much phosphorus can enter the water system without compromising water quality, and ultimately help restore the lake.

For its part, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and Science Advisory Board have been studying nutrient pollution issues in Lake Erie. These projects include comparing the influence of manure versus fertilizer, reviewing various policies on CAFOs and how progress toward nutrient reduction goals can be measured, as well as studying the link between nearshore nutrient enrichment and offshore nutrient declines.

Lake Erie’s nutrient problems aren’t improving, and more needs to be done to help the lake get healthy again.

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.

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.

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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.

Attention Increasing on Chemicals of Mutual Concern

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

Chemical pollution of Great Lakes waters was subject of great interest at IJC’s recent public meetings, especially discussion in Sarnia, Ontario, of actions by Canada and the United States on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs).

Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes basin have historically posed risks to human health and wildlife over many years. The latest 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States seeks to address these risks and “… restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”

Both countries committed to action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) under Annex 3 in the 2012 Agreement. Under Annex 3, Canada and the United States identify CMCs from human sources, which both nations agree are potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Once identified, the countries work to reduce both humans’ releases of CMCs through personal, government or business activities, and the use of products containing CMCs.

industrial pollution cmcs
Industrial pollution. Credit: Kenn Kiser

Both governments engaged with partner groups and university, government and industry experts to consider the question of harm to health or environment for a list of CMC prospects. The effects of human and animal exposure to CMCs depend upon the toxicity of the chemical and amount of exposure. Chemicals also can be passed up the food chains and food webs of aquatic systems, leading to higher levels of contamination in predator species.

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Combined sewer overflows can release bacteria to waterways and result in beach closures. Credit: Michael Pereckas

Governments’ nomination and scientific review of CMCs proceeded in 2015, and their success with these actions resulted in the identification and designation of eight CMCs in May 2016:

  • Mercury
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Long-chain perfluorinated carboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs)
  • Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs).

Effects in humans include neurologic (mercury), skin rashes (HBCDs) and cancer (PCBs).

Management action to control CMC’s environmental release and use are expected as a next step in the process. Binational strategies for each CMC guide these actions, and development of strategies for PCBs and HCBDs is underway.

The next round of technical review for new CMCs will begin soon, and candidate CMC nominations are welcome at any time. Nominations to date include radionuclides — types of atoms that are radioactive and may give off radiation to the environment as they decay. While some radionuclides occur naturally, other sources include human activities such as weapons testing and waste from nuclear power plants. Exposure to radiation can result in increased cancer in humans. Signers of the nomination for radionuclides cite the health risks and lack of current binational Great Lakes monitoring strategies.

The IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress noted the success of the governments in completing the first round of CMC identification, where developing processes for CMC nomination and review is a positive first step. The draft assessment indicated that governments also could rely on lessons learned from the first round of CMC nominations to improve actions toward GLWQA objectives. For instance, governments’ development of binational strategies to control CMCs are well behind schedule, and the sheer number of potential CMCs argues for streamlining of the CMCs process. Finally, progress in reducing levels of legacy chemicals is encouraging but emerging contaminants are of concern.

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Great Lakes Residents Pack IJC Public Meetings to Voice Their Thoughts and Concerns

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

issues raised
Meeting participants raised several key issues during the Great Lakes public meetings, as described below. Credit: CBS News, Syracuse News, IJC, Environmental Media Associates, FLOW, Tipp of the Mitt Watershed Council, Education in the World

At five IJC public meetings on the Great Lakes held March 21-29 around the basin, standing-room-only crowds packed venues in Canada and the United States to learn from presentations about topics reflecting local issues as they relate to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to share their own thoughts and concerns.

The IJC held the meetings to obtain comment on the governments’ progress report released last fall, its own draft assessment of progress report released in January, and other issues that Great Lakes residents wished to address. All comments – from presenters and the public – will be reviewed as part of the public input into a final Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report to be released later this year. The report is part of the IJC’s responsibilities to evaluate progress by Canada and the US every three years to accomplish the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including gathering comment on the government’s Progress Report of the Parties (PROP). Obtaining public input is essential to both the IJC assessment and to providing that comment as the Commission is directed to do under the Agreement. The IJC is grateful to everyone who took the time to attend and provide their thoughts and concerns. A public comment period on the reports ended April 15; the first public meeting was held March 2 in Sault. Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Issues raised over the course of the six meetings included: access to safe, affordable drinking water, and the role of agricultural runoff and urban infrastructure in creating harmful algal blooms and contributing pollution to the lakes as well as proposed US funding cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; risks from nuclear power plants and the storage and transportation of nuclear waste; and threats to the lakes from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Some issues mentioned at every meeting were agricultural runoff, identifying radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern, and the threat to the lakes from Asian carp.

Videos of each meeting as well as a summary video are available at ParticipateIJC.org. Here’s a brief summary of the presentations and comments received at the meetings.

Detroit

Two sessions were held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Activity Center in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 21: an afternoon roundtable with scientists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, citizens and others to discuss the unique issues facing the Detroit community; and an evening public meeting.

During the afternoon, issues raised included access to affordable and clean water, threats from the proposed US federal budget to continued funding for local and regional restoration projects, and incorporating social science, environmental justice and economics into the IJC’s Great Lakes work, as well as specific responses to the IJC’s draft TAP report.

Leila Meikas of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council and Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization urged the IJC to include more discussion of fair access to clean water and environmental justice in the final TAP report. “There’s a political separation between water and people, such as corporations being able to extract (Great Lakes) water cheaper than a person in poverty would be paying,” Orduño said. “Protecting the Great Lakes as a whole must also come back down to the household level, so everyone understands how environmental justice, affordability and public health relate to Great Lakes water quality.” Other participants encouraged the IJC to include experts in social science and economics on its Great Lakes advisory boards to expand the range of topics and research they can provide to the IJC.

detroit public meeting
The Detroit evening public meeting, above, and participants line up to provide their comments, below. Credit: IJC

participants line upThese issues and others also were raised by the public in the evening meeting after brief presentations focused on the drinkability, swimability and drinkability of local Great Lakes waters. Participants expressed concerns about the threat from radionuclides as a result of possible emissions from existing nuclear power plants and proposals for nuclear waste storage and transport in the region, and urged that radionuclides be listed as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) by the governments. Speakers also urged that the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down and the oil transported on land instead, where a spill could be more fully contained than in the lakes. Proposals also were provided to designate the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, establish Lake Erie as a binational marine park from the Point Pelee Islands to the mouth of the Detroit River, and to address the imminent threat to the lakes from Asian carp.

Sarnia

sarnia public roundtable
Participants at the Sarnia public roundtable are welcomed by IJC Canadian chair Gordon Walker. Credit: Jeff Kart

Residents from as far as northern Ontario to mid-Ohio traveled to attend the afternoon public roundtable at the Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre in Sarnia, Ontario, on March 22. After presentations about progress to remediate the St. Clair River Area of Concern, CMCs, and sustainable agriculture and harmful algal blooms, participants discussed the topics in small groups. These discussions included the need to: ensure adequate funding for cleaning up toxic Areas of Concern; identify radionuclides and other chemicals as CMCs on a timelier schedule; investigate pharmaceuticals in water from wastewater treatment discharges; and provide greater education and training on best management practices to reduce phosphorus loadings into the lakes.

Joe Hill, Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee member, and others expressed concern for nuclear power production. “How do you know how safe is the drinking water that is being pumped in the area as far as nuclear is concerned? … We do not need nuclear power plants.” Sandra Sahguj, from Thunderbird Water Panther Circle, Walpole Island First Nation, identified dredging for shipping on St Clair River as a concern. “There is a plan for the St. Clair River to be dredged at Walpole Island. No more big ships on the St. Clair, and I don’t want any nuclear waste to be traveling through that water. It’s too dangerous.”

Oregon (Toledo)

full house ohio lake erie
A full house listened to a summary of ongoing research about Lake Erie from Chris Winslow, (not pictured) director of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. Credit: Jeff Kart

Attendees filled the Lake Erie Center meeting room and adjacent hallway on the evening of March 23 in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo to hear about the latest Lake Erie research, as well as updates on the state’s Lake Erie protection and restoration plan and the connection between the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and domestic action plans to restore Lake Erie, before providing their own comments. Many participants expressed a need to regulate animal waste from CAFOs, which is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, in the same way that limits on fertilizers are regulated for crops. “Without mandatory regulations the objective of no nutrients into the lakes from human activity won’t be accomplished,” said Nick Mandros of the Ohio Environmental Council. Rick Graham of the Izaak Walton League’s Great Lakes committee added, “The western Lake Erie basin needs to be declared impaired to force people who are creating the problem to change their actions and restore our waters.”

bouchard closing
Canadian Commissioner Benoit Bouchard provides closing comments at the Toledo area meeting. Credit: Sarah Lobrichon

Other comments focused on the effect of climate change on the lakes and the increased environmental justice issues it will cause over time, the need to preserve funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the US to restore the Maumee River Area of Concern, and restoring wetlands on agricultural and common lands to slow water drainage and filter pollutants naturally. Effective public notice of beach closings also was raised as a primary need in all five lakes. “Ohio does a great job of monitoring,” said Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn, “and can be used as a model to assess how other states and provinces are doing to monitor microcystin and let the public know quickly of those results, and closing beaches as needed.”

Buffalo

The WBFO-WNED public broadcasting studios hosted two sessions on Tuesday, March 28, that brought more than 270 people together to learn and talk about the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York. Eight presentations on topics ranging from restoration of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, the effect of emerging contaminants on fish and wildlife, and wetland habitat restoration, to the Great Lakes Coast Initiative and reclaiming accessible shorelines for recreation at restored urban waterfronts started the afternoon session, followed by questions and statements from the audience.

pollack buffalo
IJC US Chair Lana Pollack welcomes participants to the public meeting in Buffalo. Credit: Sally Cole-Misch

Among issues raised during the afternoon and the evening public meetings were the impacts of combined sewer overflows and nuclear waste storage. Paul Grenier, regional councilor for the City of Welland, Ontario, said, “Local governments … need consistent sewage discharge regulations, they are not the same across states and provinces.” Charley Tarr added that the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan is flawed for the same reason. “We need a regional plan that addresses upstream and suburban inputs,” Tarr said.

Several speakers raised concerns about possible leaks and the long-term viability of the West Valley nuclear waste facility in the Lake Ontario drainage basin. “Because of the extreme storms we have here, this facility is in serious danger,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “The facility is on glacial till so it is not secure. All nuclear waste facilities should be looked at in light of the more extreme weather events throughout the region.” Others raised concerns about hydrofracture waste, continued US funding for Great Lakes restoration projects, erosion and sediment loadings into tributaries to the Buffalo River, and the potential for water diversion as the climate warms. “The No. 1 priority is to keep Great Lakes basin water in the Great Lakes basin,” said Philip McIntyre.

St. Catharines

st catharines roundtable
Participants at the St. Catharines public roundtable discussed sustainable agriculture, the Niagara River, agriculture and nutrients, and other topics in small groups. Credit: Allison Voglesong

The last public meeting at the St. Catharines, Ontario, Rowing Club on the afternoon of March 29 was in roundtable format. Four presentations discussed regional initiatives for sustainable agriculture and the Niagara River Area of Concern. Participants then divided into small groups to discuss these issues, agriculture and nutrients, and the Grand River and Lake Erie.  Issues raised by these groups included the lack of access to beaches and waterways, beach closures due to pollution and bacteria, and the need for collaboration between regulators and farmers to identify common causes and sources of nutrients entering the lakes to develop plans with targeted reductions or each jurisdiction.

Concerns also were raised about possible decreases in funding for the binational Niagara River Area of Concern, which would impede progress, and how sewage is managed in the region. “I am concerned about the sewage lagoons in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie and the E. coli that is generated from the lagoons, which cause medical problems,” said George Jardine, from Citizens Against Unsanitary Sewage Effluent. “The temporary sewage lagoon was only supposed to last 20 years but it is still in force and was never shut down.”

As well, the rampant growth of Phragmites, an invasive grass plant with a feathered plume that increasingly can be seen along highways in ditches and in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes region, was brought up by Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. “I think our biggest threat to our coastal areas right now is Phragmites. We are losing our habitat, we are losing our biodiversity, we are losing our native species. We need our government to help us get the herbicide that controls the Phragmites and we need a program in place in the province.”

Go to ParticipateIJC.org to read and watch more from the IJC’s Great Lakes public meetings, as well as comments provided online by others. The final TAP report will include all comments, as part of the body of the report and in an appendix of public comment, when it is released later this year.

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

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

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invasive Species Successes and Challenges Highlighted in Draft TAP Report

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

Over the past 175 years, more than 180 aquatic, non-native species have found a home in the Great Lakes. They arrived through human activities such as shipping, building the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls, or even intentional introduction. In most cases these species do not cause problems. But about 45 of these have become invasive and represent one of the toughest challenges facing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Invasive species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis), and the Asian longhorned beetle are disrupting the Great Lakes ecosystem in drastic ways
Invasive species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis), and the Asian longhorned beetle are disrupting the Great Lakes ecosystem in drastic ways. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant, NOAA-GLERL, Nature Conservancy

This is the conclusion the IJC reached in its draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and the United States recognized how important this issue had become when they included an annex in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on aquatic invasive species (AIS) to create new programs to prevent and stop these introductions. The TAP report outlines the aggressive approach both countries have taken to enforce ship ballast exchanges. This approach, in concert with AIS prevention programs by a network of federal, state, provincial and local government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, has created a key Agreement success story: Coordinated enforcement and prevention programs have achieved nearly 100 percent compliance in ballast water discharges and exchanges, with no new discoveries of AIS from ballast water discharges confirmed since 2006. This is an impressive feat, considering at least 25 million tons of cargo travels annually to the Great Lakes from international ports in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

controls ballast water ocean going ships
Controls on ballast water discharges from ocean-going ships have helped to limit introduction of non-native species since 2006. Credit: Adobe Stock

At the same time, the governments’ progress report listed the status of AIS as poor, and the trend deteriorating, and the IJC agreed with this assessment in its draft report. Why? Previously established invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels (Dreissenids) and other AIS are spreading through the lakes, causing massive disruption to the ecosystem and food chains, and decreases in native species.

According to the TAP, “To address the spread of AIS, the regulation of ballast water discharges from ‘Lakers’, ships that remain within the Great Lakes, is being considered by Transport Canada as well as several states, though Lakers currently are exempt from US Coast Guard requirements. The two federal governments have agreed to seek consistency and compatibility between US and Canadian ballast water requirements in the 2017-2019 priorities for science and action, and this should provide a path towards compromise and harmonious joint implementation for both Lakers and seagoing vessels.”

Terrestrial invaders such as the common reed (Phragmites), garlic mustard and purple loosestrife as well as insects like the Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer also are spreading across the region, which reduce native plants and cause deforestation. These impacts cause increased inputs of sediments, chemicals and nutrients into the Great Lakes.

The TAP report concludes that effective control, containment and eradication measures are essential for terrestrial and aquatic invasive species. The two countries have identified this as a priority for the next triennial cycle of Agreement work. A key to accomplishing this will be eliminating discrepancies in terms of acceptable chemical, physical and biological controls among the state, provincial and federal agencies. Stable funding for research and effective action also is essential to ensure long-term, binationally coordinated prevention and control of invasive species.


What Do You Think?

In its draft TAP report, the IJC states: “There has been significant progress in preventing the introduction of AIS to the Great Lakes. The spread of previously introduced invasive species is a major concern. Further progress on AIS prevention and control could be enhanced by improving long-term program funding mechanisms, reaching agreements on permitting the use of all types of control measures across jurisdictions and requiring ballast water exchange and flushing in addition to discharge treatment.”

Do you agree with this finding of successes and gaps in the Parties’ progress toward the achievement of this objective?

How could the Parties better harmonize permitting, remove administrative barriers and adopt an integrated approach to AIS management?

Are there other ways the Parties could improve their binational approach to invasive species?

Tell us what you think by going to Participate IJC to answer these questions and provide your thoughts about AIS in the Great Lakes before April 15, 2017.

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

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

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

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

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

Read and Comment

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

Attend an IJC Great Lakes Public Meeting

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

Here’s the lineup:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Part of the Conversation through Social Media

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

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

Sign In and Sound Off: Great Lakes Questions Need Answers

megaphone participateijc
Credit: Gary Knight

By IJC staff

Water doesn’t speak, but you can.

April 15 is the deadline for public comments on our Triennial Assessment of Progress Report and the Progress Report of the Parties.

That’s a mouthful, we know. The TAP report, for short, looks at the job the Canadian and US governments have done to meet requirements of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The TAP includes a review of the Progress Report of the Parties, or PROP. As the Water Quality Agreement’s title suggests, this is a subject of upmost importance for anyone who lives in the Great Lakes basin, which supplies drinking water, recreational opportunities like swimming, fishing and boating, and countless other benefits.

How are the lakes doing? You tell us. The governments have released their status report, and we’ve assessed it in 84 exciting pages.

You don’t have to read the reports cover-to-cover. And you don’t need to travel to upcoming public meetings to add your voice. Of course, those who can attend March meetings in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and New York and encouraged to come out. Those who can’t are encouraged to sign in and sound off on both reports. Go to ParticipateIJC.org.

We’ve summarized the TAP report’s key findings in an infographic. We’ve also come up with questions to help spur engagement. There’s an executive summary on pages 9-11.

draft tap infographic

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough engagement since the reports were released for public comment. You can help change that. Sign in, sound off, and speak out for water. Have the governments’ done something right? Tell us. Have they missed something? Tell us. If there a particular issue that needs more focus? Tell us. The people who live in the basin know it best.

The questions below may be a little bureaucratic (This is for the draft of an official TAP report that will be sent to two federal governments, after all). Feel free to interpret the questions widely; general comments also are welcome.

Here’s the schedule of the questions we’ll be posting in coming weeks at ParticipateIJC.org on the TAP report. Separately, you also can comment on the PROP report.

Invasive Species: The week of Feb. 13

  • Do you agree with this finding of successes and gaps in the Parties’ progress toward the achievement of this objective?
  • How could the Parties better harmonize permitting, remove administrative barriers and adopt an integrated approach to AIS management?
  • Are there other ways the parties could improve their binational approach to invasive species?

Human Health: The week of Feb. 20

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding lack of demonstrated progress toward achievement of the human health objectives and the need for greater binational focus?
  • What advice should the IJC give the Parties on how to increase the binational focus on human health?
  • What issues should the Parties address as a priority under an increased binational focus on human health?

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: The week of Feb. 27

  • Has the 2012 GLWQA affected you?
  • What was the most notable achievement of governments in the first three years of Agreement implementation?
  • What advice should the IJC give the Parties about how binational cooperation on Great Lakes issues can be maintained and expanded?

Nutrients: The week of March 6

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding the progress on nutrients?
  • What are other steps could the Parties take to remedy degraded water quality in western and central Lake Erie?
  • Are there other actions the Parties should take to address nutrients in the Great Lakes?

Pollutants: The week of March 13

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding the progress on CMCs?
  • How can the Parties improve their processes to designate CMCs and develop binational strategies for their control and/or elimination or generally increase their progress toward achieving the pollutants objective?

Process, Deadlines: The week of March 20

  • How do you benefit or could you benefit from these processes and procedures?
  • What principles and approaches from the GLWQA could be better institutionalized in the next work cycle?
  • What new deadlines should be set for work in the next triennial cycle(s)?

Areas of Concern: The week of March 27

  • Do you agree with this finding on progress in restoring AOCs?
  • What should the Parties learn from progress in AOC restoration?
  • How can this progress on AOCs be maintained or improved?

Reporting: The week of April 3

  • Do you agree with this finding on Great Lakes indicators?
  • What additional improvements could be made in Great Lakes reporting?

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

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking water and pollutants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Environmental conditions, climate change and nutrient runoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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