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.
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).
Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.
Although water quality in the Great Lakes is generally good, Canada and the US still lag behind in meeting goals to identify Chemicals of Mutual Concern and develop strategies to address pollution.
All of the Great Lakes have been degraded by human and industrial activities. The IJC has for many years called on governments to strengthen efforts to identify and stop these chemicals from entering the lakes.
Chemical pollution comes in many forms, from tiny invisible particles in the air or water that aren’t detectable by human senses to toxic substances like mercury from power plants in and outside the region. These harmful chemicals can pose risks to human health and affect drinking water quality.
Many chemicals build up over time (bioaccumulate) in the food web. Substances like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can remain in the Great Lakes ecosystem for long periods despite being banned by Canada and the US several decades ago. The good news is these banned substances are slowly diminishing over time in these ecosystems.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1978 required Canada and the U.S. to prohibit the discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts and virtually eliminate the discharge of all persistent toxic substances. However, these goals have yet to be met. The list of hazardous and potentially hazardous substances created at the time included hundreds of substances and chemicals.
Over time, both governments have passed bans or regulations to reduce and eliminate production and use of toxic substances like PCBs, but new substances are continuously created that might pose health risks to humans, fish, and wildlife.
Canada regulates chemicals through the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), adopted in 2006. Canada has evaluated nearly 23,000 chemicals which were in commercial use during the previous two decades. That process identified about 4,300 chemical substances that will require additional testing or evaluation. The CMP seeks to address the safety of all 4,300 substances by 2020.
The updated 2012 GLWQA continues to call for both countries to virtually eliminate all Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs). CMCs are substances from human sources that pose a threat to human health and the environment. This is different from approaches in past versions of the GLWQA where a long list of hazardous substances was used.
As of 2018, only eight chemicals or categories of chemicals have been designated as CMCs. Public concern has been expressed about the slow pace of the CMC process, and the IJC shares these concerns. In its First Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC recommends governments accelerate work on binational strategies for elimination or continual reduction of CMCs with clear timelines set and met for strategy development and implementation. The IJC also recommends the governments implement the GLWQA principles of zero discharge, virtual elimination, accountability and public engagement, as well as Extended Producer Responsibility. The IJC further believes strategies to reduce pollutants in Great Lakes waters must contain clear timelines for the implementation of actions.
The IJC concluded in its TAP report that expanding and expediting the process of identifying more CMCs, and developing clear binational strategies to reduce or eliminate toxic substances are needed to meet each countries’ GLWQA obligations.
Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
A project to catalog, map and monitor every Great Lakes wetland larger than four hectares should be a boon to efforts to improve water quality, allowing researchers to get a better picture of where problems are arising and how expansive these problems might be.
The IJC commended the effort, called the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program, in its Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report. A couple of improvements were suggested, notably a more effective data management system and coordination mechanism to make it easier for the information collected to be used by partnering agencies and water managers.
The IJC also is undertaking its own wetlands project through the Great Lakes Water Quality Board. The project will summarize challenges associated with protecting and enhancing wetlands, and identify where wetland conservation and protection policies and programs have led to improved water quality and ecosystem health.
The board will provide recommendations to the IJC on how governments can make progress on a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement target to achieve a net habitat gain in the Great Lakes; recommendations are expected in the spring of 2018.
The Canada-US Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement includes supporting healthy and productive wetlands capable of sustaining “resilient populations of native species” as part of its general objectives. In a 2017 State of the Great Lakes report released by the Canadian and US governments, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada found the overall health of wetlands to be “unchanging.”
Digging deeper, it’s considered unchanging because of a mix of good and bad news. While wetland connectivity seems to be improving across the basin, the diversity of wetland plants is declining in Lakes Huron and Erie. On the whole, Great Lakes wetlands are seeing improving conditions for wetland fish and deteriorating conditions for wetland invertebrates.
Moreover, while the assessment of extant wetlands and their composition is incomplete, but it has been reported that more than half of all historic Great Lakes wetlands have been lost, up to 90 percent in some areas. This has had a detrimental impact on water quality and habitat, and the IJC has advocated for a stronger binational monitoring program. In recent years, such a program has gotten underway.
“The Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program dates back to the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences held in 1996 and 1998 between Environment Canada and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” said Don Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University’s Institute of Great Lakes Research and a principal investigator for the program. Those conferences called for standardized methods to monitor and measure ecosystem health, rather than each government using its own standards and measurements.
“After years of discussions with dozens of agencies, organizations and people, in 2010 the monitoring program got underway with a $10 million grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Another $10 million was awarded in 2015,” Uzarski said. Central Michigan University (CMU) oversees the $20 million in research funds used across the basin for the program, and is allowed to subcontract out to researchers in Canada. In that initial five-year period, researchers quantified ecosystem disturbances in every coastal wetland in the Great Lakes basin larger than four hectares. These included physical characteristics of the wetlands, chemical pollution, plant species, fish, amphibians, birds, invertebrates (such as insects) and how variable these aspects are in different parts of the wetland and over time.
In total, about 1,039 wetlands in the Great Lakes met those criteria, said Jan Ciborowski, biological sciences professor with the University of Windsor. With a full listing of sites completed, universities and agencies involved in the project have split up the duties of rechecking wetland sites based on geography, revisiting about one-fifth each year. In the US, this includes Lake Superior State University, the University of Notre Dame, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and US Geological Survey. University of Windsor heads up the Canadian side of the lakes, Ciborowski said, with the help of Environment and Climate Change Canada, Bird Studies Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. This second five-year cycle just finished up its second year of surveys, Ciborowski said, which has started to paint a picture of how individual wetlands are changing.
“We and our students go out in the summer and assess the water quality, and water samples are collected,” he said. “We also have people going out in the spring and early summer to investigate waterfowl and amphibians, and we have teams that evaluate aquatic vegetation, fish, and invertebrates in the summer.”
This information has been used to build an initial database of wetlands available on the program’s website. Ciborowski said this information is valuable from an ecosystem standpoint (as the fish people like to catch and eat can live in these wetlands) and a water quality standpoint: if a part of the Great Lakes reports issues with algal blooms, a fish kill or botulism, researchers can check the data to see if these issues are restricted to one location or are occurring in a broader region.
“We’re facing local problems, but we also face regional ones, and it’s important to know where to look [for causes] when those events occur,” Ciborowski said.
The monitoring program also provides basic and robust scientific knowledge that could be helpful for future research projects, he added, and is a great way to train future scientists due to the number of students working on it.
And while full results for the second visits won’t be available until 2020, the sites already visited are painting a picture of just how complex these ecosystems are. For example, Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay has seen the invasive plant Phragmites essentially take over coastal wetlands, Uzarski said.
“But we’re also seeing trends of increased water quality in the marshes, so that massive (Phragmites) biomass may be bad for wildlife but it is serving as a tremendous filter of pollutants coming off of the landscape, so we’re seeing other aspects of the wetland improve, like water quality,” Uzarski said. Overall, the Saginaw Bay region would be considered moderately impacted and unchanged in overall health, but some aspects are improving and others are worsening.
The expansion of terrestrial invasive species like Phragmites, starry stonewort and Chinese water chestnut has been detrimental to the ecological health of the wetlands throughout the Great Lakes, Ciborowski noted.
Ciborowski said surveys also have shown how much the health of coastal wetlands rely on Great Lakes water levels.
At low levels, a relatively small number of fish species were found in the wetlands, and waterfowl and amphibians that rely on wetlands were doing poorly. With more water filling those coastal wetland areas, those species have rebounded. Additional water also changes the competition between plant species.
The shift to using Plan 2014 to manage water flows from Lake Ontario also should help restore ailing wetlands along the lake and the upper St. Lawrence River by more closely mimicking natural water level cycles – these areas account for about 20 percent of the remaining wetlands in the Great Lakes basin. Natural variations in lake levels promote more natural diversity in wetland plants. For example, occasional extremely high water levels like those seen on Lake Ontario and Lake Superior in 2017 can drown out upland plant species that can encroach into wetlands in lower water years.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
Analysis from a recently released IJC Science Advisory Board Report showed that excess phosphorus from fertilizer application is often stored in agricultural soils, nearby ditches, buffer zones and wetlands with the potential to leach nutrients for years or even decades. “Even a small ‘leakage’ of excess phosphorus may be sufficient to contribute to algal blooms,” the report says.
(See also: “Less Fertilizer, More Transparency Needed in Western Lake Erie Basin”)
Want to Know More?
In addition to the IJC’s recent recommendations on nutrients in its TAP report, The IJC’s Water Quality Board and Science Advisory boards have released reports relating to the issue of nutrient pollution by highlighting watershed management tactics and investigating fertilizer loading issues. Click the reports below to learn more.
Eliminating all nutrient runoff isn’t the answer to solving this crisis. Just like the human body, lakes need nutrients to sustain life. Nutrients are chemical elements that support all animal and plant life. Nutrients support algae (technically known as phytoplankton), the primary producers which are the foundation of a lake’s food web. Eutrophication is the process a waterbody undergoes when subjected to an excessive load of nutrients. Eutrophication can set the stage for algae and aquatic plants to grow out of control. When the excess algae growth eventually dies, bacteria and microorganisms feed on the dead material and consume available oxygen in the water. If oxygen levels dip too low, massive fish die-offs can occur, which can severely impact ecosystems.
The impacts of excessive nutrients and algal blooms are being felt across the Great Lakes basin as well as other waters in Canada and the United States. Governments are taking notice. Through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the United States and Canada have established updated targets for reducing phosphorus loading to the western and central basins of Lake Erie. Strategies, known as Domestic Action Plans, outline programs and policies considered necessary to meet reductions in nutrient loading.
Updated targets include a 40 percent reduction in nutrient offloading between the US and Canada, especially in particularly sensitive tributary regions of Lake Erie, like Thames River in Ontario and the Maumee in Ohio.
The 40 percent reduction target commits Canada to offloading no more than 212 metric tons annually, largely from the Thames River and Leamington area. American emissions, centered on the Maumee and Sandusky watersheds, cannot total more than 3,316 metric tons to hit a 6,000-metric-ton target.
In its First Triannual Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC forwarded several recommendations to reduce nutrient pollution and improve water quality, urging the governments to provide more details on timelines, responsible parties and measurable outcomes.
Although there are many non-regulatory or voluntary actions in place to reduce excessive nutrient runoff, such as agricultural best management practices (BMPs), the IJC has called for stricter standards and enforcement on nutrient runoff. Improving compliance on BMPs and using regulatory enforcement will assist the governments to meet set targets for nutrient reduction in Lake Erie.
Western Lake Erie water quality has been greatly impacted by nuisance and harmful algal blooms, but there is hope. In the 1960s and 1970s, phosphorus pollution from municipal wastewater systems and detergents was causing excessive algal blooms. Governments at federal, state and provincial, and local levels as well as citizens worked together to install pollution controls and substantially reduce the algal blooms, voluntary bans on phosphorus detergent began in the 1990s. Bold action solved the problem in the past and bold action is needed now. Many new research studies and reports address the issue of nutrient pollution, but this should not delay stakeholders from performing early measures to reduce their share of nutrient runoff.
Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chemical pollution of Great Lakes waters was subject of great interest at IJC’s recent public meetings, especially discussion in Sarnia, Ontario, of actions by Canada and the United States on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs).
Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes basin have historically posed risks to human health and wildlife over many years. The latest 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States seeks to address these risks and “… restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”
Both countries committed to action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) under Annex 3 in the 2012 Agreement. Under Annex 3, Canada and the United States identify CMCs from human sources, which both nations agree are potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Once identified, the countries work to reduce both humans’ releases of CMCs through personal, government or business activities, and the use of products containing CMCs.
Both governments engaged with partner groups and university, government and industry experts to consider the question of harm to health or environment for a list of CMC prospects. The effects of human and animal exposure to CMCs depend upon the toxicity of the chemical and amount of exposure. Chemicals also can be passed up the food chains and food webs of aquatic systems, leading to higher levels of contamination in predator species.
Governments’ nomination and scientific review of CMCs proceeded in 2015, and their success with these actions resulted in the identification and designation of eight CMCs in May 2016:
Effects in humans include neurologic (mercury), skin rashes (HBCDs) and cancer (PCBs).
Management action to control CMC’s environmental release and use are expected as a next step in the process. Binational strategies for each CMC guide these actions, and development of strategies for PCBs and HCBDs is underway.
The IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress noted the success of the governments in completing the first round of CMC identification, where developing processes for CMC nomination and review is a positive first step. The draft assessment indicated that governments also could rely on lessons learned from the first round of CMC nominations to improve actions toward GLWQA objectives. For instance, governments’ development of binational strategies to control CMCs are well behind schedule, and the sheer number of potential CMCs argues for streamlining of the CMCs process. Finally, progress in reducing levels of legacy chemicals is encouraging but emerging contaminants are of concern.
Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
At five IJC public meetings on the Great Lakes held March 21-29 around the basin, standing-room-only crowds packed venues in Canada and the United States to learn from presentations about topics reflecting local issues as they relate to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to share their own thoughts and concerns.
The IJC held the meetings to obtain comment on the governments’ progress report released last fall, its own draft assessment of progress report released in January, and other issues that Great Lakes residents wished to address. All comments – from presenters and the public – will be reviewed as part of the public input into a final Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report to be released later this year. The report is part of the IJC’s responsibilities to evaluate progress by Canada and the US every three years to accomplish the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including gathering comment on the government’s Progress Report of the Parties (PROP). Obtaining public input is essential to both the IJC assessment and to providing that comment as the Commission is directed to do under the Agreement. The IJC is grateful to everyone who took the time to attend and provide their thoughts and concerns. A public comment period on the reports ended April 15; the first public meeting was held March 2 in Sault. Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Issues raised over the course of the six meetings included: access to safe, affordable drinking water, and the role of agricultural runoff and urban infrastructure in creating harmful algal blooms and contributing pollution to the lakes as well as proposed US funding cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; risks from nuclear power plants and the storage and transportation of nuclear waste; and threats to the lakes from the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. Some issues mentioned at every meeting were agricultural runoff, identifying radionuclides as a Chemical of Mutual Concern, and the threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Videos of each meeting as well as a summary video are available at ParticipateIJC.org. Here’s a brief summary of the presentations and comments received at the meetings.
Two sessions were held at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Activity Center in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday, March 21: an afternoon roundtable with scientists, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, citizens and others to discuss the unique issues facing the Detroit community; and an evening public meeting.
During the afternoon, issues raised included access to affordable and clean water, threats from the proposed US federal budget to continued funding for local and regional restoration projects, and incorporating social science, environmental justice and economics into the IJC’s Great Lakes work, as well as specific responses to the IJC’s draft TAP report.
Leila Meikas of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, William Copeland of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Sandra Turner-Handy of the Michigan Environmental Council and Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization urged the IJC to include more discussion of fair access to clean water and environmental justice in the final TAP report. “There’s a political separation between water and people, such as corporations being able to extract (Great Lakes) water cheaper than a person in poverty would be paying,” Orduño said. “Protecting the Great Lakes as a whole must also come back down to the household level, so everyone understands how environmental justice, affordability and public health relate to Great Lakes water quality.” Other participants encouraged the IJC to include experts in social science and economics on its Great Lakes advisory boards to expand the range of topics and research they can provide to the IJC.
These issues and others also were raised by the public in the evening meeting after brief presentations focused on the drinkability, swimability and drinkability of local Great Lakes waters. Participants expressed concerns about the threat from radionuclides as a result of possible emissions from existing nuclear power plants and proposals for nuclear waste storage and transport in the region, and urged that radionuclides be listed as a Chemical of Mutual Concern (CMC) by the governments. Speakers also urged that the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac be shut down and the oil transported on land instead, where a spill could be more fully contained than in the lakes. Proposals also were provided to designate the Detroit River as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, establish Lake Erie as a binational marine park from the Point Pelee Islands to the mouth of the Detroit River, and to address the imminent threat to the lakes from Asian carp.
Residents from as far as northern Ontario to mid-Ohio traveled to attend the afternoon public roundtable at the Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre in Sarnia, Ontario, on March 22. After presentations about progress to remediate the St. Clair River Area of Concern, CMCs, and sustainable agriculture and harmful algal blooms, participants discussed the topics in small groups. These discussions included the need to: ensure adequate funding for cleaning up toxic Areas of Concern; identify radionuclides and other chemicals as CMCs on a timelier schedule; investigate pharmaceuticals in water from wastewater treatment discharges; and provide greater education and training on best management practices to reduce phosphorus loadings into the lakes.
Joe Hill, Sarnia Environmental Advisory Committee member, and others expressed concern for nuclear power production. “How do you know how safe is the drinking water that is being pumped in the area as far as nuclear is concerned? … We do not need nuclear power plants.” Sandra Sahguj, from Thunderbird Water Panther Circle, Walpole Island First Nation, identified dredging for shipping on St Clair River as a concern. “There is a plan for the St. Clair River to be dredged at Walpole Island. No more big ships on the St. Clair, and I don’t want any nuclear waste to be traveling through that water. It’s too dangerous.”
Attendees filled the Lake Erie Center meeting room and adjacent hallway on the evening of March 23 in Oregon, Ohio, near Toledo to hear about the latest Lake Erie research, as well as updates on the state’s Lake Erie protection and restoration plan and the connection between the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and domestic action plans to restore Lake Erie, before providing their own comments. Many participants expressed a need to regulate animal waste from CAFOs, which is used as fertilizer on agricultural land, in the same way that limits on fertilizers are regulated for crops. “Without mandatory regulations the objective of no nutrients into the lakes from human activity won’t be accomplished,” said Nick Mandros of the Ohio Environmental Council. Rick Graham of the Izaak Walton League’s Great Lakes committee added, “The western Lake Erie basin needs to be declared impaired to force people who are creating the problem to change their actions and restore our waters.”
Other comments focused on the effect of climate change on the lakes and the increased environmental justice issues it will cause over time, the need to preserve funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the US to restore the Maumee River Area of Concern, and restoring wetlands on agricultural and common lands to slow water drainage and filter pollutants naturally. Effective public notice of beach closings also was raised as a primary need in all five lakes. “Ohio does a great job of monitoring,” said Lake Erie Waterkeeper Sandy Bihn, “and can be used as a model to assess how other states and provinces are doing to monitor microcystin and let the public know quickly of those results, and closing beaches as needed.”
The WBFO-WNED public broadcasting studios hosted two sessions on Tuesday, March 28, that brought more than 270 people together to learn and talk about the Great Lakes in Buffalo, New York. Eight presentations on topics ranging from restoration of the Buffalo River Area of Concern, the effect of emerging contaminants on fish and wildlife, and wetland habitat restoration, to the Great Lakes Coast Initiative and reclaiming accessible shorelines for recreation at restored urban waterfronts started the afternoon session, followed by questions and statements from the audience.
Among issues raised during the afternoon and the evening public meetings were the impacts of combined sewer overflows and nuclear waste storage. Paul Grenier, regional councilor for the City of Welland, Ontario, said, “Local governments … need consistent sewage discharge regulations, they are not the same across states and provinces.” Charley Tarr added that the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan is flawed for the same reason. “We need a regional plan that addresses upstream and suburban inputs,” Tarr said.
Several speakers raised concerns about possible leaks and the long-term viability of the West Valley nuclear waste facility in the Lake Ontario drainage basin. “Because of the extreme storms we have here, this facility is in serious danger,” said Lynda Schneekloth of the Sierra Club Niagara Group. “The facility is on glacial till so it is not secure. All nuclear waste facilities should be looked at in light of the more extreme weather events throughout the region.” Others raised concerns about hydrofracture waste, continued US funding for Great Lakes restoration projects, erosion and sediment loadings into tributaries to the Buffalo River, and the potential for water diversion as the climate warms. “The No. 1 priority is to keep Great Lakes basin water in the Great Lakes basin,” said Philip McIntyre.
The last public meeting at the St. Catharines, Ontario, Rowing Club on the afternoon of March 29 was in roundtable format. Four presentations discussed regional initiatives for sustainable agriculture and the Niagara River Area of Concern. Participants then divided into small groups to discuss these issues, agriculture and nutrients, and the Grand River and Lake Erie. Issues raised by these groups included the lack of access to beaches and waterways, beach closures due to pollution and bacteria, and the need for collaboration between regulators and farmers to identify common causes and sources of nutrients entering the lakes to develop plans with targeted reductions or each jurisdiction.
Concerns also were raised about possible decreases in funding for the binational Niagara River Area of Concern, which would impede progress, and how sewage is managed in the region. “I am concerned about the sewage lagoons in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie and the E. coli that is generated from the lagoons, which cause medical problems,” said George Jardine, from Citizens Against Unsanitary Sewage Effluent. “The temporary sewage lagoon was only supposed to last 20 years but it is still in force and was never shut down.”
As well, the rampant growth of Phragmites, an invasive grass plant with a feathered plume that increasingly can be seen along highways in ditches and in wetlands throughout the Great Lakes region, was brought up by Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. “I think our biggest threat to our coastal areas right now is Phragmites. We are losing our habitat, we are losing our biodiversity, we are losing our native species. We need our government to help us get the herbicide that controls the Phragmites and we need a program in place in the province.”
Go to ParticipateIJC.org to read and watch more from the IJC’s Great Lakes public meetings, as well as comments provided online by others. The final TAP report will include all comments, as part of the body of the report and in an appendix of public comment, when it is released later this year.
Sally Cole-Misch is public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.
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.
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.”
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.