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Connecting Waters of the Great Lakes Need More Monitoring and Assessment

Photo of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Picture of Victor Serveiss
Victor Serveiss
October 19, 2021
connecting waters webinar newsletter great lakes connection

If you were a Jeopardy! contestant and the answer was: “They hold approximately 20 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water,” you might buzz in to declare “What are the (Laurentian) Great Lakes?” But what if the answer was: “A river, strait or fluvial lake that connects the Great Lakes to each other”? Could you easily name a Great Lakes connecting water?

There are seven connecting waters in the Great Lakes: the St. Marys River (connecting Superior and Huron); the Straits of Mackinac (joining Michigan and Huron); the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River (linking Huron to Erie); the Niagara River (flowing from Erie to Ontario) and the St. Lawrence River (transporting Ontario’s waters to the Atlantic Ocean).

connecting waters slide
A slide from the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board’s Research Coordination Committee October webinar lists the Great Lakes connecting waters. Credit: IJC

Lacking the largesse of the “inland seas” they unite, Great Lakes connecting waters garner far less attention from popular culture or visibility in the media. They also tend to be overlooked by the Great Lakes scientific community.

For example, a 2007 study shows that connecting waters have received far less attention than the waters they unite, as demonstrated by the few scientific publications about connecting waters, reflecting relatively fewer monitoring and surveillance activity by government agencies and funding for research by granting agencies.

twiss research connecting waters mentions
A critical examination of publication frequency illustrates that the connecting waters are often overlooked in peer-reviewed science publications. Reproduced with permission from the Journal of Great Lakes Research

Research managers that compose the IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board’s Research Coordination Committee decided to do an in-depth study of the monitoring and surveillance of the Great Lakes connecting waters and identified some gaps. The work group included members from the US Geological Survey, US Environmental Protection Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, along with members from other agencies, organizations and universities. Work on the report was led by committee member Michael Twiss, author of the 2007 study and chair of biology at Clarkson University, along with Rebecca Rooney, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo

The committee recently published its report and hosted an October 8 webinar explaining why the issue is important and offering advice on how to give connecting waters the specialized scientific attention they merit.

Connecting waters were historically important meeting places for Indigenous communities who maintain an important presence at each of these locations. Connecting waters are vital links in the economic and ecological network of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system. They include globally-significant (Ramsar) wetlands, key fish spawning areas and bird nesting sites. Yet they are threatened by multiple, concentrated environmental stressors such as big cities, industrial sites, shipping routes, bridges and pipeline crossings. Several control structures on connecting waters also provide hydropower and (marginally) influence the level of some lakes.

connecting waters threats values
A slide from the IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board’s Research Coordination Committee webinar lists examples of the ecological, social and economic values and multiple environmental threats facing the Great Lakes connecting waters. All connecting waters (except the Niagara River) serve as shipping corridors; all connecting waters that are rivers contain Areas of Concern. Credit: Rebecca Rooney

“Monitoring in the connecting waters provides insight into the health of these ecosystems,” Rooney said on the webinar. “But a key finding of our project was that monitoring the connecting waters also tells us about the integrity of upstream contributing areas, water bodies and connecting river tributaries. Our study revealed that the value of (connecting waters) monitoring is perhaps not as apparent to the Great Lakes regulatory and scientific community as it should be.”

The board report finds that present monitoring activities in connecting waters are insufficient to adequately support their management. In the webinar, Rooney classified key monitoring gaps into four categories, saying there is a lack of institutional culture and agency coordination, data standardization, infrastructure and technology, and experienced personnel.

The 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement outlines two processes for government agencies to collaborate in monitoring and managing water quality in the basin: through Lakewide Action and Management Plans, or LAMPs (Annex 2), and through the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative, or CSMI (part of Annex 10). The connecting waters (except the Straits of Mackinac) are included in LAMPs and CSMI for certain lakes.

However, “the connecting waters are lumped in with this lake-centric process that is led by lake experts and focused on lake outcomes,” said webinar panelist and report co-author Jeff Ridal, executive director at the St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Science and former Canadian co-chair of the IJC Great Lakes Science Advisory Board’s Science Priority Committee. For example, vessels and techniques used in lakes are not always suited to sampling in swiftly flowing, and more dangerous, connecting waters.

“The continuation of past established approaches to surveillance and monitoring across the Great Lakes system are not providing the needed spatial, temporal or specificity in data needed to understand the status and trends of ecosystem health in the connecting waters,” Twiss said during the webinar.

To remedy this, the Research Coordination Committee suggests that the IJC make a recommendation to the Canadian and US governments to adjust language in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to expand and specifically address the way connecting waters are incorporated into LAMP and CSMI efforts. 

The committee also provides another recommendation with advice on how Canadian and US governments might develop a well-thought-out plan for a comprehensive monitoring program for connecting waters that corresponds to the five-year cycle of the lake CSMI and LAMP processes. Governments would need coordination, funding and infrastructure resources, such as vessels that are properly equipped to navigate fast-moving rivers.

Moreover, the committee advises changes to improve the overarching education, communication and coordination for the scientific community’s understanding of these ecosystems. To diversify the CSMI process so that more river, strait and fluvial lake experts are involved requires improvements in connecting waters education, so future scientists are informed about the unique and important connecting waters.

The committee’s report is ultimately for the IJC to consider and for the awareness of the government agencies responsible for LAMP and CSMI efforts. However, the committee’s webinar and public promotion of the report findings intend to serve a greater purpose. The report can help nongovernment organizations, including those working on Great Lakes monitoring and assessment, to make the compelling case that the critical and vulnerable Great Lakes’ connecting waters—important intersections of both humans and biotamust no longer be overlooked and should become a priority to understand, monitor and protect.

Photo of Allison Voglesong Zejnati
Allison Voglesong Zejnati

Allison Voglesong Zejnati is public affairs specialist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Picture of Victor Serveiss
Victor Serveiss

Victor Serveiss is environmental adviser in the IJC’s US Section office in Washington D.C.

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