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