Underscoring a new push to advance equity and justice, an Environmental Protection Agency leader said Monday the federal regulator is hiring about five full-time employees to work on environmental justice.
2020 marked Lake Michigan’s highest water level in 120 years, experts said, and climate variance makes future water levels challenging to predict. Coastal impacts are well-documented, but the effect of lake level rise on the area’s inland waterways is poorly understood. A University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign study examined how Lake Michigan’s rising levels affect water quality, flood control and invasive species management within the Chicago-area waterway system that connects the lake to Illinois, Indiana and the Mississippi River basin.
The study, led by civil and environmental engineering professor Marcelo Garcia and graduate student Dongchen Wang, focused on how lake-level rise influences the unique bidirectional flow of the Chicago-area waterway system – initiated by the engineered reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 – and its connection to the Calumet-area waterway subsystem situated along the Illinois-Indiana border.
The Great Lakes cover nearly 95,000 square miles (250,000 square kilometers) and hold over 20% of Earth’s surface fresh water. More than 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada rely on them for drinking water. The lakes support a multibillion-dollar maritime economy, and the lands around them provided many of the raw materials – timber, coal, iron – that fueled the Midwest’s emergence as an industrial heartland.
In 1972, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a landmark pact to clean up the Great Lakes. Now, 50 years later, they have made progress, but there are new challenges and much unfinished business.
I study the environment and have written four books on U.S.-Canadian management of their shared border waters. In my view, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was a watershed moment for environmental protection and an international model for regulating transboundary pollution. But I believe the people of the U.S. and Canada failed the Great Lakes by becoming complacent too soon after the pact’s early success.
Starting with phosphates
A major step in Canada-U.S. joint management of the Great Lakes came in 1909 when they signed the Boundary Waters Treaty. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement built on this foundation by creating a framework to allow the two countries to cooperatively restore and protect these border waters.
However, as an executive agreement, rather than a formal government-to-government treaty, the pact has no legal mechanisms for enforcement. Instead, it relies on the U.S. and Canada to fulfill their commitments. The International Joint Commission, an agency created under the Boundary Waters Treaty, carries out the agreement and tracks progress toward its goals.
The agreement set common targets for controlling a variety of pollutants in Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, which were the most polluted section of the Great Lakes system. One key aim was to reduce nutrient pollution, especially phosphates from detergents and sewage. These chemicals fueled huge blooms of algae that then died and decomposed, depleting oxygen in the water.
Like national water pollution laws enacted at the time, these efforts focused on point sources – pollutants released from discreet, readily identifiable points, such as discharge pipes or wells.
Early results were encouraging. Both governments invested in new sewage treatment facilities and convinced manufacturers to reduce phosphate loads in detergents and soaps. But as phosphorus levels in the lakes declined, scientists soon detected other problems.
In response to this and other findings, the U.S. and Canada updated the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978 to cover all five lakes and focus on chemicals and toxic substances. This version formally adopted an ecosystem approach to pollution control that considered interactions between water, air and land – perhaps the first international agreement to do so.
In 1987, the two countries identified the most toxic hot spots around the lakes and adopted action plans to clean them up. However, as scholars of North American environmental regulations acknowledge, both nations too often allowed industries to police themselves.
Since the 1990s, studies have identified toxic pollutants including PCBs, DDT and chlordane in and around the Great Lakes, as well as lead, copper, arsenic and others. Some of these chemicals continued to show up because they were persistent and took a long time to break down. Others were banned but leached from contaminated sites and sediments. Still others came from a range of point and nonpoint sources, including many industrial sites concentrated on shorelines.
Many hazardous sites have been slowly cleaned up. However, toxic pollution in the Great Lakes remains a colossal problem that is largely unappreciated by the public, since these substances don’t always make the water look or smell foul. Numerous fish advisories are still in effect across the region because of chemical contamination. Industries constantly bring new chemicals to market, and regulations lag far behind.
Another major challenge is nonpoint source pollution – discharges that come from many diffuse sources, such as runoff from farm fields.
Nitrogen levels in the lakes have risen significantly because of agriculture. Like phosphorus, nitrogen is a nutrient that causes large blooms of algae in fresh water; it is one of the main ingredients in fertilizer, and is also found in human and animal waste. Sewage overflows from cities and waste and manure runoff from industrial agriculture carry heavy loads of nitrogen into the lakes.
One way to address nonpoint source pollution is to set an overall limit for releases of the problem pollutant into local water bodies and then work to bring discharges down to that level. These measures, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads, have been applied or are in development for parts of the Great Lakes basin, including western Lake Erie.
But this strategy relies on states, along with voluntary steps by farmers, to curb pollution releases. Some Midwesterners would prefer a regional approach like the strategy for Chesapeake Bay, where states asked the U.S. government to write a sweeping federal TMDL for key pollutants for the bay’s entire watershed.
Climate change is now complicating Great Lakes cleanup efforts. Warmer water can affect oxygen concentrations, nutrient cycling and food webs in the lakes, potentially intensifying problems and converting nuisances into major challenges.
It will be challenging for the U.S. and Canada to make progress on this complex set of problems. Key steps include prioritizing and funding cleanup of toxic zones, finding ways to halt agricultural runoff and building new sewer and stormwater infrastructure. If the two countries can muster the will to aggressively tackle pollution problems, as they did with phosphates in the 1970s, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement gives them a framework for action.
Powderhorn Lake is part of one of the few remaining examples of the dune and swale topography – sandy ridges interspersed with water pockets – that once characterized the Calumet Region along the south shore of Lake Michigan. The area is home to 100 bird species, 250 plant species and 2,500 insect species. In addition to reconnecting water flow to Lake Michigan, this project will allow fish passage between the lakes, install water control structures to help prevent future community flooding, and increase hemi-marsh habitat. This work aligns with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative objective of protecting and restoring communities of native aquatic and terrestrial species important to the Great Lakes.
Over the past two centuries, western settlement and the Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the water quality of the Great Lakes. New economic activities and cultural centers were spawned, while the lakes saw new (and often unwanted) species and pollution from industry, agriculture and cities.
The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement provided a path forward for Canada and the United States to jointly address these issues. The two nations have made much progress in the years since. April 15 marked the 50th anniversary of the Agreement’s signing.
But the Agreement was not the start of efforts to restore the lakes. Since its inception in 1909, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has been involved in Great Lakes water quality issues. Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty states that all transboundary waters “shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other.” Within that scope (more limited than the Agreement as a whole), governments tasked the IJC several times prior to the Agreement to assess the Great Lakes and make recommendations.
PFAS research is still in the early stages, which means issues with PFAS crop up all the time to surprise researchers like Michigan State University professor Cheryl Murphy.
PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as Forever Chemicals because of their reluctance to break down in humans. They can be in the food chain, drinking water and are found in common items in everyday commercial use like water-repellent clothing, dental floss and non-stick cookware.
Murphy directs MSU’s Center for PFAS Research. Great Lakes Now contributor Gary Wilson recently talked with her about how scientists are approaching PFAS research.
Murphy, originally from Canada, explained the different approaches the U.S. and Canada are taking to deal with PFAS and why it is a threat to Michigan’s vast supply of groundwater, also referred to as the sixth Great Lake.
In January, MSU received a $1.9 million grant to look at toxicity in PFAS, and Murphy will lead the multi-institutional team of researchers conducting the study.
Operation Moss Ball hints at an evolution in recent years: Past catastrophes, like the mussel invasion that has transformed the Great Lakes since it began in the 1980s, have prompted state and federal lawmakers to tighten regulations and loosen purse strings to better prevent new invasions, rather than simply responding after-the-fact.
Put another way, “Once you get punched in the face a few times, you start to learn how to fight back,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the nonprofit water advocacy group Alliance for the Great Lakes.
A big milestone in that process came in January: The U.S. Army Corps announced $226 million to complete design on the Brandon Road Interbasin Project project, an $858 million effort to keep carp downstream of Joliet, Illinois in the Des Plaines River — and out of the Great Lakes.
But Great Lakes advocates say more work is needed to close off other pathways for potential invasion, from Great Lakes freighters to recreational boats and online pet shops.
Citing new data showing PFAS contamination in Lake Superior rainbow smelt is more widespread than previously known, state regulators are again warning anglers and diners to limit their meals of the popular sportfish.
People eating smelt from the northernmost Great Lake should eat no more than one serving per month, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday. A serving is eight ounces (about two to three of the sardine-sized fish) for adults and two or four ounces for children.
The advisory comes just in time for the spring smelt run, a popular time for anglers to net the fish as they swim into Great Lakes tributaries to spawn.