Good News, Bad News in Great Lakes Health Report
Levels of many toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes are diminishing, yet at the same time new chemicals of concern are being detected, according to the latest joint report from the United States and Canada.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada released the 2007 State of the Great Lakes Highlights Report at the International Joint Commission meeting Thursday in Chicago. The commission is a inter-governmental agency that helps the two countries address boundary water issues.
Every two years the Great Lakes community reports on the condition of the Great Lakes ecosystem at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference. The last conference was held November 1-3, 2006, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The State of the Great Lakes Highlights Report summarizes the information provided in indicator reports presented at that conference.
The Highlights Report concludes that the chemical, physical and biological integrity of this ecosystem is a mixed bag. Some conditions are improving while others are getting worse, the report documents.
Overall, there has been progress in reducing air pollution in the Great Lakes basin. However, regional pollutants, such as ground-level ozone and fine particulates remain a concern, especially in the Detroit-Windsor-Ottawa corridor, the Lake Michigan basin, and the Buffalo-Niagara area. Air quality will be further impacted by population growth and climate change.
Despite improvements in levels of contaminants in the Great Lakes, many biological components of the ecosystem are severely stressed, the report warns. Populations of the native species near the base of the food web, such as zooplankton, are in decline in some of the Great Lakes.
Native preyfish populations have declined in all lakes except Lake Superior. Significant natural reproduction of lake trout is occurring in Lake Huron and Lake Superior only.
Lake sturgeon are locally extinct in many tributaries and waters where they once spawned and flourished. Habitat loss and deterioration remain the predominant threat to Great Lakes amphibian and wetland bird populations.
Pollution levels in Great Lakes fish have been dropping for 30 years due to controls on chemicals, and now more fish are safe to eat. But a significant proportion of fish are still contaminated enough that they should be eaten in limited amounts or not at all.
People are working to reverse the damange says EPA Great Lakes National Program Office Director Gary Gulezian. “As never before, legislators, managers, scientists, educators and the Great Lakes community are working together to understand and respond to Great Lakes environmental challenges,” he said.
These efforts to restore and preserve the Great Lakes are spotlighted in the 2007 State of the Great Lakes Highlights Report.
The good news is:
- Over the past 30 years there has been a marked reduction in the levels of toxic chemicals in the air, water, plants, animals, and sediment.
- Great Lakes continue to be a good source for treated drinking water.
- In 2005, 74 percent of monitored Great Lakes beaches in the U.S. and Canada were open more than 95 percent of the swimming season.
- Significant natural reproduction of lake trout is occurring in lakes Huron and Superior.
The bad news is:
- New chemicals of concern, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers used as flame retardants, and various pharmaceutical and personal care products, are being detected more frequently.
- Decline in contaminant concentrations has not eliminated the need for sport fish consumption advisories.
- Non-native species (zebra mussels, spiny water fleas) continue to invade the Great Lakes and impair the food web.
- Wildlife waste can be more of a contributing factor in bacterial contamination than previously thought.
- Declines in the duration and extent of ice cover on the Great Lakes and declines in lake levels due to evaporation during the winter are expected to occur in future years.
- Continuing wetlands loss and degradation results in loss of habitat for birds, amphibians, fish and wildlife.
- Aquatic habitats on the coasts continue to deteriorate due to development, shoreline hardening and non-native species.
Canada and the United States are implementing severals actions across the basin at national, regional and local scales. For example, in Ontario, the City of Toronto is addressing water pollution through the Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan, a long-term solution to reduce pollution from stormwater and combined sewer overflows.
Lake Superior communities on the U.S. side of the border have embraced a goal of zero discharge of critical chemical pollutants. On Earth Day 2007, Earth Keepers, a faith-based environmental initiative based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula collected tens of thousands of pills, liquids and personal care products including narcotics with an estimated street value of half a million dollars to keep them out of Great Lakes waters.
The United States and Canada are now in the process of deciding how to update their 1972 treaty, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, to reflect challenges such as climate change. Less ice cover over the lakes has already resulted in more evaporation and lower water levels.