Great Lakes on the precipice

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on October 4, 2016
A pile of sticks and rocks on the shore of Lake Superior
Small steps are being taken daily all along the Great Lakes by people and organizations attempting to reverse the effects of centuries of damage, and guard against the threats posed by industry, climate change, invasive species and population growth.

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The Great Lakes are still plagued by the problems of historic pollution, but ongoing climate change, population growth and invasive species are placing new pressures on the ecosystem. As the Great Lakes Public Forum takes place this week, TVO.org examines who’s doing what to try to repair the damage.

HAMILTON — Steve Watts points to a hill with a railway running along its top.

"We planted a thousand cattails," he says, motioning to the Lake Ontario shoreline at the bottom. The 25-year-old is the outreach coordinator for the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), the Hamilton citizen group helping the city restore its polluted harbour. As Watts talks, a crane moves rail ties into place as part of a GO Transit expansion, cars speed along Highway 403 and a group tours the Royal Botanical Gardens.

When it rains, runoff goes down the hill, through the cattails and into the water. Before Watts and other volunteers planted them, the runoff cascaded straight into the harbour, carrying with it all the rail line’s grease and dirt. Now, because of the cattails, there’s some filtration. 

It’s a small step — one of many being taken daily all along the Great Lakes, by people and organizations attempting to repair centuries of damage and guard against mounting pressure from industry, population growth, climate change and invasive species.

Hamilton HarbourIn the late 20th century, the battle was against industrial polluters dumping chemicals into the lakes — something known as point source pollution. Agreements, starting with the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, capped the pipes that were poisoning the lakes.

But just about everything you pour down the drain, into the toilet, in a field or on the road eventually ends up in the water system. For the majority of Ontarians, that means the Great Lakes. These are known as non-point sources of pollution: there isn't a single identifiable site or even one geographic area that's the culprit. There's no particular target to cap, because we're all contributing to it in one way or another.

Population growth is increasing both the stressors and demands on the lakes. Sewage volume is going up as more residents move in. Record-high summer temperatures have created drought conditions that force Ontario farmers to draw more water. After radon was found in the groundwater in Waukesha, Wisc., that city was eventually granted the first exemption under the Great Lakes Compact this June, allowing it to draw water from Lake Michigan. Some think it will remain an exception; others worry it's the start of a slippery slope.

The damage that has been done to the Great Lakes’ nearshore areas is, in some places, impossible to reverse. A quarter of Hamilton Harbour’s original area is now infill, deposited by industry in the 20th century. In Toronto, Ashbridges Bay — once five square kilometres of wetland — was turned over to infill at about the same time.

Rehabilitation is possible in other cases, though. In 1987, Canada and the United States launched a systematic program to attempt to repair some of the damage that had been done to the Great Lakes. The countries jointly identified 43 so-called Areas of Concern (AOCs). Of those, 17 were in Canada, all in Ontario.

man fishing off hamilton harbourThe areas were selected based on 14 metrics that looked at everything from esthetics to drinking water quality to whether fish are edible. Canada and the U.S. agreed to focus on these designated zones — cleaning up sediment, lowering nutrient levels to reduce harmful algae, and restoring habitats — with the ultimate goal of removing each from the list as it was rehabilitated.

Delisting doesn’t mean restoration is complete (which is impossible) but marks the beginning of a new era of stewardship: it signifies an area has achieved the bare minimum of rehabilitation required to begin preparing for the stresses that are to come. The Severn Sound Environmental Association still monitors Lake Huron’s nutrient levels and advocates for changes such as higher capacity sewage treatment to address population growth, for instance. Volunteers in Tiny Township still pull invasive phragmites — a dense reed that has deep roots and crowds out other wetland plants — by hand.

But nearly 30 years after Canada and the U.S. launched their joint strategy, just three of Canada’s 17 AOCs have been delisted: Severn Sound and Collingwood on  Lake Huron's Georgian Bay, and Wheatley Harbour on Lake Erie. The United States has delisted only four in total, but three of those have been since 2012, and it is actively working to delist four others.  

After decades of inaction on both sides of the border, in 2010 the U.S. kicked its efforts into higher gear. Canada, thus far, is not keeping pace.

Funding is, as so often the case, a major barrier. Ontario has committed $9.3 million a year to remediate its AOCs, and the federal government has promised another $8 million annually. There are other individual funds for specific projects, like $46 million allocated by both governments for the cleanup of Hamilton's Randle Reef.

But all this amounts to a small fraction of what is needed. In 2007, Environment Canada estimated it would cost $3.5 billion to clean up all Canadian AOCs. 

At the current rate of spending — $17.3-million annually, excluding extra funds for special projects — that would take more than 200 years.

The art, and politics, of the possible

Hamilton Harbour is a microcosm of the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. It is home to the Randle Reef, the most polluted site on the Great Lakes, but also to Cootes Paradise, a wetland often held up as a shining example of ecological rehabilitation. Once overrun with algae and the invasive common carp, which can crowd out native fish, the wetland has been restored to the point that bald eagles have resumed nesting there. A massive waterfront development promises to replace big empty parking lots with lived-in spaces, restoring the city's connection to the lake.

This is also part of the ecosystem: the Great Lakes include the millions of people who live on their shores, as well as the flora and fauna in and around their waters.

Yet despite the rehabilitation, the water in Cootes Paradise is still green with algae. Chedoke Creek, which feeds into the marsh, remains highly contaminated by sewage, according to a 2014 survey. A number of homes used to have their plumbing illegally hooked to storm sewers — something the city realized in 2001 and has since spent thousands trying to correct. This year the Hamilton Harbour had an invasion of goldfish, likely caused by people discarding pets.

And the success that has been achieved in Cootes Paradise doesn’t mean the work is over: a fish gate, which has been in place since 1997, is still needed to separate the area from the greater Hamilton Harbour, and from Lake Ontario. It's effectively a trap that puts fish trying to enter the wetland into a bin until workers can manually sort out the native fish from the invasive ones that can cause damage. Workers pluck out common carp and other disruptive species and deposit them back in the harbour, sequestered from Cootes Paradise and the rest of the Great Lakes basin.

‘It’s important not to lose sight of just how much there is to do.’
— Chris McLaughlin, executive director, Bay Area Restoration Council

“It's not going to be the Great Lakes that any of the explorers wrote about. Fish aren't going to jump into our canoe. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying to restore them,” says Chris McLaughlin, executive director of BARC. “It was one of the most amazing coastal wetlands. But that doesn't mean we can't find some middle ground.”

McLaughlin is an environmentalist with the mien of an executive. His passion for the Great Lakes leads him to speak in tangents, lost in praise of nature, but he couches each bit of optimism with a warning that there is still much work to do. McLaughlin's PhD thesis examined 25 years of success and failure in remedial action in the Great Lakes.

“It's important not to lose sight of just how much there is to do.”

Right now, the United States is doing a lot more than we are. In 2010 it launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GRLI), which led to the delisting of three Areas of Concern, spending about $300-million each year — more than $1.9 billion in total, according to the initiative's 2015 fiscal report to Congress — to achieve that goal.

Ontario’s efforts, by contrast, have been deemed paltry by some of its own scientists. “While $9.3 million annually for implementing the [action plan] seems like a lot of money,” reads the 2014-2015 annual report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, “it is a far cry from funding commitments made by Ontario for other major projects in the province — such as $1.2 billion to finish extending toll Highway 407 eastward, over $1.5 billion in operating funding and additional investments for the 2015 Toronto Pan-Am and Parapan American Games, and $60 million annually for forest access roads. The Ontario government can and should prioritize Great Lakes protection and restoration by funding it at the same level as other major projects.”

Hidden in plain sight

The St. Marys river

SAULT STE. MARIE, ONT. — The Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River AOC — one of five areas that fall under joint Canada-U.S. jurisdiction — is an exercise in contrasts. At one point a storm sewer is clogged with garbage after spewing water into the river during a rainfall. A kilometre upstream, a pier is crowded with fishers vying to catch Pacific salmon. Even further upstream is Whitefish Island, a pristine wetland managed by the Batchawana Bay First Nation, where ducks swim in crystal clear waters.

Lisa Derickx is the remediation co-ordinator for St. Mary's, which runs through Sault Ste. Marie, and joins Lake Huron and Lake Superior. New to the city, Derickx was drawn there by Sault College’s fish and wildlife program. She spends her days co-ordinating between the various groups that play a role in the river's rehabilitation, including companies like Essar Steel, the city of Sault Ste. Marie, First Nations groups, the provincial and federal governments and anyone else who has something to do with the lake.

“Even though it’s still an Area of Concern, we really have come leaps and bounds,” she says, noting that Essar Steel has cut its emissions and an Environment Canada study found that gulls and terns suffer a “low incidence of embryonic deformities” tied to contaminants outside the area. 

The Areas of Concern system involves a checklist of what are called “beneficial use impairments.” The impairments are major problems in an area that must be addressed before it can be delisted. In the case of the St. Mary’s River, there are nine impairments; they include rates of fish tumours and the water quality of beaches.

The technicalities only go so far in helping residents understand the challenges their local watersheds are facing, or inspire them to take action. When asked what piques people’s interest about the river, Derickx replies that it is what they see that matters, not the items on a list of impairments. An explosion of so-called “rock snot” — Didymosphenia geminata — this year brought the public to Derickx’s doorstep, wondering where this gooey algae had come from. (Spurred on by sewage and nutrient leaching, the algae bloomed heavily in some parts of the St. Mary’s River this year.)

This is one of the key challenges: The Great Lakes are huge, but their problems are difficult to see. Many start underground in the drains and sewers, or in the depths of the lake, where zebra and quagga mussels have invaded. While they loom so large they can be seen from space, the Great Lakes and their problems remain invisible to many.

The visible parts of the lake ecosystem are a growing concern to governments as well. A 2005 study titled "Prescription for Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection and Restoration" pointed to nearshore areas as a sign of problems and an opportunity for restoring the lakes. In 2016, the Canadian and American governments launched a joint nearshore framework, the first step of which is to assess the quality of the Great Lakes shores.

Sleeping Giant in Lake SuperiorJosephine Mandamin, an Ojibwa grandmother who lives in Thunder Bay, knows the Great Lakes better than anyone. She took her first walk in 2003, trekking more than 4,000 kilometres around the shore of Lake Superior. Over the following five years, she and others walked around the shores of all of the Great Lakes.

“In walking around the five Great Lakes we learned something about each of the lakes, and where we're standing now is Lake Superior,” she said in a video meant to share her experience of the lakes. “That's the first one that we walked. We found the majesty of that lake is so powerful, it is so strong, so clean, so pure that when you first look at it, you see the majesty of that water, you want it to stay like that forever and ever and ever, for generations to come.”

Mandamin's walk around the Great Lakes at times filled her with awe, and at times great concern. Around Erie, the algae smelled and the people were hostile to their mission. Around Lake Ontario, she says, the water became so thick with pollution that it was heavier than the other lakes.

The Great Lakes are so large that it is difficult to talk about them as one subject, yet they are all connected. Those familiar with the concrete bunker-like breakwalls on the Toronto waterfront would be surprised by the soft shorelines and marshlands of Georgian Bay. Different still are the great vistas of the north shore of Lake Superior, which bears a closer resemblance to the ocean than a lake.

It is this vastness and range, and the complexity of engaging the public in an issue that varies so much from place to place, that is the current focus of policymakers and non-governmental organizations. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper puts it simply in its campaign: It wants lakes that are swimmable, drinkable and fishable. The goal is to be able to do those three things in the lake – in any of the lakes. But the connection between, say, industrial agriculture and swimming is not an easy one to make.

In 2005, scientist Al Beeton, then head of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, warned that the lakes were “nearing the tipping point of ecosystem-wide breakdown.”

“I would say that we are still really balancing on the precipice of that tipping point," says Deborah Lee, current director of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "I say that with cautious optimism, that I think we're moving forward, in particular because we're making substantial progress under the Great Lakes water quality agreement."

Cloudy waters

a storm drain with debris

Wastewater in the Great Lakes infographicIf the Great Lakes were a human body, rehabilitating the Areas of Concern would be the equivalent of quadruple-bypass surgery after a heart attack. Canada and the United States are still in the operating room, attempting to fix critical but historic problems. The part that comes after the surgery — lifestyle change, exercise, diet, stress reduction — is just as important. The patient gets to take it easy, heal from surgery, and recognize that their new life may come with new limitations.

It isn't a perfect analogy, however: pressure on the Great Lakes will persist and likely increase, even while it's undergoing its bypass.

Algal blooms are, right now, the most acute symptom of damage across the Great Lakes basin. Fertilizer washing off farmers’ fields and nutrients from sewage are contributing to this, but so is the proliferation of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, which increase the presence of bioavailable phosphorous on which algae feed.

The bloom led to the 2014 water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, during which half a million people lost access to drinking water as algae threatened the intake pipe in Lake Erie. At the same time, the people living on Pelee Island in Ontario were warned not to drink the water because of blue-green algae contamination. While Lake Erie is most prone to algal blooms because it is the shallowest, all of the lakes are susceptible — it just takes the right amount of sunlight and nutrients.

This isn't a problem of esthetics or even biological diversity: The Great Lakes provide drinking water for more than 10 million Ontarians.

The proliferation of algae has another side effect: it provides a feast for invasive Asian carp, whose proliferation would be disastrous for the ecosystem.

The province of Ontario launched a study in 2016 to examine ways to further reduce phosphorous loading from farms, primarily through fertilizer controls and revising livestock policies.

Sue Watson, an expert in Great Lakes algal blooms, says people in the basin need to go on a "phosphorous diet." The 100-mile diet fad raised awareness of carbon dioxide emissions. An analogous phosphorous diet would make people aware of farming practices and their effects on the lakes.

Great Lakes, past and future

In addition to the United States’ massive restoration fund, other large-scale efforts are underway to rehabilitate parts of the lake system. The International Joint Commission, which monitors Canadian and U.S. actions on shared waters, has proposed a binational plan to adjust water levels controlled by the Moses-Saunders Power Dam in the St. Lawrence River in an attempt to restore natural fluctuations that keep the wetlands healthy. Canada and Ontario reached an agreement this year that will see an investment of $1.1 billion under the Clean Water and Wastewater Fund, which will help wastewater systems keep pace with population growth. The Randle Reef cleanup is underway in Hamilton.

Non-governmental groups like BARC and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper are also hoping local residents will play a major role in the next phase of Great Lakes action. In Hamilton, Steve Watts has been a guide for trolley tours of the harbour for Grade 6 and Grade 7 students. In Toronto, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s Swim Guide app tells people about the quality of water at local beaches. A years-long residents' effort in Mississauga led to the recent commencement of Inspiration Lakeview, a project that will lead to the construction of 26 hectares of new conservation area.

The lack of funding provided by Canadian bodies for Great Lakes cleanup, combined with the changing nature of the threats facing the lakes, has made individual action even more important. Small changes, such as planting cattails or local participation in wastewater discussions, can help create resiliency where remediation is impossible.

“The environmental advocates, especially the local advocates, they're the real protectors. It's people on the ground in the area who know it best,” says Lana Pollack, the American commissioner with the IJC.

“I think rather than calling places Areas of Concern, people just need to develop stewardship groups around their area and become proud of it and make sure this is an area they want to be in and are looking after,” says Watson. “It's all a question of being proud of your area and feeling fiercely protective of it.”

The effects of climate change are numerous. Periods of drought mean the ground will soak up less water when it does rain, sending more runoff into the lakes. Storms are becoming shorter and more intense, overpowering storm sewers and sending raw sewage into the Great Lakes.

“The whole plant and animal ecology of the waters are likely to be impacted in ways that are not likely predicted,” says Pollack. “Be ready for surprises. Science is good, but scientists will be the first to say their crystal ball is imperfect.”

Read more: The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

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