The Great Lakes are in Peril... Again: Inland Waters are Threatened by Problems Old and New

Jul 1, 2013

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, joined environmental group representatives to decry the S.S. Badger’s polluting of Lake Michigan.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Standing on the Lake Michigan overlook at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — a wooden deck perched 450 feet above the lake’s steel blue water — it’s evident why the northern Michigan park was voted “the Most Beautiful Place in America” in 2011.

The panoramic view of towering sand dunes that plunge into pristine beaches, which then melt into a seemingly endless expanse of water, is breathtaking, hypnotic. 

Such alluring scenes make it difficult to fathom how a place of such grandeur could be a poster child for one of the most insidious problems haunting the Great Lakes.

A few miles south of the park’s observation deck, pristine beaches along Platte Bay have been coated during recent summers by a green blanket of bacteria-laden algae. For the past seven years, autumn’s arrival has been accompanied by waves of dead loons, gulls and other birds washing up on those same gorgeous beaches.

The culprit in both cases: foreign mussels. Zebra and quagga mussels that entered the Great Lakes in the 1980s in the ballast water tanks of transoceanic freighters now fuel algae blooms that plague numerous Great Lakes beaches. The dime-sized mollusks also contribute to outbreaks of Type E botulism that have killed nearly 100,000 water birds in the lakes over the past two decades. 

Those problems highlight a troubling but undeniable truth: After years of improvement, the Great Lakes are once again in serious trouble.

“The Great Lakes have been dying a death of a thousand cuts,” says Peter McIntyre, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who worked on a recent project that mapped 34 environmental stressors affecting the lakes. 

In many regards, the lakes are healthier than in 1972, when Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act: Water quality is better in most areas; many species of fish and wildlife have rebounded; beaches once fouled by dead fish now welcome throngs of visitors; Lake Erie has gone from near death in the 1960s to supporting one of the world’s best walleye fisheries; and major rivers that feed into the lakes no longer catch fire — they support fish, wildlife and numerous recreational activities. 

The bad news: An army of aquatic invasive species, new pollutants, rampant sewer overflows and climate change have tempered many of the Great Lakes improvements achieved over the past 40 years. Consider that the 186 aquatic invasive species in the lakes cause more than $100 million annually in environmental and economic damages, according to a University of Notre Dame study. The worst invaders — zebra and quagga mussels — have disrupted fisheries in four of the five Great Lakes, clogged water intakes at water and power plants and caused the most profound ecological changes in the recorded history of Lake Michigan. 

This image from the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project shows the extent to which 34 environmental stressors are affecting the Great Lakes. Blue indicates areas with no stress, while yellow and red indicate moderate to severe environmental stress. Lake Ontario is the most stressed of the five lakes, followed by lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.
Credit Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project

  Rising surface water temperatures and a 63 percent decrease in Great Lakes ice cover over the past four decades have increased evaporation, which drives down lake levels. Many experts believe climate change is to blame. In January 2012, water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (which are technically one lake) dipped to a record low. Water levels in all five Great Lakes have remained below the long-term average for most of the past 13 years, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data. 

Sewer overflows and polluted runoff from farms and urban areas contribute to bacterial pollution that closes hundreds of Great Lakes beaches every summer. In 2011, Great Lakes beaches in the U.S. had 3,410 days of closings and health advisories and were closed more often than beaches in other parts of the country, according to government data analyzed by the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Massive toxic algae blooms, caused primarily by phosphorus draining off farm fields, have become an annual ordeal in western Lake Erie. The sprawling blooms, which turn water the color of pea soup and can be seen from outer space, are hurting Lake Erie’s renowned walleye fishery and the region’s tourism industry. Stronger storms fueled by climate change could make the toxic algae blooms worse in coming years.

Concentrations of new pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and toxins from plastics and fire retardants, are on the rise in some areas. Concentrations of historic pollutants, including mercury, have plateaued or are increasing in some Great Lakes fish.

Plastics waste has emerged as a problem recently. Tiny bits of plastic, which can be ingested by fish and move up the food chain, have been found in all five Great Lakes — the greatest concentrations were in Lake Erie. A State University of New York study found that Lake Erie has the world’s highest concentration of plastic pollutants.

If the existing problems weren’t bad enough, some scientists believe an Asian carp invasion of the Great Lakes is imminent. The fish are bearing down on southern Lake Michigan via the Chicago Area Waterway System and western Lake Erie via the Wabash River. Asian carp DNA has been found in Lake Michigan, near Chicago, and in western Lake Erie.

The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian panel that monitors Great Lakes water quality, issued a report in May that concluded that efforts to clean up the lakes over the past 25 years have been marked by “a mix of achievements and challenges.”

“The data show some significant progress,” says Lana Pollack, the IJC’s U.S. chairwoman. “However, the evidence equally indicates that more investments are needed. Protecting and restoring the Great Lakes is a job that is never done.”

This image from the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project shows where water temperatures are warming in the Great Lakes. Blue indicates no warming, while yellow and red indicate moderate to severe warming. Lake Superior is the fastest warming lake in the world, while temperatures are rising slower in the other lakes.
Credit Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project

  The Great Lakes are one of the world’s premier natural and economic resources. The lakes contain 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet, provide drinking water for 30 million people, support a $7 billion fishery and are the backbone of the world’s fourth largest regional economy. 

Despite their natural beauty and economic importance, humans have abused the lakes for the better part of two centuries. Today, the lakes are under enormous environmental stress, according to a recent study.

Earlier this year, the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (greatlakesmapping.org) examined how 34 lake stressors — including coastal development, pollutants transported by rivers from agricultural and urban land, fishing pressure, climate change, invasive species and toxic chemicals — were affecting the lakes.

The results were, in a word, disturbing.

“Despite clear societal dependence on the Great Lakes, their condition continues to be degraded by numerous environmental stressors,” says David Allan, the project’s lead researcher and a professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Michigan.

Each of the lakes is affected by 10 to 15 stressors. The most serious problems are found along Great Lakes coasts, where humans interact most with the enormous lakes, according to the study. 

A team of scientists who produced the study concluded that Lake Ontario is the most stressed of the five lakes. Lake Erie was ranked the second most stressed, followed by Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior. 

Scientists who worked on the project said it would help government agencies to better manage the lakes and focus efforts to restore them.

Congress and President Barack Obama have provided $1 billion for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative over the past four years. The program has brought about the removal of more than one million cubic yards of toxic mud from Great Lakes harbors, created or restored 20,000 acres of wetlands and kept Asian carp out of the lakes.

Still, that $1 billion investment is a relative drop in the bucket. Studies have indicated that fully restoring the lakes’ ecological health would cost at least $26 billion (in 2005 dollars).

If the Great Lakes were people, all five would be diagnosed with serious health problems. Consider:

  • Lake Superior has a runaway fever. The normally frigid lake, the world’s largest by volume, is now the fastest warming lake on the planet, according to government data. Lake Superior’s average daily surface temperature in 2010 hit a 31-year high of 68.7 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees above average. Warmer water temperatures could threaten Superior’s cold-water fishery and make the lake more hospitable to toxic algae blooms and invasive species. 
  • Lake Erie has COPED (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Toxic algae blooms that coated much of western Lake Erie in recent summers sucked oxygen out of the water and created biological dead zones. 
  • Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are anemic. Trillions of quagga and zebra mussels are literally sucking the life out of the lakes by consuming immense quantities of plankton that fish and other aquatic life need to survive. Lake Michigan’s baitfish population, which supports all the larger fish (think whitefish, walleye and salmon), hit a record low in 2012, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. 
  • Lake Ontario has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The lake is suffering the lingering effects of being used as a toxic dumping ground for close to a century. Toxic chemicals in Lake Ontario’s bottom sediments are more widespread and more concentrated than in any of the other Great Lakes. 

In 2007, British Petroleum was embroiled in controversy over the company’s plan to discharge more pollution from its Indiana oil refinery into Lake Michigan. Then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois told a group of conservationists that BP’s proposed discharge would have been approved in 1997, but not in 2007, because the public had become more aware of the need to protect the lake.

“That’s our Grand Canyon. That’s our Yellowstone National Park,” Emanuel said as he jabbed his finger toward Lake Michigan. “Congress simply will not stand by while our lakes are treated as a dumping zone.”

It was a great sound byte, albeit inaccurate.

At the time, Chicago and numerous other Great Lakes cities with outdated sewer systems were collectively discharging tens of billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the lakes each year.

Cities with combined sewer systems, which treat all stormwater runoff and wastewater, are often overwhelmed by heavy rainfall. To prevent flooding of homes and businesses, those cities discharge large quantities of untreated sewage and stormwater into the nearest waterway.

In 2009, just five cities — Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Gary, Ind. — discharged 41 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage and filthy stormwater into the Great Lakes, according to an analysis of government data by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. That amount equaled the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls during a 15-hour period.

The problem continues to this day, even though Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities have tried to end sewer overflows.

In fact, the Great Lakes region is the epicenter of the nation’s sewer crisis. More than 70 percent of all combined storm and sanitary sewer systems in the United States are located in the Great Lakes region, according to government data. 

During an April deluge that swamped the Midwest, Milwaukee discharged more than 1 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage mixed with stormwater into Lake Michigan. Several other cities followed suit. 

Chicago reversed the flow of the severely polluted Chicago River to alleviate flooding in the city. It was bitterly ironic. The city that Mayor Rahm Emanuel now manages was sending untreated sewage into Lake Michigan, the same lake he previously called “our Grand Canyon.”

Cities with outdated sewer systems aren’t the only entities engaged in willful pollution of the Great Lakes. 

The S.S. Badger, a coal-powered ferry that shuttles tourists and vehicles across Lake Michigan, dumps 500 tons of potentially toxic coal ash into the lake every summer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has known about the practice for years and threatened to ban it in 2008. But the EPA relented and gave the Badger’s owners five years, until 2013, to find a cleaner burning fuel. 

Instead of solving the problem, company officials and some members of Congress lobbied for a regulatory loophole that would have allowed the coal ash discharge to continue. The EPA recently gave the Badger’s owners until the end of 2014 to stop polluting the lake.

“The S.S. Badger was given an extra five years to clean up the operation, but the owners never lifted a finger,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said in a news release. “It is unacceptable that this ship continues to dump 500 tons of coal ash each year into Lake Michigan — a quantity greater than the total waste dumped annually by the 123 other large ships operating on the Great Lakes.”

The Badger’s ongoing pollution won’t singlehandedly destroy Lake Michigan. But it demonstrates that the Great Lakes still don’t receive a level of protection one would expect for a globally significant natural resource.

Imagine the uproar if corporations and cities were allowed to dump tons of trash and billions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Grand Canyon.

Jeff Alexander is a free-lance journalist, communications company owner and author of books, including  Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, which was published by the Michigan State University Press in 2011.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2013