In honor of Earth Day, I thought it appropriate to explore the current state of the Great Lakes — the good, bad and ugly. The lakes today are far healthier than in 1972, when Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act. Water quality has improved in most areas of the lakes and rivers that feed into North America’s freshwater seas, many fisheries have recovered and concentrations of several pollutants have decreased. That’s the good news.
The bad news: The lakes face a host of new problems, including the spread of foreign mussels and other aquatic invasive species, new pollutants that are transported to the lakes by wind currents, and the resurgence of nuisance and toxic algae blooms across much of Lake Erie and isolated parts of lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario.
Despite enormous challenges, and the threat of an Asian carp invasion, the Great Lakes remain a source of incredible natural beauty, economic importance and the source of drinking water for 30 million people. I offer this brief assessment of the Great Lakes for two reasons: There can never be too many news articles, blog posts, books, poems or songs written about these incomparable freshwater seas; and I love lists. Here goes:
• The lakes are being restored: The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded the removal of 1 million cubic yards of toxic sediment from polluted harbors, protected or restored 20,000 acres of wetlands, identified new ways to combat invasive species and funded efforts to keep Asian carp from invading the lakes.
• Concentrations of so-called legacy pollutants, chemicals like PCBs and DDT that were deposited in the lakes in the 20th century, have decreased in much of the Great Lakes. The flip side is that concentrations of new pollutants, such as fire retardants are increasing. Read more here.
• Iconic lake sturgeon are reproducing again in the Detroit River, once one of America’s most polluted rivers, and Lake Erie has made a dramatic recovery since it was (incorrectly) declared dead in the 1960s. Read more about the Detroit River recovery here.
• Invasive quagga and zebra mussels, and other aquatic invasive species, have turned the ecosystems of lakes Michigan and Huron upside down and are causing more than $100 million in economic damages annually. Read more here.
• Climate change is causing many changes in the Great Lakes basin: More extreme storms that cause sewer overflows, send more polluted runoff into the lakes and fuel massive toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie; winter ice cover on the lakes has decreased 71 percent over the past 40 years; and warmer water temperatures increase evaporation, which contributes to lower water levels, and make the lakes more hospitable to new invasive species.
• New contaminants, such as fire retardants and pharmaceuticals, have been detected recently in the lakes. Those contaminants pose potential threats to aquatic life and could eventually affect human health.
• Sewer overflows: I find this one of the most appalling problems facing the Great Lakes. Cities with outdated sewer systems — particularly Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Ind.; Milwaukee, Cleveland and Buffalo — discharge tens of billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the lakes every year. This chronic but solvable may be one of the biggest failures of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act. Read more here.
• The Lake Michigan car ferry SS Badger was recently given permission to dump contaminated coal ash into the lake for another two years. For years the Badger, the last coal-fired ferry on the Great Lakes, has dumped about 500 tons of coal into Lake Michigan annually. The illegal dumping was supposed to end in 2012.
But politicians in Michigan and Milwaukee pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to give the Badger’s owners until 2015 to convert to cleaner fuel. To me, the Badger symbolizes the willingness of certain politicians and businesses to put profits for a few ahead of the health of the Great Lakes, which contain nearly 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet and provide drinking water for millions of people. Read more here.
• Plastics waste: The Pacific Ocean isn’t the only place with a garbage patch. Recent research has discovered large quantities of plastics waste in the Great Lakes (much of it is tiny pieces of plastic that sink and threaten the ecosystem). Certain areas of the Great Lakes have some of the highest concentrations of plastics waste of any waterbodies on Earth (read more here). That is a sad commentary on our wasteful society on this, the 43nd anniversary of the first Earth Day celebration.