Great Lakes: A group effort
How groups work together to protect the Great LakesContaining the largest volume of fresh water on earth, and connecting eight U.S. states along with two Canadian provinces, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway face a bevy of challenges and it takes unlimited cooperation to maintain their ecological and economic health to the industries and communities that rely on them.
While Michigan — often referred to as The Great Lake State — borders four of the five lakes that make up the Great Lakes, and has the longest coast line with 3,288 miles, the watershed itself extends far beyond. Wisconsin has more than 1,000 miles of shoreline, Illinois has 63 miles, Indiana makes up a small portion of Southern Lake Michigan while Minnesota reaches Lake Superior. New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania also border the Great Lakes. Canadian provinces Ontario and Quebec also share some of the Great Lakes watershed coastline.
“More than 35 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, jobs and their way of life. That breaks down to 24 million people in the U.S. and about 9.8 million in Canada. That’s roughly 8 percent of the U.S. population and 32 percent of Canada’s,” according to the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.
Each individual town along the coast can generate millions of dollars from economic tourism, shipping, fishing and even lakefront property. The fishing industry in Michigan alone is estimated to generate $7 billion in economic activity for the state, according to Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
With all the economic success they bring to the communities that surround them, the lakes are constantly faced with challenges that could have devastating effects both economically and ecologically.
“Invasive species continue to be one of the biggest problems. We have 180 invasive aquatic species in the Great Lakes that have entered through ballast water, the bait industry and aquarium trade,” Wesley said. “These invasives can really disrupt the ecosystem and it takes years for the food web to stabilize.”
Prolific species like phragmites have changed shorelines along Lake Michigan by changing the natural coastline, according to Grenetta Thomassey, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council’s policy director.
“It muscles out all the other shoreline growth that you need to support fish and wildlife and water fowl and bird habitat, they all need that transition zone on the shoreline and it gets pushed out with these invasive reeds, they can grow 6-15 feet tall,” Thomassey said.
Other aquatic invasive species like the round gobie have an impact on native fish species by changing the dynamics of the food chain and eating native fish eggs. With the addition of those species currently thriving in the waterways, the threat of Asian carp to the Great Lakes has grown as the species has continued to move along the Mississippi River.
In addition to the threat of aquatic invasive species, the Great Lakes are also faced with the growing communities that utilize the watershed. As cities expand and natural habitats are changed over to concrete roadways, runoff from excess precipitation must have a place to escape to. Often left untreated, stormwater runoff can contain harmful chemicals that are picked up as the water runs across the ground to the sewer, and the bigger the community, the more chance of residue and substances available.
Untreated wastewater and certain substances have been a growing problem within the watershed. Tiny plastic particles from cosmetics, boat cleansers and the breakdown of larger plastics lead to microbeads in the Great Lakes.
“This is something where we’re finding the plastic pollutions break up into little beads and it looks like food to fish, we’re finding fish eating plastic in the Great Lakes,” Thomassey said.
The plastics can be passed along the food chain leading to dangerous accumulations and potential health problems.
Sanitation and wastewater treatment centers can have a hard time removing all the particles during the treatment process, and with stormwater runoff, some can lead directly into streams and lakes.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, which serves over 1.1 million people and 28 communities, handles both wastewater treatment and flood management, according to Bill Graffin, Public Information manager.
A problem for both the immediate community and for the Great Lakes is when excess precipitation comes down on an area, sewers and deep tunnels can become too full, leading to public health hazards if basements or businesses were to back up.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District is allowed up to six overflows a year, however there is no limit to the amount of water that is allowed to be discharged, according to Graffin.
“If we have an overflow, we have two outfalls that empty directly to Lake Michigan, the rest are in the river systems,” Graffin said. “We have to reduce the risks of backups, it’s our highest priorities.”
The district is not allowed to have sanitary sewer overflows and most of the untreated water is 90-95 percent stormwater, according to Graffin.
The district has made major strides in their overflow operations when in 1994 they put a 500 million gallon deep tunnel in place, which has drastically reduced the need for overflows. Now they average about two overflows a year, according to Graffin. The overflows are judged by regulators on incident, so one incident can last a few days, some communities are judged from overflow points.
While overflows are necessary to public health, the system still releases thousands of gallons of untreated runoff into the Great Lakes watershed every year.
In 2011, after reports of plastic and trash materials had washed along some Western Michigan beaches, an investigation began by the United States Coast Guard. Although in the report of investigation, the trash was believed to have originated from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, it was determined that the district had accounted for overflow during heavy rains the area received.
In accordance with permits, the district accounted for an estimated release of 686 million gallons of sewer overflow from June 7-9, 2008. The district also accounted for an estimated release of 1.9 billion gallons of sewer overflow between July 22-25, 2010. To maintain public health, the district notifies the media and health department immediately after overflows.
“We have a lab, we have boat and crews that go out and do the mandatory testing and grab samples, they do their regular overflow routes to collect samples to be analyzed,” Graffin said. “Testing for bacteria and bio chemicals, oxygen demand, and total suspended solids.”
An addition to the economic relief the lakes bring to their bordering states, the waterways provide a mode of transportation for necessary cargo from around the world, allowing commercial shipping vessels to enter from the Atlantic Ocean and transport all the way to the Great Lakes.
“Since 1959, more than 2.5 billion tons of cargo (estimated at $375 billion) have moved to and from the Canada, the United States and 50 other nations,” according to Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation.
The seaway is based on a binational partnership between the U.S. and Canada to keep cargo moving and safe, bringing necessary goods and commerce to the many businesses and communities that rely on them.
The Lake Carriers’ Association, founded in 1880, is one of the oldest in country, and it works to continue and maintain commerce along the Great Lakes while respecting the legislative regulations as well as the natural environment.
“There are 13 companies with 49 vessels in the Lake Carriers’ Association. When you include a couple other companies, the fleet of large U.S. flag self-propelled and tug/barge units totals about 60 hulls,” according to Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association. “The Canadians have about 80 vessels.”
The association makes up a group of vessels called “lakers” — there are additional vessels traveling through the Great Lakes waterways that come off the sea known as “salties.”
The shipping industry not only brings thousands of jobs to the area, they also carry important cargo for industries such as steel manufacturing like iron ore, which is the largest cargo that moves along the waterways, according to Nekvasil.
“In 2016, the trade (iron ore) totaled 54 million tons. Over the past five years, it has averaged 59 million tons,” Nekvasil said.
Other big cargo items that travel the lakes include coal, cement, salt, sand, grain and limestone, which totaled 26.3 million tons in 2016.
While the shipping is crucial for goods to be imported and exported, the industry and employment that comes with these ships ensures the success of the states that border the waterways.
“A 2011 study determined the cargos our (Lake Carriers’ Association) members carry support 103,000 jobs in the eight Great Lakes states and have an economic impact of $20 billion,” Nekvasil said.
While all states are supported by the industry itself, Michigan is the capital as it boasts more ports than the other Great Lakes states combined. In the 2011 report, the Great Lakes shipping supports 27,000 jobs in Michigan, which generates business revenues of $3.8 billion and taxes of $520 million, according to Nekvasil.
As commercial shipping continues to help support the communities and industries, the dynamic tendencies of the lakes can have an affect on the navigation of the vessels as they travel though the waterways.
Sediment can build up along shipping channels and ports through natural processes which can require dredging, navigation channels can accumulate ice through the winter months that make icebreakers necessary, and the important lock systems in place can often need repairs or replacing.
“Great Lakes shipping faces its fair share of challenges in 2017,” Lake Carriers’ Association President James Weakley said in the State of the Lakes Report for 2017. “Even though some 15 million cubic yards of excess sediment reduce vessel efficiencies, the Water Resource Development Act of 2016 ... makes permanent the temporary allocation to the Great Lakes Navigation System of 10 percent of the increased funding for dredging mandated in 2014.”
In addition to dredging contracts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains navigation systems through the Great Lakes, awarded a contract for construction repairs at Sault Ste. Marie on the Soo Locks.
"The contract for almost $2.4 million to replace Poe Lock quoin and miter blocks was awarded to Morrish-Wallace Constructin Inc., of Cheboygan, Michigan., (d.b.a.) Ryba Marine Construction," according to a July 31 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers press release.
Poe Lock, a lock at the Soo Locks complex in Sault Ste. Marie, which allows vessels to pass between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Due to the wind that controls the lake currents, sandy beaches and dunes can shift, creating, removing or changing areas of land.
“Lake Michigan and Huron have experience a record increase in water levels since 2012-2013, so many locations are now seeing much narrower beaches due to a combination of inundation and erosion” according to Matt Warner, Coastal Zone Management Program with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Lake Michigan is more than 3.5 feet higher now than it was in September 2012.”
Due to this natural process, beaches can be lost along the coastline resulting in loss of recreational areas or even private property with homes or businesses. In addition, these changes can affect the habitats of aquatic animals and plants as well as birds and nesting habits.
A problem seen with this natural process and the interaction with communities is that when buildings are situated along coastlines this can lead to the installation of shore protections like seawalls.
“These structures no longer allow sands to migrate lakeward and landward, which then cuts off the beach’s natural ability to defend itself,” Warner said. “So, the shore protection that was intended to solve the problem may protect the house behind it for some time, but because it negatively affects the beach’s inherent protection mechanisms, ultimately the recreational beach is lost.”
A group effort
State, tribal, local and federal funding for projects that seek to maintain shorelines and tackle problems such as invasive species are often funded through grant programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. While many local watershed management groups, like the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, rely on state sources for grant money, they often partner with other organizations to have access to more funding while tackling big issues.
“We are active and have management plans in place for places and have engaged committees with local governments and even the health department,” Thomassey said.
The efforts and commitment to maintaining the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes is almost endless. With so many governing bodies, the only way to ensure the lakes’ success is through regulations that are blurred along state lines.
To help protect the fishing industry, each state maintains strict regulations on size, weight and number of fish allowed during a fishing expedition.
“There are regulations for state and tribal commercial fisheries, tribal subsistence fisheries and state recreational fisheries,” Wesley said. “Most are put in place to limit overall harvest to maintain a sustainable fishery.”
Other than regulations on what can be taken out of and added to the waterways, there are plenty of federal rulings to protect the lakes and their invisible state boundaries.
“The Federal Water Pollution Act of 1948 was the first major U.S. law to address water pollution,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act, regulates quality and any discharges of pollution in United States waterways, such as wastewater. Due to amendments made to the original act, it is now unlawful for point source pollution into any navigable waterway, including the Great Lakes. When wastewater treatment plants, like the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, have overflows and discharges, the Clean Water Act, with the help of the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, help monitor and permit to maintain the receiving waterways surface water.
With the addition of two Canadian provinces, there are plenty of international agreements to maintain the health and integrity of the binational lakes.
“The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is a commitment between the United States and Canada to restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes. The agreement provides a framework for identifying binational priorities and implementing actions that improve water quality,” according to the EPA.
The agreement was first signed in 1972; however, it has received amendments as recently as 2012. Because the agreement is binational, the EPA ensures the United State’s activities while the Canadian government ensures Canada’s, however, the agreement is a shared vision of overall lake health so the two nations work closely with watershed management groups, local, tribal, state and federal governments to share priorities.
Another international treaty to ensure the lakes’ health and prosperity between the two countries is the Boundary Waters Treaty. This treaty defines the boundaries of the waters as from main shore to main shore. It also establishes that the boundary waters are to be open and maintained for the purposes of commerce, however, each governing body may maintain the laws and regulations of their own territory that does not interfere with the free navigation of the waterway.
As commercial vessels travel through the waterway, there are a number of regulations, mostly federal, that govern not only what they are shipping, but also crew levels, construction standards and their impact on the environment. While the EPA regulates shipping ballast water, the United States Coast Guard manages navigation.
“There is legislation in Congress that would make the Coast Guard the primary regulatory of ballast water ... with ships moving from one state’s waters to another, it’s important to have a consistent federal regulation,” Nekvasil said.
Currently, the Ninth Coast Guard District is responsible for all the Coast Guard operations throughout the five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. With jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters, they participate in icebreaking missions, federal oversight of bridges across navigable waters, auxiliary affairs, recreational boating safety, and they investigate for environmental protections and maritime casualties and accidents.
In addition to the treaties, agreements and regulations that cross state and international lines, there are also Lakewide Action and Management Plans for each individual lake and local river system. These programs coordinate non-governement and government partners together such as the Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency, Tribal Governments, local watershed management groups, federal regulations and international governments.
Sep 7, 2017 Updated Sep 8, 2017