The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of the world's supply of fresh surface water. But the lakes are under threat from pollution and invasive species, according to a report released last week by the International Joint Commission (IJC).
The IJC is made up of 3 Canadian and 3 U.S. commissioners and has a long history. Lana Pollack is U.S. co-chair.
“We were established a hundred years ago, a hundred and one years ago, to advise the governments of Canada and the U.S. how to resolve disputes over the waters that we share” says Pollack. “What we do is look down the road as well as look at what’s happening today, and give the governments advice how they can protect the resources for the multiple users. That would be navigation, fishing, recreation, power, drinking water of course, all of those are important uses.”
In the IJC’s 15th Annual Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality, released Wednesday, March 9th, the commission warns of serious threats to the lakes and calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments to step up their efforts and commitment to protecting water quality.
“We have made progress since the 70’s, since the Clean Water Act and all the other legislation that came out of the early days of the environmental movement and the environmental legislation that was mostly signed during the Nixon era, updated since then, but we see that we’re going backwards in other ways," says Pollack. "So what we’re saying in this report is, we’re not hanging on to some of the gains, so, for instance phosphorus loading is going back up. And phosphorus is connected with algal blooms. And we’re saying that we’re seeing invasive species threats. And we’re saying that we’re seeing threats from agriculture and urban runoff and from the spreading of manure from the big factory farms. That often is done improperly and runs off. We’re saying that we’re seeing Lake Erie go green again, as in algal blooms. We’re saying that the governments have not kept their commitment up and we’re saying that they’re not remembering the commitments and the lessons learned in the 70’s.”
Pollack says that an important water quality agreement from the 1970’s is currently being updated by the two governments.
“The federal governments are right now re-writing what’s called the Great Lakes Water Quality Act, and that was an agreement that was signed by Premier Trudeau and President Nixon in 1972. And what we’re calling for, and what we’re calling on the governments to do, the Commission is saying, look, this agreement should explicitly say that human health needs to be protected. That we need to be able to have the waters that are swimmable, fishable and drinkable and that people can go to the beaches without fear of being exposed to either biological or chemical contaminants. So that’s the big thing. We want explicit commitments from the governments that they will commit to protecting the lakes to the degree that human health will not be harmed.”
Besides urging governments to step up efforts to protect Great Lakes water quality, Pollack says there are steps that individuals and communities can make to help the lakes.
“Individuals can watch their own behaviors. What you drop on the ground will make its way into the Great Lakes, and so what you put on the ground is very important. That’s one thing. Rain gardens; people can get information online about rain gardens, to prevent additional runoff. Wetlands restoration; local governments, when they give building permits they should make sure they’re not allowing building in areas that will pave over areas that need the wetlands to absorb the pollutants before it runs into the lake. And people need to be aware when they vote, whether the people they’re voting for are willing to make the investments in the wastewater treatment plants and the other protections that the Great Lakes need. There’s a disinvestment in keeping up septic systems in municipal water supplies. After the early years of the environmental movement, as I said, in the 70’s, there was a great deal of federal funding and state and local funding, mostly federal, put into the wastewater treatment plants and a lot of improvements were made. Now they’re aging. And it’s like a house, you fix the roof but you can’t wait another 40 years and think that you’re not going to have a leak.”
The International Joint Commission’s Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality is available online at www.ijc.org.