Great Lakes

Kristi McCracken, August 17, 2012

How safe is it to swim, drink, and fish here?

The Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario—are the largest system of fresh surface water on the planet. They contain 90 percent of the nation's supply of fresh water and approximately one fifth of the world's fresh water supply. Only the polar ice caps contain more fresh water. Together the lake water covers an area of 94,000 square miles. Considered a fourth coastline, these inland freshwater seas have been a source of recreation, water consumption, transportation, and power production to onetenth of the population of the United States and one-quarter of the population of Canada that live in the Great Lakes region.

Before the arrival of European immigrants, the Great Lakes region was inhabited by Native Peoples for thousands of years. The Native Peoples had mastered their environment and were economically self-sustaining, After the region began to see French explorers around 1615, the development of trade caused Native Peoples to abandon their traditional activities and become trade dependent. They would travel hundreds of miles on the rivers and Great Lakes to take beaver pelts, which were highly desired by the Europeans, to Montreal to exchange for implements made of iron. For the next 200 years waterways continued to be the main routes of travel into the region by immigrants. Boats also served as the central means for transporting goods.


Even though the Great Lakes are large in size, spanning 750 miles across, they are sensitive to the effects of many environmental pollutants from agricultural and urban runoff, as well as industrial and municipal facilities. The large surface area of the lakes also makes them vulnerable to surface pollutants. The expansion of cities, farms, and factories has resulted in habitat changes to shorelines and wetlands. Water pollution, over harvesting of fisheries, the introduction of exotic species, dredging operations in harbors and shipping channels have also taken their toll on this ecosystem.

The Great Lakes system is home to hundreds of thousands of plant, fish, and wildlife populations, who depend on shoreline habitats for breeding and growing which is greatly affected by changes in water levels and contamination concentrations. The coastal wetlands are breeding grounds for 30 plus species of Great Lakes fish that depend on these marshy areas for successful reproduction. Research, though mostly local and piecemeal, suggests that habitat loss is severe. Plans and funding in both the U.S. and Canada are needed to tackle the bigger picture here.

Lake Superior is the largest, the deepest, coldest and least polluted of the five lakes because the population and farms are less dense than the other lakes and its drainage basin is forested. Pollutants here arrive mostly by air. Commercial fishing of Lake trout which used to be the top predator in the lakes is only allowed in Lake Superior because here enough natural reproduction still occurs for sufficient numbers to survive. Lake Michigan is the only lake that lies entirely within the borders of the United States. Green Bay has many productive fisheries, but paper facility wastes are dumped here. The shoreline to the south is home to 8 million people who call Milwaukee and Chicago home and this heavy urbanization negatively impacts the water quality.

Lake Erie, one of the smaller lakes, is stressed from agricultural runoff and the affects of seventeen urban areas totaling a population of nearly a million. Lake Erie’s water quality issues stem from problems caused because it’s shallow, making it warmer, but also because it has waste water discharge issues from municipal treatment plants. The resulting excess phosphorus led to algae blooms near the shorelines which caused taste and odor problems in drinking water. As the dead algae settled to the bottom in mats, the oxygen level dropped, killing fish. Additionally, fertile soils surrounding this lake mean the region is farmed extensively which leads to chemical runoff.

Lake Ontario is smaller but deeper than Lake Erie. On the Canadian side it has urban industrial areas such as Toronto. The 4 1/2 million people who live around Lake Ontario depend on it for drinking water. If even one of Ontario’s 21 reactors, had a Fukushima disaster, finding alternative drinking water would be a great challenge. Not only have residents faced beach closures due to unhealthy water, but the Environment Ministry’s 2011-2012 “Guide to Eating Ontario Sport Fish” recommends that children under 15 and women considering getting pregnant should not eat fish from the lake. Consumption of certain species of fish is restricted due to high mercury levels. Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario, is farthest downstream, which leads many to claim it is the most polluted of the five.

Environmental laws are changing to address issues in the Great Lakes. Ecological risk assessments of the threats from waste disposal facilities include tracking waste from these sites to its concentration in the water and life forms dependent on it. The most challenging areas to deal with are in harbors and river mouths where the cumulative effects of pollutants are greater.

Increased concentration of pollutants in the food chain of the Great Lakes region is affecting the top predators, such as lake trout, fish-eating gulls, herons, and bald eagles. The concentration of some chemicals in the fatty tissues of these predators can be millions of times higher than the concentration in the surrounding water which interferes with their ability to reproduce. Eggs of fish-eating birds often contain some of the highest concentrations of toxic chemicals causing unhatched eggs or malformed chicks.

Scientists monitor the gulls as early warning signs of a growing toxic chemical problem. Biomagnification of pollutants in the food chain can affect human health, so to protect lake side residents from this risk, all the Great Lakes states have issued warnings about eating certain types of fish. In fact, toxic levels of mercury and pesticides in fish tissue have reached levels serious enough for public health authorities to issue warnings that long-term exposure raises cancer concerns. Additional research indicates other risks as well, such as birth defects.

A comprehensive approach to management is needed because the entire Great Lakes basin is interconnected. Solutions require an understanding of the movement of pollutants through air, surface water, sediment, and ground water. Developing and implementing pollution-abatement measures can help to restore and maintain the Great Lakes and its many uses.

Eight states border the Great Lakes and their governors are required by law to agree to any significant diversion of Great Lakes water outside of the basin. Over a hundred years ago the Boundary Water Treaty was signed by Canada and the U. S. to manage and protect our shared lakes.

Forty years ago the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), set the policies for what governments can and should do to ensure safe drinking water. This was amended 25 years ago, but it’s supposed to be updated every 6 years. Many new hazards now threaten the water supplies that aren’t being regulated. Prescription drugs are flushed causing them to enter municipal water, as well as dioxins that are bioaccumulating in human breast milk and birds’ eggs. Though PCBs were banned years ago they are still showing up in the sediment and fish of the lake and will cost billions to clean up.

Negotiations for more stringent restrictions are ongoing, but environmentalists are hoping they take on a greater sense of urgency. Drinking water is a primary need like food and shelter. The protections required to maintain this includes curbing industrial pollution, improving storm-water management, and updating sewage plants, but city budgets are being cut back.

Strong pieces of legislation such as Water Resources Act and the Environmental Protection Act basically require companies to apply for permits to pollute and then acceptable levels are negotiated. Current regulations state that you can be imprisoned or fined up to $6 million a day for breaking them, but enforcement is weakened by declining budgets.

Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Chair of the Board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, worries about the export of bitumen through (proposed) pipelines to refineries on the lake. A Toronto University report called those pipelines a pollution delivery system. Barlow has proposed the need for local lake communities to declare the Great Lakes as publicly owned “commons,” to save them so that they are swimmable, drinkable and fishable.

Lakeside residents are encouraged to help the lake by taking several basic preventative measures. Minimize sewage overflows by planting grass so rainwater can soak into the ground. Add native trees and plants, but avoid herbicides and pesticides. Do not dump hazardous materials into sewer or even the runoff from washing your car because detergents contain phosphates that are highly caustic, and surfactants which are very toxic. Avoid antibacterial soaps because they contain triclosan, which is toxic to wildlife and converts to a form of dioxin in the water. Safe disposal of prescription and over-thecounter drugs means not flushing them but taking unused bottles of pills back to the pharmacy. Substitute road salt usage to an environmentally friendly alternative. Don’t introduce any foreign fish or species into waterways or even dump your aquarium fish in the toilet. As international governmental policies become updated and local residents contribute their part, healthier waters can be realized.

The indigenous tribe called the Ojibwe in Canada and the Chippewa in the U.S. continue to live along or near Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. They consider water or “nibi” to be the blood of the Earth. It is the source of life and because of this it is considered to be the under the care of women. It must be protected and kept pure for all of life now and to come. An Ojibwe saying goes: “As those that walked before us provided for the well being of today’s people, so we must think of who will walk the Circle in many years to come.”

Let us do our part to contribute to the healing and restoration of these magnificent bodies of freshwater and their diverse ecosystems. Click here to listen to and join in a meditation created for healing the Great Lakes. Also, August 26th, from Noon to 1:00pm, your time zone, is our dedicated time when we join with each other, throughout the world, to create the Wave of love, prayer, focused intent… for the healing of the Great Lakes. Please join us at that time, and invite your friends, so we have a mighty Wave of healing support for these precious lakes. Thank you!

Click here to listen to and join in a meditation created for healing the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Protection Fund

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