New US-Canada Great Lakes report rates ecosystem status ‘fair’

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The report's content will be featured at the upcoming Great Lakes Public Forum in Niagara Falls on September 27 - 29 to help leaders engage communities and stakeholders on future priorities. Photo credit: ECCC/EPA

Environment and Climate Change Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have jointly published a new report that provides an overview of the status and trends of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The report includes data from some 120 Great Lakes scientists and other experts, who have released the assessment as a requirement under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, now celebrating its 50th year.

“Protecting the Great Lakes can only be achieved by working together. With our American friends and neighbours, we have had incredible success in cleaning up the Great Lakes from pollutants, while reducing farm run-off and protecting species at risk,” announced Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Guilbeault added that the report’s content will be featured at the upcoming Great Lakes Public Forum in Niagara Falls from September 27 – 29 to help leaders engage communities and stakeholders on future priorities.

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The report considers indicators such as nutrient levels, drinking water quality, invasive species, chemical levels, fish health and consumption, and a series of other stressors such as land use and population growth.

“Overall, the Great Lakes are assessed by the State of the Great Lakes indicators as Fair and the trend is Unchanging,” states the report. “There has been tremendous progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, and a reduction in the establishment of new non-native aquatic species.”

The report states that “unprecedented progress” has been made to remediate and restore Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs), including the remediation of more than 1,280,000 cubic yards (97,8630 m3) of contaminated sediment and the formal restoration and delisting of two AOCs.

Significant challenges remain for the impact of nutrients, especially in Lake Erie and localized areas, where they contribute to blooms of toxic cyanobacteria and nuisance algae. Excessive Cladophora, a native alga around Lake Erie, poses problems such as beach and shoreline fouling, clogging of municipal water intakes, and damage to tourism and recreational fishing. The report found that Lake Erie is unchanged and continues to be the lone Great Lake to be assessed as “poor”.

Reducing excess phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie remains a high priority for action, states the report. Between 2015 and 2020, Canada reduced phosphorus loading to the watershed by some 20 tonnes.

In terms of the impacts of invasive species, the report found that the number of new non-native species entering the Great Lakes has been “significantly reduced”, largely through improved ballast water management by transoceanic ships. However, invasive species already in the Great Lakes, such as zebra and quagga mussels, and Phragmites, “continue to spread and cause substantial ecological and economic impacts.”

For Lake Michigan, invasive species and other stressors continue to affect both water quality and the lake’s food web.

Lake Ontario is showing improvements with fewer beach closings and a drop in contaminant concentrations in fish, the report found.

“Human population in the Lake Ontario basin has increased by more than 60% over the past 50 years, which is the highest of all the Great Lakes basins,” states the report. “Shifts in climate trends such as increasing surface water temperatures and decreasing ice cover may have ecosystem implications.”

Approximately 8.5 million Canadians and 19.5 million Americans get their drinking water from the surface waters of the Great Lakes. The overall status of the treated drinking water sourced is “good,” and the trend is “unchanging.”

Also published is a new Progress Report of the Parties, describing recent achievements in restoring and protecting Great Lakes water quality and ecosystem health.

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