The overall condition of the Great Lakes has been assessed as “fair and unchanging” in the 2019 State of the Great Lakes joint report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environmental and Climate Change Canada, published on June 3.
The lakes were assessed on nine indicators of ecosystem health as part of the 2012 Great Lakes Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada. Two indicators – drinking water and beaches – were assessed as “good”, with fish consumption, toxic chemicals, habitat and species, nutrients and algae, groundwater, and watershed impacts assessed as “fair”. The condition of the lakes with respect to invasive species were assessed as “poor and deteriorating”, despite some recent success in reducing the number of new invasive species entering the lakes.
“The Great Lakes is home to one of the world’s greatest bodies of fresh water and while progress on water quality is happening, there is still work to be done,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “This report shows that invasive species and excess nutrients continue to undermine ecosystem health. These status reports directly inform state and federal policies toward the Great Lakes.”
But the overall picture hides some worrying regional disparities and stalled progress.
While nutrients and algal conditions in Lake Superior are generally good, they remain poor in Lake Erie. And though the levels of toxic chemicals such as PCBs in offshore waters have been declining in the long term, there has been little change in the past 10 years, and the amount of flame-retardant chemicals known as PFAS are increasing in lakes Erie and Ontario. Coastal wetlands are also in generally poor shape in those two lakes.
Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago, said there has been good progress in many areas but serious challenges remain for the lakes.
“For every point of progress there is still more to do,” he said.
Despite the overall positive tone of the report, that is made more difficult by the actions of the Trump administration, which has cancelled or scaled back clean water protections across the country, Brammeier added.
“We’re not making as much progress as we should given the level of investment,” he said. “We’re investing $300 million a year in protecting the lakes, at the same time as rolling back protections.”
The decision to cancel protections for millions of acres of wetlands and seasonal streams, the removal of states’ ability to enforce water quality standards on large federal construction projects like pipelines, and the failure to fund a proposed project to keep Asian carp out of the lakes will “come down hard” on the Great Lakes, said Brammeier. “We will see a decrease in water quality over the decades to come.”
That will undo much of the improvements made over the past 50 years since the Clean Water Act came into force as a result of hard work and major investments by all levels of government, he said.
“The Great Lakes are far cleaner today than in 1970 as a direct result of the Clean Water Act,” said Brammeier.
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Featured image: Lake Erie (Great Lakes Now Episode 1013)