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Great Lakes Ecological Protection and Restoration

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Great Lakes Ecosystem Report 2000 cover page


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Great Lakes Ecosystem Report 2000

United States Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes National Program Office
Chicago, IL - January 2001

Table of Contents

Questions regarding this Report should be directed to:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes National Program Office
77 West Jackson Boulevard (G-17J)
Chicago, IL 60604
Tel:  (312) 353-2117
Fax: (312) 886-6869

Executive Summary

The Great Lakes, with 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, are one of the world’s most important natural resources. Human impacts were once devastating, epitomized by a burning Cuyahoga River and a Lake Erie declared dead.  Since then, the Great Lakes have improved tremendously. Nutrient targets have largely been achieved and contaminant levels are decreasing or leveling off. However, contaminant levels remain a concern, still triggering fish consumption advisories, and monitoring shows that invasive species continue to enter the Great Lakes with the potential to alter food web dynamics and threaten community structures.

Sailing along the Milwaukee shorelineThe United States Great Lakes Program is a nested structure of activities, managed and implemented by an alliance of Federal, State, Tribal, and nongovernmental agencies, working in a complementary and collaborative manner with their Canadian Federal, Provincial, and local counterparts, to protect and restore the Great Lakes. This nested structure is meant to parallel the natural boundaries found in the Great Lakes ecosystem: from local landscapes to subwatersheds, to individual lake basins, to the entire Great Lakes Basin, and beyond. Places are stressed over programs, with environmental and natural resource programs applied along naturally occurring borders instead of jurisdictional boundaries. And because the interactions between ecosystem levels are very complex, this structure is intended to be both flexible and adaptable to respond to the needs of the ecosystem. The goal of these various programs and efforts is to achieve significant environmental improvements through the implementation of a multimedia, ecosystem-based approach in the Great Lakes. This management structure must foster cross-program and cross-agency integration of programs at a variety of scales; from areas of concern (using remedial action plans), to issues of lakewide importance (using lakewide management plans), to those of basinwide concern.

Examples of this last type include: atmospheric deposition of toxicants, exotic species introductions, and the loss of critical habitats and biodiversity. A number of basinwide programs have been undertaken as the most efficient and technically feasible scale for addressing these (and other) stressors, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative and the Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network. The impetus for these programs comes from a number of areas: the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, congressional mandates, recommendations from the lakewide management plans and remedial action plans, and/or agreements between Federal and State agencies.

Reducing and Virtually Eliminating Toxic Chemicals

The United States Great Lakes Program has made significant progress in reducing persistent toxic substances in the Great Lakes. The remedial action plan and lakewide management plan programs are providing the vehicles for delivering toxic reduction activities both lakewide and at local hotspots. Many of these activities are being guided by the targets set in the historic United States-Canada Great Lakes Binational Toxics Reduction Strategy. The Strategy set national and international commitments for the reduction in the use and release of a targeted list of persistent toxic substances including mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and furans. Under the United States-Canada Great Lakes Binational Toxics Reduction Strategy, for example, toxic reductions will be achieved through commitments made by the DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, and Ford Motor companies to eliminate polychlorinated biphenyls-containing electrical equipment at their facilities in North America and globally; and by the Olin Corporation to achieve a goal of zero discharge of mercury at its chlor-alkali facilities. Noteworthy progress on mercury reduction has been made under existing agreements with the American Hospital Association, three Northwest Indiana steel mills, and the Chlorine Institute.

Managing Contaminated Sediments

Cycling of contaminants from bottom sediments is a leading source of water quality and food chain contamination. The United States Great Lakes Program provides technical, financial, and field support for Federal, State, and Tribal partners to assist in addressing contaminated sediments. The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s research vessel the R/V Mudpuppy, for example, has conducted sediment assessment surveys at 26 locations throughout the Great Lakes, including surveys at 24 of the 31 United States Great Lakes areas of concern.

Recent sediment remediations under a variety of authorities have resulted in the removal of large amounts of contaminated sediments, including: (1) a Superfund removal of 150,000 cubic yards of polychlorinated biphenyls-contaminated materials (containing 20,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls) from Bryant Mill Pond on the Kalamazoo River, Michigan; (2) a removal of over 12,000 cubic yards of arsenic-contaminated sediments in the Menominee River, Wisconsin where arsenic levels were so high the dredged material was classified as a hazardous waste; and (3) a Fox River, Wisconsin dredging demonstration project that removed over 10,000 cubic yards of polychlorinated biphenyls-contaminated sediments from the river that is the major source of polychlorinated biphenyls to Lake Michigan.

Protecting and Restoring Habitat and Natural Areas

To protect and restore important habitats, a variety of Federal, State, Tribal, and non-profit organizations are working together to address these issues. We have coalesced around the protection and restoration of biologically rich areas, an idea that is now spreading outside of the Great Lakes Basin. Initiatives include facilitation of local sustainable development efforts such as Springfield, Michigan’s development of standards and ordinances that encourage integration of native vegetation into design and development practices, such as stormwater management; and the Les Cheneaux Island’s community-driven strategic plan, involving over eighty local businesses, for economic development that depends on and provides for the long-term protection of the rich biological diversity of their Northern Lake Huron Islands, while at the same time planning for economic sustainability.

Monitoring the Health of the Lakes

Through several years of a binational, multi-organizational effort known as the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference, Great Lakes Program partners have identified 80 comprehensive, basin-wide indicators. The Lakes can now be assessed based on 19 of those indicators, which will provide a consistent means by which agencies can report on the health of the Lakes. Indicator descriptions can be found at:

www.epa.gov/glnpo/solec

Recent biological monitoring reveals a Great Lakes ecosystem in flux. Significant changes to the food web have occurred, likely as a result of invasive species. New invasive species, in addition to zebra mussels, have recently arrived. In 1998, Cercopagis, an invasive zooplankton, was discovered in Lake Ontario. It has the potential to disperse throughout the Great Lakes in very high numbers, impacting plankton and fish communities. Scientists are also concerned that the round goby may be a threat to the integrity of the biological community.

Biological monitoring also shows other changes that require attention. Recent data indicate an escalation of the decline of Diporeia in Lakes Michigan and Ontario. This amphipod at the base of the food chain is a principal food source for young fish; its decline has serious ramifications for the food web. Various agencies are working together to determine if its decline is related to zebra mussels.

Monitoring of the lakes also provides information for decision-makers. One example is the multi-agency Lake Michigan Mass Balance Study, one of the largest and most detailed investigations of its kind, providing State and Federal environmental managers with data for toxic and nutrient loadings to Lake Michigan rivers, air, and open waters. Managers can now determine the relative pollutant contributions from the atmosphere, tributaries, and sediments and determine what the most effective long-term steps will be to further reduce levels of toxicants, with the goal of lifting all fish consumption advisories on Lake Michigan.

Protecting Human Health

Protection of human health is of paramount importance. States issue fish consumption advisories to inform citizens of the risks involved in consuming certain varieties of Great Lakes fish due to the presence of toxic contaminants in fish. Susceptible sub-populations such as infants and the elderly, sportfishers, pregnant women, and Tribal members are at an increased risk. A variety of domestic, binational, and multilateral toxic control programs and initiatives are addressing both point and nonpoint sources of pollution to further protect human health.

Great challenges still face us as we work to restore the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes. The United States Great Lakes Program remains strongly committed to conducting the research, implementing the programs, and monitoring the results of its actions in order to maintain these freshwater treasures. We take pride in our accomplishments to date, but we are not complacent. We understand that much more work is to be done to achieve the goal of a Great Lakes ecosystem where there are no limits on the fish we eat, and no concerns regarding the water we drink and use for recreational purposes. The United States Great Lakes Program is pleased to have this opportunity to report to the International Joint Commission, to Congress, and to our citizens on our continuing efforts to protect these sweetwater seas.

Introduction

This is the sixth Biennial Progress Report to the International Joint Commission (IJC), Congress, and the citizens of the Great Lakes Basin on actions taken by the United States (U.S.) to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. This report reviews some principal challenges facing the ecosystem; outlines approaches taken by Basin stakeholders to address these challenges; highlights some historic and recent actions by Federal, State, and Tribal agencies, as well as their non-governmental partners, to implement these approaches; and outlines future activities on behalf of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Region map

Figure 1. The Great Lakes Region
The Great Lakes region encompasses parts of eight states and the Province of Ontario.

Formed by the melting and retreat of mile-thick glaciers 10 to 12 thousand years ago, the Great Lakes system is, by area, the world’s largest body of surface freshwater. The deep network of 5 lakes contain nearly 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, representing 95 percent of the surface freshwater of the U.S. If the Great Lakes’ 6 quadrillion gallons of water was poured over the land-mass of the continental U.S., the entire landmass of the lower 48 States would be covered to a depth of almost 10 feet.

The Great Lakes Program

Innovative partnerships, projects, and research are the norms in the Great Lakes. We are working smarter and more efficiently to deliver on the promises made under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Agreement) via the Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP), remedial action plan (RAP), and other Agreement programs. New challenges and opportunities will continue to present themselves as the U.S. Great Lakes Program continues to make steady progress toward improving the Great Lakes ecosystem for all of its inhabitants. Environmental protection and natural resource agencies are working together in pursuit of the common goals of reducing the levels of toxic contaminants in the environment, protecting and restoring vital habitats, and protecting the health of the ecosystem’s living resources. These goals drive the majority of actions highlighted in this report.

Integrating the Ecosystem Management Approach Across the Basin

The Great Lakes Program is a nested structure of activities, managed and implemented by an alliance of Federal, State, Tribal, and nongovernmental agencies. This nested structure is meant to parallel the natural boundaries found in the Great Lakes ecosystem: from local landscapes to subwatersheds to individual lake basins to the entire Great Lakes Basin and beyond. Places are stressed over programs, with environmental and natural resource programs applied along naturally occurring borders instead of jurisdictional boundaries. And because the inter-actions between ecosystem levels are very complex, the structure of the program is intended to be flexible in order to respond to the evolving needs of the ecosystem.

The goal of these various programs and efforts is to achieve significant environmental improvements through the implementation of a multimedia, ecosystem-based approach in the Great Lakes. This management structure must  foster cross-program and cross-agency integration at a variety of scales: from the local level to issues of lakewide and basinwide concern.

Great Lakes Areas of Concern map
Figure 2. There are 42 AOCs; 26 in the U.S., 11 in Canada, and 5 located binationally.

A Strong Foundation: Local Planning and Implementation

Any structure must have a strong foundation. The foundation for the Great Lakes Program resides with the many sub-lake basin, geographically focused efforts, including RAPs, throughout the basin, and special geographic initiatives in Chicago, Northwest Indiana, Southeast Michigan, Northeast Ohio, and the Niagara River frontier. 

RAPs are developed and implemented through an ecosystem-based, multimedia approach for assessing and remediating impaired uses. RAPs provide a process for individuals, organizations, and local governments to become actively involved in restoring their part of the Great Lakes ecosystems. States approach RAPs in different ways. Some have a “hands-on” style of involvement in the process, while others delegate much of the decision-making to local groups or agencies within the area of concern (AOC). These approaches are complemented by Federal and State technical and financial support and where necessary, the application of Federal and State statutes and authorities. It is important to note that solutions for problems in AOCs and other local, geographically-focused efforts do not fall into the “one size fits all” category. Each of these areas have a unique blend of circumstances and solutions based upon the complexities of the issues that are being addressed.

Managing Activities on a Lakewide Scale

While the RAPs and other sub-basin processes are crucial for restoring the ecosystems in the AOCs and other localized areas, the beneficial effects of these efforts extend well beyond their boundaries. Remedying problems at these levels provide lakewide benefits by reducing pollutant loadings and protecting vital habitats. Integrating the activities of all the sub-basin projects on a given lake, where necessary, falls under the LaMP programs, comprised of representatives of Federal, State, Provincial, Tribal, and non-governmental organizations, including public forums.

A LaMP, and indeed the entire LaMP process, is a multifaceted undertaking that requires close integration of all parties involved to make the best use of resources and to deliver environmental protection, restoration, and remediation programs most effectively. They represent a marked increase in scale and complexity for implementing ecosystem management. The goal of a LaMP is to restore and protect beneficial uses in the open waters of a given Great Lake from both existing and potential impairments. They serve as the platforms for addressing a variety of ecosystem stressors, such as critical pollutants, habitat loss, nutrient loadings, and invasive species, which are impacting, or have the potential to impact, beneficial uses. In addition to the work being done on four of the Great Lakes, there is now a Lake Huron Initiative. There is a strong effort being led by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a variety of other partners to ensure that the Lake Huron Basin is fully protected. A management plan has been developed and a suite of actions formulated for Lake Huron.4

During this past year, the U.S. Great Lakes Program has worked to accelerate the LaMPs from the planning phase to one that is focused on implementation. This culminated in an April 2000 release of a LaMP 2000 document for each of the lakes. These documents will provide a blue-print for action over the next few years (see discussion regarding the Binational Executive Committee (BEC) position on LaMPs for more details). Information on the LaMPs can be found at:

http://epa.gov/greatlakes/lamp/index.html 

Supporting Basinwide Policy Coordination

Certain environmental problems in the Great Lakes are basinwide in scale and require a basinwide response. A number of basinwide programs have been undertaken as the most efficient and technically feasible scale for addressing these (and other) stressors. Examples include: the Binational Toxics Strategy, the IADN, which is a monitoring program, and SOLEC, which develops suggested monitoring and reporting objectives. The impetus for these programs comes from a number of areas: the Agreement, congressional mandates, recommendations from the LaMPs and RAPs, an  agreements between Federal and State agencies. In this regard, these activities are the next step in the nested structure of the Great Lakes Program, expanding to the next level of natural boundaries of the ecosystem. 

Basinwide programs can encompass up to eight states, two Provinces, Tribes, First Nations, and a number of Federal agencies from both the U.S. and Canada. The coordinating body for the U.S. side of the basin is the U.S. Policy Committee (USPC). The USPC sets strategic goals and directions for U.S. Great Lakes ecosystem management and protection, and represents these views in a variety of binational forums. The blueprint for the USPC’s activities is contained within the Great Lakes Strategy, which is currently undergoing an update. 

The main binational forum for discussing Great Lakes issues at the basinwide level is the Binational Executive Committee (BEC), which is comprised of selected USPC members and their Canadian counterparts. The BEC addresses binational, basinwide issues of concern and provides strategic direction to the LaMPs, RAPs, and other Great Lakes programs. As an example of its role, the BEC, at its July 22, 1999 meeting, called for a significant refinement of the process, substance, and schedule of the LaMPs. Specifically, a resolution called for the significant acceleration of the LaMP process so that a “LaMP 2000" document would be completed by Earth Day in April 2000 for each lake. It was envisioned that “LaMP 2000" will be a working document with iterative updates reflective of current knowledge and ecosystem status. This April 2000 target was successfully met. 

Beyond the Basin

Environmental impacts to the Great Lakes extend beyond political and natural borders and are truly global in scale. A number of initiatives under the aegis of the United Nations (U.N.), the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), and other international bodies are dealing with issues regarding toxic contaminants, exotic species, and global warming, to name a few. The U.S. Great Lakes Program is well-represented at most of these venues and its representatives are working to ensure that Great Lakes environmental protection is on the agenda of these multilateral negotiations. 

This progress report on U.S. Great Lakes activities highlights success stories at all levels of the Basin. There are stories to tell at the local, regional, basinwide, and international levels. Through these examples, this report provides a sense of the scope and scale of these actions as a way of informing the public about the multitude of activities being implemented by a broad spectrum of public and private partners, working towards the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes Basin. 



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