Posted on April 18, 2018 by David Ullrich

Although separated by over 8,000 miles and representing vastly different ecosystems, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and the Great Lakes of North American share much in common.  As globally significant resources, they not only help define the countries so fortunate to host them, they are major contributors to the social, economic, and environmental vibrancy of their cultures.  They are both very big and visible from space, with the Great Lakes having well over 10,000 miles of shoreline and the Great Barrier Reef stretching over 1200 miles of coast in Queensland.  At the same time, many similar challenges face the communities that are charged with the stewardship of the resources to make sure their integrity is preserved for future generations.

At the top of the list is climate change.  For the Great Barrier Reef, the warmer ocean temperatures have resulted in significant bleaching events over the past twenty years and have caused damage to major portions of the Reef, although much of its beauty remains intact. The increase in severity and intensity of cyclones has also caused major physical damage to the Reef all up and down the coast of the Coral Sea.  As the storms travel inland with heavy rains, the runoff from agriculture brings vast quantities of sediment and nutrients to the nearshore areas of the Reef.  The siltation can smother the coral and the nutrients are thought to contribute significantly to the explosion of the indigenous crown of thorns starfish that attack and destroy coral. 

Climate change is also putting extensive stress on the Great Lakes.  The warmer temperatures are leading to less ice cover, more evaporation, and lower lake levels.  However, the more frequent and intense rainfall events are putting more water back into the system.  Experts differ on the long term implications.  In the short term, lake levels seem to be going up and down more rapidly and to a greater degree than before, leading to navigational and erosion problems.  In addition, the heavy rains have increased nutrient runoff from agriculture and urban areas, leading to alarming algal blooms and drinking water crises like those in Toledo, Ohio and Pelee Island, Ontario on Lake Erie.  The nutrients also contribute to the formation of low oxygen dead zones that can result in fish kills.  In addition to climate change, the battle against invasive species such as sea lamprey and zebra and quagga mussels seems endless, while grass, silver, bighead, and black carp continue as major threats to the $7 billion fishery of the Great Lakes.

As strategies and approaches to dealing with these challenges are developed in Australia, Canada, and the United States, we would be well served to share ideas with one another on how best to meet them.  We have a tremendous responsibility as stewards of these global treasures to protect and preserve them for future generations.  It would be a tragedy to be resigned to renaming them the “Pretty Good Barrier Reef” and the “Pretty Good Lakes.”

Great Lakes – Great Waste

Posted on September 13, 2013 by David Ullrich

The world’s largest source of surface fresh water is surrounded by a number of nuclear plants that have been generating power and waste for well over 30 years.  Although the region has had the benefit of the power, it also has the legacy of low, medium, and high level waste that has been accumulating at these plants over the years.  There is great concern over this situation because the lakes are the source of drinking water for over 30 million people.

Currently, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) has a proposal for a deep geologic repository (DGR) for low and intermediate level radioactive waste at their Bruce Nuclear facility near Kincardine, Ontario.  The waste comes from the Bruce facility, as well as OPG’s Darlington and Pickering plants.  It is currently stored above ground    The DGR would be 680 meters below the surface of the ground and about one kilometer from the shores of Lake Huron.  Kincardine offered to serve as a host community for the DGR, and no other potential sites have been considered.  There has been extensive outreach in the Kincardine area over the past 10 years about the proposal, and some limited amount in Michigan.  Only recently has the broader Great Lakes community become aware of the proposal and some significant concerns have been raised, primarily the proximity to Lake Huron and the lack of consideration of other sites.  In addition, there is concern that this would be a precedent for more disposal sites for not only low and medium level waste, but also the high level waste from spent fuel.  The proposal is under review by a Joint Review Panel formed by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

Although OPG has done extensive engineering and geological work, the fundamental question is whether a disposal site should be located so close to one of the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for over 30 million people.  Also, should just one site be considered for something as significant as this?  Some have argued that there should be no more nuclear plants on the Great Lakes until an acceptable disposal solution has been found.  The reason the nuclear plants are there in the first place is the abundance of available cooling water.  It seems ironic that the convenience of locating the disposal site next to the plant to limit transportation of the waste, also results in the waste staying close to Lake Huron.  We should be able to do much better than this in the 21st Century.


Posted on January 4, 2013 by David Ullrich

Tremendous progress has been made in protecting and restoring the environment over the past 40 years since the passage of major legislation at the federal, state, and provincial levels in the United States and Canada.  However, our skill at measuring that progress is somewhat limited, and we may not have the kind of information we need to judge the health of our ecosystems or the effectiveness of our programs.  There have been some good efforts on an international, national, state, and provincial basis to evaluate the state of the environment using certain indicators, but one area needing much more attention is the Great Lakes. 

Although there are many indicators monitored on a continuing basis in the Great Lakes, the real difficulty has been synthesizing the information in a way that puts officials in a position to communicate effectively with the public, policy makers, and managers about whether the Great Lakes are getting better, worse, or staying the same.  The International Joint Commission (IJC) initiated an effort recently through its Water Quality Board (WQB) and Science Advisory Board (SAB) to identify a limited number of core indicators for this freshwater resource.  What’s needed now is a consensus among the scientific and policy leaders on the Great Lakes on the “few indicators that tell us the most” about the waters.

It was not hard to tell the Great Lakes were in trouble when enough dead alewives washed up on its shores requiring front end loaders to remove them, the Cuyahoga River and other tributaries caught fire, and Lake Eric was declared “dead” because of massive algal blooms.  Many of these conditions on the Great Lakes led to both a public outcry and Congressional action in order to deal with the lakes’ water pollution and other environmental problems.  As programs were put in place to keep oil out of the rivers and reduce nutrient loadings to the lakes, significant visible improvements were seen.  The underlying data was available to support the observations, but the visible improvements plus much better fishing success told the story in an easily observable way. 

Things are much more complicated now.  When looking at the fundamental three legged stool  supporting the Great Lakes’ ecosystem, being the chemical, physical, biological integrity of the resource, it is not easy to gage.  With regard to chemicals, very low concentrations of legacy pollutants like PCBs and dioxins can cause serious problems.  Likewise, ongoing contamination from airborne deposition of mercury is a real concern.  New chemicals such as flame retardants are the next problem area with which to deal.  Invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels, the ever present sea lampreys, and the threat from the Asian carp are a constant problem for maintaining the biological balance in the system.  From a physical standpoint, expanding urbanization, suburban sprawl, and the manifestations of climate change are also adding tremendous pressure on the Great Lakes.  What’s needed is a core set of chemical, physical, and biological indicators of the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of the programs to protect and restore it.

Good progress is being made on this front.  After several months of work by some of the top Great Lakes’ scientists and policy makers, a group of just over twenty indicators has been preliminarily identified, with a smaller group as the core.   They include:
    Physical: Coastal wetlands, land cover, and tributary physical integrity
    Chemical: Nutrient concentrations and loadings, and persistent bio - accumulative toxics
    Biological: Lower food web productivity/health, fish species of interest, harmful and nuisance algae, aquatic invasive species

Much of the foundation for the work done recently comes from what is known as the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC), which is a large gathering, primarily of scientists, held every two years to review and evaluate a large number of Great Lakes’ indicators on the Great Lakes.

What needs to happen next is for the IJC first to adopt a set of core indicators as the ones that tell us the most about the resource, then inform the U.S. and Canadian governments of its findings.  Under the recently updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the parties are responsible for establishing ecosystem indicators for the Great Lakes.

With a set of core indicators, both countries will be in a much better position to communicate with the public, elected officials, and managers about the health of the ecosystem and the effectiveness of programs.  In addition, our governments will be in a position to make better choices about the allocation of increasingly scarce resources to maximize the return on investment for improving the health of the Great Lakes, the largest, surface freshwater system in the world.