GREAT LAKES ECOSYSTEM INDICATORS

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.