The U.S. and Canadian governments have released a draft "State of the Great Lakes 2007" report, and the results are troubling. The report looks at more than 60 ecosystem indicators and tries to establish whether each of the Great Lakes is healthy and whether trends are improving or deteriorating.
Identifying trends and drawing conclusions about the health of the Great Lakes is tough. One of the most common questions asked of Waterkeepers is, "Are the lakes getting better or worse?" The answer is never clear - phosphorous pollution is getting better but nuclear pollution is getting worse. DDT contamination is getting better but fish habitat is being lost. There really is no one answer that is true for every community.
By looking at a wide range of indicators - fish, birds, habitat, development, air quality, water quality, beach postings and more - the state of the lakes report is as close as you can get to an accurate response. And the answer is troubling.
Generally, there are more worsening trends than improving trends. Emerging concerns such as new chemicals and groundwater withdrawals outpace successes such as mayfly recovery in Lake Erie. Lake Ontario seems particularly hard-hit, with high numbers of beach postings, increasing contamination in herring gulls, and wide-spread urban development.
A few key issues:
concentrations of flame retardants are increasing in herring gull eggs on Lake Ontario
populations of zooplankton and diporeia - the creatures at the bottom of the Great Lakes food chain - are declining dramatically, threatening the entire ecosystem
Lake Ontario has the worst coastal wetland health on the Great Lakes
ironically, electricity generation consumes more energy on the Great Lakes than any other use (28% of energy use on U.S. side, 33% of energy use on Canadian side)
amphibian and bird populations are in decline
contaminants in forage fish tend to be higher on Lake Ontario than the other Great Lakes
fewer than half of the Canadian beaches on Lake Ontario are open most of the time during the swimming season
The state of the lakes report also looks at what is being done to improve conditions on the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, most of the efforts are vague and may lack long-term funding. Strategic planning is happening in most regions, but a closer look at the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements and the Remedial Action Plans tells us that goals are not being met and programs are seriously under-resourced. New legislation is being passed, such as the Annex 2001 implementing agreements and Ontario's Greenbelt law, but they include loopholes. Existing legislation is being under-enforced in Ontario and protections are being rolled back in the United States.
We can't really say that the lakes are "better" than they were a few years ago, and we certainly can't say that we are doing all that we can. Some 42-million people live in Great Lakes communities, every one affected by loss of natural habitat, contaminated sediment, toxins in wildlife, and dirty beaches. As long as that's true, the future is bleak.
You can learn more by reading the State of the Great Lakes 2007 - Draft.