Climate change, funky ballast water, new invasive species, airborne pollutants from Asia — these are among a lengthy list of environmental problems facing the Great Lakes that will be getting more attention soon.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon announced recently that the nearly four-decades-old Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which has been moldering undisturbed for many years, will get a fresh look from the two nations.
Once a model of international management, the agreement, which addresses threats to the lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, was signed in 1972, when the big worry was phosphorus run-off. An amendment in 1978 added toxic substances and another in 1987 included nonpoint groundwater pollution as well as airborne toxics. But in the last 22 years, nothing.
“Basically, it’s a long overdue look at a once-vibrant document that has fallen into disuse and disrespect,” said Dave Dempsey, communications director for Conservation Minnesota. His editorial about the issue is here. The definitive book on the subject is this one.
The U.S.-Canada announcement came during the celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. Boundary Waters Treaty, which includes the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The agreement has been a success by many measures: Toxic contaminants are down; phosphorus levels that threatened Lake Erie and others are lower. Animal, fish and bird species have revived.
“We have focused on what is already dirty,” said Darrell Gerber, program coordinator for Clean Water Action. That means, he said, “sometimes we forget about keeping clean what is already clean.”
The 1978 amendment on toxic substances led to the Lake Superior Binational Program, which has helped reduce pollutants considerably. According to an EPA report, since 1990 the program has recorded a 71 percent reduction in mercury releases; a 76-to-79 percent reduction in dioxin releases; significant reductions of PCBs materials in Ontario and the Lake Superior states; and an ongoing collection and safe disposal of waste pesticides around the basin, with more than 28,000 pounds collected between 1992 and 2004 in Minnesota and Wisconsin alone.
“It’s safe to say the program has contributed to reduced toxic discharges, but the goal of zero or elimination is as elusive as ever thanks to pollutants borne on the wind from as far away as Asia, ” Dempsey said. “So the renegotiation will either have to deal with or take into account these far-flung sources of deadly pollutants or abandon the goal. Neither will be easy.”
Other new threats, like the critters that hitch a ride into the system in ballast water from cargo ships, will need to be addressed when the talks get started. Negotiations are expected to begin in the next few months.
“Invasives are certainly one of the biggest stressors on the Great Lakes,” said Julie O’Leary of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership’s office in Duluth. She said she hoped those unwelcome species would be a part of the amendments to the agreement.
Participants in the negotiations will receive input from municipalities, state and provincial governments, tribes and others.