GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — An international report on the Great Lakes shows that two of the five Great Lakes have a strong ecosystem, while three others have notable room for improvement.
The triennial analysis from the International Joint Commission was included in part of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s annual State of the Great Lakes report. According to the analysis, Lake Superior and Lake Huron were given “good” grades for ecosystems. Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario are considered “fair,” while Lake Erie’s ecosystem is considered “poor.”
The analysis is conducted once every three years as part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada. The ecosystems are graded on nine measures:
- Can we drink the water?
- Can we swim at the beaches?
- Can we eat the fish?
- Have levels of toxic chemicals declined in the environment?
- Are the lakes supporting healthy wetlands and populations of native species?
- Are nutrients in the lakes at acceptable levels?
- Are we limiting new introductions and the impacts of non-native species?
- Is groundwater negatively affecting the water quality of the lakes?
- Are land use changes or other stressors impacting the lakes?
Lakes Huron and Superior received the highest available grade and are considered steady. The analysis noted Lake Superior’s forest watershed and coastal wetlands help maintain a high water quality. Lake Huron was upgraded from “fair” in 2019 because of a decrease in invasive mussels which has also cut down on the number of nutrients in the water that feed algal blooms.
Lake Michigan’s ecosystem is considered “fair and unchanging” according to the 2022 report. Lake Michigan gets credit for its wide array of plant and animal species, but “invasive species and other stressors continue to affect both water quality and the lake’s food web.”
Lake Ontario’s ecosystem is also considered fair but is showing more signs of improving. The analysis noted fewer beach closings in recent years and fewer reports of contaminant reports in fish.
Lake Erie got the lone “poor” rating and one that doesn’t appear to be improving anytime soon, citing the lake’s persistent algal blooms caused in part by farm runoff.
OTHER GREAT LAKES FINDINGS
EGLE’s 2022 State of the Great Lakes report also highlighted Michigan’s MI Healthy Climate Plan and how those goals should also lead to more improvements for the Great Lakes.
The plan’s ultimate goal is to make Michigan a carbon-neutral state by 2050, including benchmarks for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and generating and storing electricity from renewable resources. MI Healthy Climate Plan has several projects dedicated solely to the lakeshore and the Great Lakes.
“The economic ecosystem surrounding the Great Lakes also offers other opportunities to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Plan, such as outfitting Michigan’s harbors and ports with charging infrastructure for electric watercraft, along with research and commercialization of new potential maritime fuels such as hydrogen,” Cory Connolly, a climate and energy advisory for EGLE, said in the report. “Implementing the Plan will reduce emissions from Michigan’s ports and harbors and maritime vessels and leverage those same cleaner assets to position Michigan in a future carbon-neutral economy.”
The report also highlighted two major collaborations to keep the Great Lakes healthy and in turn the people of Michigan. Seven state agencies, including EGLE and the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, are working on testing for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances across the state.
The toxic “forever chemicals” were first developed in the 1940s by DuPont, but are now known to cause serious health problems, including cancer. The chemicals were able to spread from landfills into groundwater and bodies of water, which are then brought back to humans through seafood and crops.
EGLE collects and tests fish from approximately 50 bodies of water each year, designating suggested limits for species from any given source.
PFAS is far from the only threat to the Great Lakes. Researchers are also working to address the role microplastic pollution plays in the ecosystem and its impact on humans.
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic no larger than five millimeters. They are now found commonly in water across the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 10,000 metric tons of plastics enter the Great Lakes each year. That contamination can delay developmental stages in animals, triggering problems with reproduction and potentially how they ward off diseases.
There are efforts already underway both regionally and globally to learn more about microplastic pollution, including the Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan that was developed in 2020. The United Nations’ Environment Assembly is working on a treaty to end plastic pollution by the end of 2024.