Dead calm

Beneath their shimmering surfaces, environmental injuries take a toll on the health of our great lakes

by Peter Christie

On a windless early morning, Lake Ontario reflects the sun in a jewelled sheen. Gulls wheel overhead.

Ripples lap limestone. The seemingly perfect calm masks a problem.

Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes do not look sick, but they are. Areas of the world’s largest body of fresh water have reached what scientists recently called a “tipping point” – the place where new environmental insults risk throwing the natural balance permanently out of whack.

Lake watchers are awaiting the re-energized return of a proven hero – the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Until problems become more visible, however, governments have shown little will to overhaul and invigorate the Canada-U.S. accord that was once a model of international environmental cooperation.

Almost two years have passed since the Canada-U.S. Binational Executive Committee submitted an 18-month review of the agreement to federal officials on both sides of the border. The review – incorporating opinions from more than 350 experts and others – says that updating the 37-year-old accord and renewing the commitment to make it work are essential.
So far, the response to the review has been near silence.

Things were different in the beginning. Through the 1960s, the lower lakes became so ill that they were often literally green. Choking blooms of lime-coloured algae girdled beaches. Oxygen-starved fish rotted on shores. In 1969, the Lake Erie mouth of the Cuyahoga River – sludge-thick with pollution – burst spectacularly into flames.

When the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was created in 1972, everyone recognized its importance. The bilateral blueprint detailed an unprecedented research and cleanup partnership. Researchers (my late father, fisheries scientist Jack Christie, was among them) recognized that the ecological health of wildlife, from fish to bugs to birds, was tied to the chemical balance of the water. The agreement included this “ecosystem approach” – putting the big picture first.

Phosphorus from detergents – acting on algae like fertilizer – was identified as a major problem in the lakes. Efforts under the agreement led to new sewage treatment plants and a ban on high-phosphate soaps. The situation began to improve. Lake whitefish and cormorants battled back. Beaches became mostly free of dead fish and peasoup-green water. Bald eagles returned to nest in shoreline pines.

“There is no question the agreement has had a lot of successes,” reflects John Jackson of the environmental coalition Great Lakes United. “But the job is far from done.”

Many agree that the accord has been losing steam – and relevance – since the 1980s. It was amended in 1978, 1983 and 1987 but not since then.

Old problems (pesticide runoff, PCBs, mercury) persist. Eating a lot of lake fish is still hazardous. And, after more than 20 years, only three of 43 toxic hot spots – areas targeted by the agreement for cleanup – have been delisted. In Ohio, where the Ottawa River meets Lake Erie, warnings remain against even wading in the water.

Meanwhile, threats have multiplied. New toxins – flame retardants and drug compounds – have been added to the soup. Severe climate-change-related storms overwhelm city sewage controls. Nutrient overloading is back, and so are algal blooms.

About a third of the 180 invasive creatures and plants in the lakes appeared after the agreement was in place; the problems they bring are complex.

Invading mussels, for example, cycle botulism up the food chain. As a result, water-birds have died by the thousands, and the risks to people are dire.

The importance of the lakes has not diminished. Forty million people live in the region, and some say that the economy of the Great Lakes basin is the world’s second largest. One-fifth of the earth’s fresh water is here, and the significance of its natural history is immeasurable.
In March, environmentalists applauded a unilateral U.S. announcement of $475 million in funding for Great Lakes restoration. That same month, Ontario called for public input on its own vision document for the lakes. But binational cooperation is badly needed to address the crisis in the Great Lakes. The shimmering, impassive surface of the lakes hides deeper trouble, and only a renewed, revitalized Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement can get to the bottom of it.


Peter Christie is a science writer based in Kingston. Jack Christie retired as Ontario’s coordinator of Great Lakes fisheries research a few years before his death in 1997.

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