Dear EarthTalk

What are the major threats to the Great Lakes in the United States and what’s being done to address them?

Saul G.,

Racine, Wisc.

The Great Lakes watershed is a unique and important ecosystem that contains some 95 percent of America’s fresh water surface area, and is a continental hub for birds, fish and other wildlife. According to the National Audubon Society, the Great Lakes provide habitat for some 400 bird species. But it is the region’s exploding human population — now at 42 million — that is causing many environmental problems.

Major threats include toxic and nutrient pollution, the growing presence of non-native invasive species, and the destruction of critical wildlife habitat. In addition, the region’s residents worry that other parts of the country and world facing water shortages will find ways to divert Great Lakes water to quench their far-off thirsts. Also, it remains to be seen what kind of impact global warming will have on the region.

Perhaps the issue that gets the most attention in the region is the menace of invasive species. They arrive via heel, tire, railway and ship, and are profoundly altering the region’s ecology. The most notorious case is that of the zebra mussel which, originally native to southeast Russia first arrived in the late 1980s on ocean-going ships via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Aside from outcompeting native species for food, they have absorbed toxic PCBs dumped years earlier and transferred them up the food chain in being eaten by round gobies (also a non-native species), which in turn are preyed upon by walleyes, a popular sport fish.

Another major problem is pollution itself. Tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers run off of farms and into the water every month. Coal-fired power plants spew mercury into the air and factories of all kinds emit other pollutants that all eventually end up in the water. Converting farmers to organic agriculture and cleaning up smokestacks are top priorities for regulators and green groups in the region.

Federal, state and local authorities and nonprofit and community groups are working diligently to help restore compromised areas in the region. The Obama administration’s 2010 budget allocates $475 million to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Initiative is assessing the threats to the region and laying out a roadmap for remediation through the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, which includes representatives from the EPA as well as the departments of State, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

Some of the beneficiaries of this funding will also be some of the 100+ nonprofit and community groups that have formed the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition. These groups hope to leverage each others’ expertise and work together on on-the-ground restoration projects throughout the region.

Meanwhile Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Quebec and Ontario have come together as the Great Lakes Basin Compact to ward off drought-stricken far-off places from taking fresh water out of their region. Member states and provinces have delineated a border around the region beyond which water cannot be shipped. The agreement came about in 2005 when a Canadian company announced that it wanted to ship water in tankers from Lake Ontario to Asia.

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