The Great Lakes Management

















The concept of an ecosystem approach to management of the Great Lakes has developed out of the joint experience of Canada and the United States. An evolution in understanding how environmental damage has resulted from human use of natural resources in the basin has arisen out of the research, monitoring and commitment to Great Lakes protection by the governments and citizens of both countries. Out of this evolution has come the need for participation at many levels. Ecosystem management requires the involvement of all levels of government, as well as industry and non-government organizations, each with their own responsibilities, and often working in partnership to protect the basin ecosystem.

Originally, water pollution was treated as a separate problem. As experience demonstrated connections between use of land, air and water resources, appreciation grew for the need to consider relationships within the ecosystem. Concern about protection and use of waters that are shared by the United States and Canada led to the creation of institutions that foster joint management.

The first changes that become apparent due to intensive settlement and development were considered local and specific. Initially, solutions to problems such as bacterial contamination near cities, sedimentation of tributary mouths and industrial pollution were handled locally. Usually the solutions involved dilution or displacement of polluted discharges to other locations. Eventually pollution that had been local began to affect whole lakes and then became basin-wide concerns.

The Boundary Waters Treaty Of 1909

In 1905 the International Waterways Commission was created to advise the governments of both countries about levels and flows in the Great Lakes, especially in relation to the generation of electricity by hydropower. Its limited advisory powers proved inadequate for problems related to pollution and environmental damage. One of its first recommendations was for a stronger institution with the authority for study of broader boundary water issues and the power to make binding decisions.

The Boundary Waters Treaty was signed in 1909 and provided for the creation of the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC has the authority to resolve disputes over the use of water resources that cross the international boundary. Most of its efforts for the Great Lakes have been devoted to carrying out studies requested by the governments and advising the governments about problems.

In 1912, water pollution was one of the first problems referred to the IJC for study. In 1919, after several years of study, the IJC concluded that serious water quality problems required a new treaty to control pollution. However, no agreement was reached.

Additional studies in the 1940s led to new concerns by the IJC. The Commission recommended that water quality objectives be established for the Great Lakes and that technical advisory boards be created to provide continuous monitoring and surveillance of water quality.

Public and scientific concern about pollution of the lakes grew as accelerated eutrophication became more obvious through the 1950s. In 1964, the IJC began a new reference study on pollution in the lower Great Lakes. The report on this study in 1970 placed the principal blame for eutrophication on excessive phosphorus.

The study proposed basin-wide efforts to reduce phosphorus loadings from all sources. It was recognized that reduction of phosphorus depended on control of local sources. Uniform effluent limits were urged for all industries and municipal sewage treatment systems in the basin. Research suggested that land runoff could also be an important source of nutrients and other pollutants into the lakes. The result of the reference study was the signing of the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972.

The International Joint Commission

The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty established the International Joint Commission of Canada and the United States. The treaty created a unique process for cooperation in the use of all the waterways that cross the border between the two nations, including the Great Lakes.

The IJC has six members, three appointed from each side by the heads of the federal governments. The authors of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty saw the Commission not as separate national delegations, but as a single body seeking common solutions in the joint interests of the two countries. All members are expected to act independently of national concerns, and few IJC decisions have split along national lines.

The IJC has three responsibilities for the Great Lakes under the original treaty. The first is the limited authority to approve applications for the use, obstruction or diversion of boundary waters on either side of the border that would affect the natural level or flow on either side. Under this authority, it is the IJC that determines how the control works on the St. Marys River and the St. Lawrence River will be operated to control releases of water from Lakes Superior and Ontario. It also regulates flows into Lake Superior from Long Lake and Lake Ogoki.

The second responsibility is to conduct studies of specific problems under references, or requests, from the governments. The implementation of the recommendations resulting from IJC reference studies is at the discretion of the two governments. When a reference is made to the IJC, the practice has been to commission a board of experts to supervise the study and to conduct the necessary research. A number of such studies have been undertaken in the history of the IJC.

The third responsibility is to arbitrate specific disputes that may arise between the two governments in relation to boundary waters. The governments may refer any matters of difference to the Commission for a final decision. This procedure requires the approval of both governments and has never been invoked.

In addition to these specific powers under the 1909 Treaty, the IJC provides a procedure for monitoring and evaluating progress under the Water Quality Agreement. For this purpose, two standing advisory boards are called for in the Agreement.

The Water Quality Board is the principal advisor to the Commission and consists mainly of high-level managers from federal, state and provincial agencies selected equally from both countries. Its responsibilities include evaluating progress being made in implementation of the Agreement and promoting coordination of Great Lakes programs among the different levels of government.

The Science Advisory Board consists primarily of government and academic experts who advise the Water Quality Board and the IJC about scientific findings and research needs. The Council of Great Lakes Research Managers, in addition to the Science Advisory Board, was established to provide effective guidance, support and evaluation for Great Lakes research programs. Both groups have substructures involving special committees, task forces and work groups to address specific issues.

The IJC relies on work done by the various levels of the two governments and the academic community. It maintains an office in each of the national capitals and a Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario. The Great Lakes Office provides administrative support and technical assistance to the boards and a public information service for the programs of the Commission.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission

During the 1950s and 1960s, problems on the Great Lakes came to a head. The parasitic sea lamprey had decimated fisheries as it invaded further into the waterway. In 1955 the binational Great Lakes Fishery Commission was established to find a means of control for the lamprey. By the late 1970s the lamprey population had been reduced by 90 percent with use of selective chemicals to kill the larvae in streams. Since then, the Fishery Commission has expanded its activities to include work to rehabilitate the fisheries of the lakes and to coordinate government efforts to stock and restore fish populations.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement - 1972

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement established common water quality objectives to be achieved in both countries and three processes that would be carried out binationally. The first is control of pollution, which each country agreed to accomplish under its own laws. The chief objective was reduction of phosphorus levels to no more than 1 ppm (mg per litre) in discharges from large sewage treatment plants into Lakes Erie and Ontario together with new limits on industry. Other objectives included elimination of oil, visible solid wastes and other nuisance conditions.

The second process was research on Great Lakes problems to be carried out separately in each country as well as cooperatively. Both countries established new Great Lakes research programs. Major cooperative research was carried out on pollution problems of the upper Great Lakes and on pollution from land use and other sources.

The third process was surveillance and monitoring to identify problems and to measure progress in solving problems. Initially, water chemistry was emphasized and levels of pollutants were reported. Now, the surveillance plan is designed to assess the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem and increasingly depends on monitoring effects of pollution on living organisms.

The Agreement provided for a review of the objectives after 5 years and negotiation of a new agreement with different objectives if necessary. Tangible results had been achieved when the review was carried out in 1977. The total discharge of nutrients into the lakes had been noticeably reduced. Cultural, or human-made eutrophication, bacterial contamination and the more obvious nuisance conditions in rivers and nearshore waters had declined. However, new problems involving toxic chemicals had been revealed by research and the surveillance and monitoring program.

Public health warnings had been issued for consumption of certain species of fish in many locations. Sale of certain fish was prohibited due to unsafe levels of PCBs, mercury and, later, mirex and other chemicals. In 1975, discovery of high levels of PCBs in lake trout on Isle Royale in Lake Superior demonstrated that the lakes were receiving toxic chemicals by long-range atmospheric transport. These developments and the results of studies that were carried out after the 1972 Agreement set the stage for the next major step in Great Lakes management.

The Upper Lakes Study concluded that phosphorus objectives should be set for Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. This development was significant because it recognized the Great Lakes as a single system and called for joint management objectives for Lake Michigan and its tributaries that had not previously been considered boundary waters.

The study on pollution from land use and other nonpoint sources was known as PLUARG (Pollution from Land Use Activities Reference Group). The study demonstrated that runoff from agriculture and urban areas was affecting water quality in the Great Lakes. This significant development confirmed that control of direct discharge of pollution from point sources alone into the Great Lakes and tributaries would not be enough to achieve the water quality objectives. It also called for control of nonpoint pollution into the Great Lakes from land runoff and the atmosphere.

The experience under the 1972 Agreement demonstrated that despite complex jurisdictional problems, binational joint management by Canada and the United States could protect the Great Lakes better than either country could alone. In 1978, a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed that preserved the basic features of the first Agreement and built on the previous results by setting up a new stage in joint management.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement - 1978

Like the 1972 Agreement, the new Agreement called for achieving common water quality objectives, improved pollution control throughout the basin and continued monitoring by the IJC. As part of improved pollution control, the 1978 Agreement called for setting target loadings for phosphorus for each lake and for virtual elimination of discharges of toxic chemicals. The target loadings were a step toward a new management goal that has come to be called 'an ecosystem approach.'

In contrast to the earlier Agreement that called for protection of waters of the Great Lakes, the 1978 Agreement calls for restoring and maintaining 'the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.' The ecosystem is defined as 'the interacting components of air, land and water and living organisms including man within the drainage basin of the St. Lawrence River.'

In calling for target loadings for phosphorus, the 1978 Agreement introduced the concept of mass balance into Great Lakes management. A target loading is the level that will not cause undesirable effects, including over-production of algae and anoxic conditions on lake bottoms. The mass balance approach calculates the amount of pollutant that remains active after all sources and losses are considered. All sources of phosphorus are considered in setting the controls that are needed to reach the target loading. Formerly, phosphorus control was based on setting effluent limits to reduce pollution from direct discharges. Target loadings based on mass balance use mathematical models to determine levels of control that should protect the integrity of the ecosystem.

The 1978 Agreement called for virtual elimination of the discharge of persistent toxic chemicals because of severe and irreversible damage from bioconcentration of toxic substances present at very low levels in water. The effects include birth defects and reproductive failures in birds, and tumors in fish.

Success in reducing phosphorus loadings under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has provided a model to the world in binational resource management. The use of the mass balance approach for phosphorus set the stage for the much more difficult task of controlling toxic contamination. Further progress in cleaning up pollution from the past and preventing future degradation depends on fully applying an ecosystem approach to management.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement - 1987

In 1987, the Agreement was revised to strengthen management provisions, call for development of ecosystem objectives and indicators, and address nonpoint sources of pollution, contaminated sediment airborne toxic substances and pollution from contaminated groundwater. New management approaches included development of Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) for geographic Areas of Concern and Lakewide Management Plans (LAMPs) for Critical Pollutants.

The ecosystem approach was strengthened by calling for development of ecosystem objectives and indicators, and by focusing RAPs and LAMPs on elimination of impairments of beneficial uses. The uses include various aspects of human and aquatic community health and specifically include habitat. By clearly focusing management activities on endpoints in the living system, additional meaning is given to the goal of restoring and maintaining the integrity of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.

The agreement to prepare Lakewide Management Plans includes a commitment to develop a schedule of reductions in loads of critical pollutants entering the lakes in order to meet water quality objectives and restore beneficial uses. Thus the mass balance concept developed for phosphorus is being applied to control of toxic substances into the Great Lakes. Although total elimination of toxic substances from the Great Lakes basin is the goal, the mass balance approach can be used to set priorities and direct pollution control efforts.

National Institutional Arrangements For Great Lakes Management
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement recognizes that control procedures, research and monitoring would continue to be conducted by the two countries within their respective legislative and administrative structures.

Because of their obligations under the Agreement, both governments have established special programs for the Great Lakes.

In Canada, the British North America Act assigns the authority for navigable waters and international waters to the federal government, while pollution control and the management of natural resources are primarily provincial responsibilities. Consequently, the initiative to establish water quality objectives under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has been federal/provincial, and the implementation has been primarily a provincial responsibility.

The federal Canada Water Act provides for federal/provincial agreements setting out responsibilities for both levels of government. The Canada/Ontario Agreement provides for joint work on activities required by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

In 1988, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) was developed, and provides a framework for controlling toxic substances. For example, under this act, dioxins and furans will be virtually eliminated from pulp and paper mill discharges.

The lead agency at the federal level is Environment Canada. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is a major contributor of scientific and research support to Canada's Great Lakes program. Other federal departments directly involved include the Department of Health, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, Transport Canada and the Department of Government Services.

The major responsibility for water quality at the provincial level rests with the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy (MOEE). The MOEE is responsible for establishing individual control orders for each industrial discharger. It also provides funding for sewage treatment. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources provides leadership for fisheries, forestry and wildlife management.

In the U.S., many federal environmental laws affect the lakes, including the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Recovery Act (Superfund) and the National Environmental Policy Act. These statutes provide federal regulatory authority, but it is federal policy to delegate regulatory authority to the state governments wherever possible. The states have their own laws and operate using both state and federal funding.

Two considerations determine the level of control required by U.S. laws. The first requires all municipal and industrial dischargers to meet minimum national effluent standards for pollution control. Secondly, if further limits are necessary to meet ambient environmental standards, tighter limits can be imposed.

For meeting U.S. obligations under the Great Lakes Agreement, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the lead responsibility. Numerous other agencies also have important roles, particularly the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. National Biological Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The federal government supports Great Lakes Research in several agencies. The Great Lakes National Program Office in the EPA regional offices at Chicago provides funding for applied research and coordinates its activities with EPA research laboratories in Grosse Ile, Michigan, Duluth, Minnesota and elsewhere.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains laboratories at the National Fisheries Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Army Corps of Engineers carries out research on water quality as well as water quantity. A network of Sea Grant College programs is supported by state and federal funding at universities in seven of the Great Lakes states.

Local Public Involvement

Communities, local groups and individuals play a key role in the management of the Great Lakes. The management process starts with individuals and families taking action as consumers, recyclers, neighborhood stewards and health promoters. Non-government organizations are taking responsibility for public education, citizen-directed projects, and for providing direction to government. Businesses are key in managing their own operations in a sustainable, ecological fashion, being partners with community and governments, and in complying with regulations set by themselves and others. Most successful management requires partnership arrangements among the various sectors in the public. People are getting involved in local decision-making processes, via groups such as Public Advisory Committees in Areas of Concern and local community groups throughout the Great Lakes basin that exert pressure toward change. Residents are seizing the opportunity to participate in local 'Town Hall' meetings and community consultations, to ask questions, get useful information and provide feedback as to the local issues they feel are of priority to be addressed.

People and communities are also playing an active role by getting involved in clean-up activities such as beach sweeps and rehabilitation projects to restore local watersheds and habitats. Personal lifestyle changes such as recycling, responsible disposal of household and automotive products, and adopting practices that are less polluting also play a role in reducing and preventing pollution.

An Ecosystem Approach To Management

The adoption of an ecosystem approach to management is the result of growing understanding of the many interrelated and interdependent factors that govern the ecological health of the Great Lakes. An ecosystem approach does not depend on any one program or course of action. Rather it assumes a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary attitude that leads to wide interpretation of its practical meaning. Certain basic characteristics, however, mark the ecosystem approach.

First, it takes a broad, systemic view of the interaction among physical, chemical and biological components in the Great Lakes basin. The interdependence of the life in the lakes and the chemical/physical characteristics of the water is reflected in the use of biological indicators to monitor water quality and changes in the aquatic ecosystem. Examples include the use of herring gull eggs as an indicator of toxic pollutants, algal blooms as an indicator of accelerated eutrophication and changes in species composition of aquatic communities as an indicator of habitat destruction. Biomonitoring for chronic toxicity can use zooplankton and phytoplankton to measure the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of a toxic chemical on growth and reproduction.

Second, the ecosystem approach is geographically comprehensive, covering the entire system including land, air and water. New emphasis on the importance of atmospheric inputs of pollutants and the effects of land uses on water quality are evidence of the broad scope of management planning required in an ecosystem approach.

Finally, the ecosystem approach includes humans as a major factor in the well-being of the system. This suggests recognition of social, economic, technical and political variables that affect how humans use natural resources. Human culture, changing lifestyles and attitudes must be considered in an ecosystem approach because of their effects on the integrity of the ecosystem.

The ecosystem approach is a departure from an earlier focus on localized pollution, management of separate components of the ecosystem in isolation and planning that neglects the profound influences of land uses on water quality. It is a framework for decision making that compels managers and planners to cooperate in devising integrated strategies of research and action to restore and protect the integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem for the future. The evolution of management programs toward a full ecosystem approach is still in its early stages, but progress is being made.

Introduction: The Great Lakes
Natural Processes in the Great Lakes
People & The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes Today - Concerns
Joint Management of the Great Lakes
New Directions for the Great Lakes Community

U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office