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Great Lakes Ecological Protection and Restoration

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Great Lakes Report to Congress 1994


EPA 905-R-94-004 -- February 1994

Report Highlights

Pursuant to Section 118(c)(10) of the Clean Water Act, this is the Environmental Protection Agency's second report to Congress on the Great Lakes ecosystem. This "Highlights" section reviews some principal challenges facing the ecosystem, cites recent actions by EPA, States, and their partners in the Great Lakes Program, and outlines future directions of the Program.

Aspects of Ecosystem Health

By area, the Great Lakes system is the world's largest body of surface freshwater. This extraordinary natural endowment, reaching far into a continent, has long supported abundant life. The Lakes are essential habitat for many of North America's animal species. Multitudes of birds pass through the Lakes on their seasonal migrations. The Lakes yield rich bounty to fishermen. Millions of Americans and Canadians rely on the Lakes for drinking water and economic vitality. The Lakes are an important commercial waterway and many firms draw water from them for industrial processes, helping make the region an industrial heartland for two nations. Manufacturing is the largest employment sector in the region, both north and south of the U.S./Canadian border.

By the start of the twentieth century, the combined effects of pollution, hunting, and habitat change, such as the clearing of primeval forests and the draining of vast wetlands, had devastated many once prolific Great Lakes animal populations. Yet, especially over the past thirty years, the people of the region and their governments have achieved encouraging cological successes, abating excessive algae in Lake Erie, protecting fish populations from sea lamprey, and restoring oxygen-depleted waters. Levels of targeted toxic contaminants have declined substantially in fish and wildlife, resulting in clear improvements in the health of many species.

Today, despite these valuable achievements, the Great Lakes ecosystem faces a range of both new and abiding environmental challenges:

Contaminated Fish and Wildlife

The Great Lakes food web remains contaminated by a variety of bioaccumulative toxic substances, causing unacceptable levels in some fish and wildlife. Levels are much lower than in the early 1970s but still justify issuance of public health advisories regarding fish consumption. Advisories especially apply to vulnerable consumers, such as children and women who anticipate bearing children. Contaminants have been associated with health problems in some fish and wildlife species, although with the significant decline in contaminant levels many species seem to be recovering. Problems persist for fish and wildlife in certain locations, particularly in harbors and rivers with highly contaminated bottom sediments, and for predators high in the food web, such as lake trout, mink, and bald eagles. Contaminant levels are generally highest in Lakes Michigan and Ontario, though these lakes have also experienced the greatest declines in contaminant levels during the past two decades.

Contaminated Bottom Sediments

Bottom sediments in many harbors and rivers are poisoned by variety of bioaccumulative toxic substances. Contaminants accumulate in sediments because many contaminants in water bind to suspended particles and fall to the bottom. Thus, contaminated bottom sediments are indicative of past loadings of contaminants to the Lakes. Contaminated sediments are associated with tumors in bottom fish; they serve as a reservoir of contaminants that recycle into the food web though resuspension or uptake by bottom- dwelling organisms; and they injure such organisms. Contaminated sediments increase the costs of navigational dredging owing to the added costs of handling and disposing of toxic materials. In some locations, contamination has delayed navigational dredging for years and curtailed waterborne commerce.

Diminished Wetlands

Wetlands, including bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps, provide essential habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. More than one-half of Great Lakes wetlands have been lost since 1800. Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee all partly rest on former wetlands. The present rate of destruction is much less than in prior eras, but development continues to pressure remaining wetlands.

Exotic Species

More than 130 exotic (nonnative) species have been introduced to the Great Lakes since 1800, nearly one- third carried by ships. Some exotics have profoundly damaged native species. A troublesome recent invader, the zebra mussel, probably entered the Lakes via ballast water discharge from an oceangoing vessel. The full impacts of the mussel are not yet known, but are potentially great. A prolific breeder, the mollusk devours microscopic plants at the foundation of the food web and may create a food shortage for fish that graze on these plants, ultimately threatening predator fish, such as walleye, salmon, and lake trout. River ruffe, spiny water flea, tubenose goby, and round goby are other recent invaders.

Depleted Native Fish Populations

Populations of many native fish species are fewer than two centuries ago. Their depletion can be attributed to food chain disruptions, habitat loss and disruption (e.g., wetlands have been drained, pawning beds covered with silt, and dams have impeded passage up rivers), competition from and predation by nonnative species (e.g., alewife have displaced lake herring, sea lamprey feed on large fish), among other reasons.

Damage to once richly abundant native fish populations is profound. Lake herring was once the predominant forage fish. Sturgeon grew six feet in length and weighed more than 100 pounds. Today, sturgeon and lake herring survive in much depleted numbers. Hatchery-reared lake trout must be stocked to maintain ecological balance and to sustain sport and commercial fisheries. Stocked, nonnative Pacific salmon--coho and chinook--are the most abundant top predators, except in western Lake Erie where the top predator is walleye.

Yet, since severe depletion of fish communities by the 1950s, some heartening progress to improve fish resources has been made. The control of sea lamprey and the stocking of lake trout and Pacific salmon have permitted the growth of important commercial and sport fishing industries. Five million Great Lakes sport fishermen spend more than $2 billion each year.

Excessive Phosphorus

In some shallow waters that receive agricultural runoff of fertilizers and/or in areas having a high surrounding human population, such as Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Saginaw Bay, and Green Bay, water is over-enriched with phosphorus. The situation has improved since the late 1960s when Lake Erie was infamously clogged by foul-smelling mats of algae that depleted dissolved oxygen from bottom waters by their seasonal die-off and decay. Nevertheless, the bottom waters of central Lake Erie continue to suffer exhaustion of dissolved oxygen during late summer. However, the encouraging news is that phosphorus concentrations in the water column of Lake Erie are approaching those predicted to achieve desired water quality.

Putting the Ecosystem Approach to Work

EPA and its Federal/State partners are focusing on the Great Lakes in a pioneering program to protect the integrity of a fragile natural ecosystem. During 1991, agencies with stewardship responsibilities for the ecosystem developed a joint five year Great Lakes strategy that they launched in 1992. In addition to EPA and the eight Great Lakes States, partners to the strategy include the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Soil Conservation Service. The strategy joins environmental protection and natural resource agencies in pursuit of common goals--reducing releases of toxicants to the environment, protecting and restoring habitat, and protecting the ecosystem's living resources. The strategy's partners envision updates that will keep it a current, action-forcing document.

EPA and States are using the Great Lakes as a proving ground for innovative pollution prevention efforts. Pollution prevention is the adoption of "greener" (environmentally kind) technologies and practices. Pollution prevention is the preferred means to reduce releases of toxicants because it forestalls ecological damage and saves resources otherwise needed to treat or cleanup contaminants. EPA and States are inviting all sectors of society to contribute ideas for reducing the quantity and harmfulness of resources used to satisfy human needs. In 1991, the Agency and the governors of the eight Great Lakes States launched a Pollution Prevention Action Plan for the Lakes. This plan supplements EPA's nationwide initiative, the 33/50 Program, to seek voluntary reductions of 17 priority contaminants. In response to this national program, the Agency has already received commitments from industrial firms to end nearly 300 million pounds of releases of the targeted chemicals by 1995.

The EPA/State commitment to pollution prevention is buttressed by strong enforcement of environmental laws. EPA and States continue to take warranted enforcement actions around the Great Lakes region; this report cites many of these. The Agency has steadily increased its resources for enforcement within the region over the past five years. Some examples of recent enforcement actions within the Great Lakes watershed:

  • Agreement by a paper company to pay a $2.1 million civil penalty for Clean Water Act violations.
  • Agreement by a waste management firm to pay a $3.75 million civil penalty for violating PCB disposal requirements in Chicago.
  • Agreement by an aluminum company to pay $7.5 million for offenses in handling hazardous wastes near the St. Lawrence River.
  • Agreement by a steel company to expend $34.1 million for environmental improvements, sediment cleanup, and civil penalties. The improvements will reduce loadings of ammonia to Lake Michigan by about 400,000 pounds per year and lower oil and grease loadings by more than 1,000,000 pounds per year.
  • Agreement by a municipal treatment facility to clean a sludge lagoon which contains over 50,000 pounds of PCB sand to lower its discharge of lead to the Great Lakes by over 5,500 pounds per year.
  • Removal of 32,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the Black River, Ohio by a steel company pursuant to a 1985 settlement.
  • Removal of 300,000 pounds of PCBs from Waukegan Harbor, Illinois, pursuant to a Superfund cleanup plan.

A hallmark of the Great Lakes Program is to focus on priority ecological problems and geographic areas, thereby targeting the most promising opportunities for environmental improvements. To identify priority problems, EPA ranked human health and ecological hazards facing the Great Lakes region, concluding that the most significant sources of environmental contaminants were concentrated around Chicago, Illinois and Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York; and Cleveland, Ohio. In response, the Agency and States focused prevention, inspection, enforcement, and cleanup efforts, under Special Geographic Initiatives, on several of these areas.

Two processes for targeting ecological problems on a geographic basis are Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) for Areas of Concern and Lakewide Management Plans (LAMPs). Including five shared with Canada, the United States has 31 Areas of Concern, which are the most ecologically degraded areas around the Lakes, most often harbors and stretches of rivers. The Remedial Action Plan process defines ecological problems, identifies appropriate solutions, and measures progress towards ecological goals. States, enlisting grass-roots collaboration from local communities, develop and implement RAPs. To date, States have completed first editions of 23 Stage I (problem definition) and 12 State II (remedial action definition) RAPs.

The Great Lakes Program is also developing LAMPs to address problems posed by critical pollutants that extend beyond Areas of Concern. During 1991, EPA and States completed initial editions of LAMPs for the Lakes that have experienced the greatest contamination--Michigan and Ontario. In FY 1992, EPA, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin began a LAMP for Lake Superior. LAMPs for Lakes Erie and Huron will follow. Both RAPs and LAMPs will be updated as warranted.

A key early activity in support of the LAMP process, launched by EPA and States in 1989, is their "Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative." In view of the unique features of the Great Lakes, including long water retention time and vulnerability to bioaccumulative contaminants, EPA and States consider that water quality criteria specific to the Lakes are necessary to fully protect aquatic life, wildlife, and human health on a long-term basis. The Initiative is a precedent-setting effort to establish uniform regulatory practices, fully protective of one ecosystem, among the States that share it. EPA published its proposed binding guidance on Great Lakes water quality criteria, implementation procedures, and antidegradation policy in April 1993.

Proper disproval of existing stocks of contaminants is a major aspect of early Lake Michigan LAMP activities. The Agency asked Great Lakes utility companies to accelerate phase-out of electrical equipment which contain PCBs to prevent the possibility of accidental spills of this critical pollutant. In response, the majority of utilities have committed to speeding-up their PCB phaseouts. Other activities in support of the Lake Michigan LAMP are agricultural "clean sweeps" under which States invite farmers and pesticide dealers to turn-in pesticide stocks for proper disposal. The Lake Michigan States conducted clean sweeps in that Lake's watershed during 1992, collecting more than 11,000 pounds of suspended or cancelled pesticides.

The value of the RAP and LAMP processes is measured in taking actions to meet local community needs and to achieve ecological results. Even as plans have been under development, EPA and States have taken warranted actions to improve Areas of Concern. This report cites many of these (in Chapter Four), with an emphasis on areas like the Grand Calumet and Niagara Rivers, which have been the focuses of Special Geographic Initiatives.

Another cornerstone of the Great Lakes Program is promotion of public stewardship. Community "stakeholders" are strongly involved in Remedial Action Planning, helping governments be more responsive to local concerns. In 1991, EPA put into service a state-of-the-art Great Lakes research vessel that is also serving as an educational platform. Tours of the ship by the public, including visits by school children, are promoting broader awareness of Great Lakes environmental issues.

To ensure that environmental decisions are based on the best scientific information, the Agency and its partners are working to improve their understanding of the health of the ecosystem. Traditionally, EPA has often relied on administrative statistics--such as numbers of permits and enforcement actions--as surrogate measures of effectiveness. The Great Lakes Program will increasingly assess environmental progress by monitoring water, land, and air conditions and biological response to these by plants and animals. The foundation of the Agency's strengthened monitoring effort will be the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP), which is a national program that gauges the health of our Nation's ecosystems. Some recent steps to monitor the health of the ecosystem include:

  • EPA put into service a 180 foot long research vessel, the R/V Lake Guardian, for study of the Lakes. The ship can sample water quality to the deepest depths of the Lakes and bottom sediments to a depth of 40 feet.
  • EPA sponsored a major study and demonstration program to assess contaminated Great Lakes bottom sediments, test promising remedial technologies, and develop guidance on addressing such contamination. EPA has completed assessment work in five Areas of Concern, identified treatment technologies to be tested at each, and has demonstrated these in the field.
  • EPA established three master stations to monitor atmospheric deposition of toxic contaminants. Between them, the United States and Canada now have one master station on each of the Lakes.
  • EPA is also working to strengthen its integration and analysis of environmental data relating to the Lakes. Through its various programs, the Agency collects data on air and water pollution, hazardous waste sites, pesticides, drinking water, radiation, and the health effects of pollutants. Much of this information is obtained pursuant to separate laws and is narrowly focused to serve these mandates. In general, it is not easy to integrate data to obtain a comprehensive view of total pollutant releases by a facility and surrounding ecological conditions. Accordingly, the Agency is working to improve the availability of data to support decisions by Federal, State, and local governments and to make information more accessible to the public.
  • Under its ecosystem approach, the Great Lakes Program is integrating government activities around an ecosystem, setting goals on the basis of environmental needs and measuring progress by ecological yardsticks. In all its activities, EPA is seeking the involvement of States, other Federal agencies, Indian Tribes, and the public. EPA and States are also taking advantage of all opportunities to work with their counterparts in Canada. For instance, the two nations cosponsored a pollution prevention symposium and have developed a binational Great Lakes research strategy.

Toward the Future

The Great Lakes Program is guided by its Five Year Strategy. Within this context, some future endeavors will be:

Reducing Releases of Toxicants to the Environment

Pollution prevention will continue to be the preferred means to reduce emissions and discharges of environmental contaminants. States and EPA will continue to implement their pollution prevention action plan for the Lakes. This will supplement EPA's national initiative, the 33/50 Program, to encourage voluntary reductions of 17 priority contaminants through 1995.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), States, and EPA will continue nonpoint source pollution prevention programs. Many of these programs will focus on tributary watersheds in which nonpoint source problems are pronounced, such as Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie, and Green Bay. In addition to education and incentives for environmentally-kind agricultural practices, these agencies will invite the public via "clean sweep" campaigns to dispose of pesticide stocks.

Implementation of the binational Lake Superior Program will aim to achieve "zero discharge" of bioaccumulative toxicants to this Lake.

Proposed Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance will be finalized, after consideration of public comments. USEPA anticipates publication of the final Guidance by March, 1995. The Agency will seek to achieve water quality criteria set forth in the Guidance through reductions in both point and nonpoint sources of contaminants.

*States, in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, will develop regional guidance regarding human health advisories for consumption of contaminated Great Lakes fish and wildlife. This will foster consistency among States in their advisories, which will help the public better understand the risks associated with consumption of contaminated sportfish and game.

Nationwide implementation of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act will significantly cut toxic emissions by U.S. firms by the end of this century. EPA and States will give priority to implementing its provisions for suspected sources of critical pollutants to the Great Lakes.

States and EPA will continue cleanup of priority abandoned hazardous waste sites and oversight of active ones, focusing cleanups and corrective actions on sites suspected of loading bioaccumulative contaminants to the Lakes.

States and EPA will continue to inspect oil facilities in order to review their spill prevention measures and readiness to respond to accidental spills.

EPA and its partners in the Assessment and Remediation of Contaminated Sediments (ARCS) program will complete field demonstrations of contaminated sediment treatment technologies. EPA will complete an inventory of contaminated sediment sites in six Great Lakes States and start to assess and address priority sites.

EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and States will continue to phase-in a comprehensive monitoring system of ecosystem health. Elements that focus on toxic contaminants will be open-lake monitoring of critical pollutants in the water column, monitoring of tributaries to prioritize active sources of contaminants, monitoring of endpoint levels of contaminants in the tissues of birds and fish high in the food web, and monitoring of the atmospheric deposition of critical pollutants.

The Agency will report to Congress on the extent and effect of atmospheric deposition of contaminants to the Great Lakes.

The Agency for Toxics Substances and Disease Registry will evaluate the adverse effects of water pollutants in the Great Lakes system on the health of persons in the Great Lakes States and on the health of fish, shellfish, and wildlife. Findings will be reported to Congress in 1994.

Protecting and Restoring Habitat

USEPA will work with partners, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, States, Tribes, and the Nature Conservancy, to develop a strategic conservation plan to identify high quality habitats for protection and restoration. Habitats to be inventoried include wetlands, fish spawning and nursery areas, old growth forests, prairies, dunes, savannas, and areas needed by endangered and threatened plant and animal species.

EPA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and States will work together on demonstration projects to restore important Great Lakes habitats.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will support States in planning the renewal of Areas of Concern by identifying the habitat requirements of various fish and wildlife species in these areas. The Service will similarly work with EPA and States to identify the habitat needs of species on a lakewide basis.

States and EPA will pursue Advance Identification projects that identify wetlands of high ecological value and inform landowners of this information.

The Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, and Michigan will continue their administration of the primary Federal program regulating the physical modification of wetlands and others waters. Pursuant to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, they administer a permit program to regulate the discharge of dredge or fill materials into the waters of the United States, including most wetlands.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will work with its partners to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to protect, enhance, and create critical waterfowl habitat. The Service will add protected acreage through its Private Land program and increase surveillance for illegal dredge and fill activities.

The Soil Conservation Service will continue to promote the protection of wetlands that are privately owned through incentives to restore previously converted wetlands and correctly farmed wetlands; to establish vegetative filter-strips along streams; and to protect wetlands.

Protecting Human Health and Restoring Fish and Wildlife Populations

States, EPA, and the Soil Conservation Service will implement programs to reduce human exposure to harmful bacteria in Great Lakes waters. One focus will be ending the discharge of untreated human wastes from combined sewer overflows by upgrading municipal sewer systems and treatment capacity. The Service will promote adoption of waste management systems to reduce runoff from livestock facilities.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, States, Coast Guard, NOAA, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, and EPA will work together to prevent further introductions of nonnative species and to mitigate the harmful effects of ones that have already entered the Great Lakes. They will monitor the ecosystem for new nonnative species and conduct research on environmentally-kind control techniques for disruptive nonnative species. The Coast Guard will establish requirements governing ship ballast water, a common pathway for the introduction of nonnative species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will lead a comprehensive study of fishery resources to identify the restoration needs of Great Lakes fish species, using the latest quantitative techniques to analyze the causes of past disruptions to fish populations and to identify the physical, chemical, and biological needs of important fish and wildlife species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and States will continue to stock hatchery-reared fish, such as lake trout, to bolster the abundance of important species. The Service will also continue application of lampricides to tributaries where sea lamprey spawn in order to control the ravages of this nonnative species upon sport fish. In addition, the Service and States will continue law enforcement efforts to curtail illegal commercial fishing and waterfowl hunting.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and States will continue to take measures to protect and restore populations of endangered and threatened Great Lakes species such as bald eagle, peregrine falcon, Kirtland's warbler, eastern timber wolf, and lakeside daisy.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan's habitat strategy aimed at restoring waterfowl populations to their levels in the 1970s.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and States will pursue Natural Resource Damage Assessments and Claims against Potentially Responsible Parties for past harm to Great Lakes species.

EPA and States will continue activities to reduce phosphorus loadings to areas of the Lakes that are vulnerable to nutrient overenrichment.

Working Together

The partners to the Strategy will support its implementation by various steps, including:

  • States and EPA will focus prevention, inspection, enforcement, and cleanup efforts on critical pollutants and on geographic areas which have the highest ecological and human health risks. In so doing, they will be targeting the strongest opportunities to restore the ecosystem and protect human health.
  • They will use the Remedial Action and Lakewide Management planning processes to define ecological needs and appropriate responses to these needs.
  • EPA, in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, other Federal agencies, and States, will establish an environmental data storage and retrieval system relating to the Great Lakes, which will be accessible to all agencies.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with other agencies, will establish data repositories on habitat uses and on fisheries.
  • EPA, working with its partners, will establish and maintain a Great Lakes ecosystem monitoring plan to address program needs.
  • EPA and its partners will establish and maintain research priorities to support management programs.
  • EPA, in conjunction with its partners, will develop a joint report to Congress and to the people of the Great Lakes region on implementation of their joint Strategy and progress toward their environmental goals. EPA and its partners will adopt ecological objectives and measure progress with ecological indicators.
  • The partners to the U.S. Great Lakes Strategy will pursue opportunities to work with their Canadian counterparts. For instance, the two nations will sponsor biennial conferences on the health of the ecosystem.

In the years ahead, the Great Lakes Program will continue evolving to address ever changing challenges. One constant emphasis, however, will be to inform the public about the state of the ecosystem. Individuals are vital to further environmental progress though their purchases of products, choices of lifestyles, and expectations of their civic institutions, including businesses, environmental organizations, universities, and governments. The Great Lakes Program will continue to promote public stewardship through education and public participation. Though the region's human inhabitants have often wrought harm to this extraordinary ecosystem during the last several centuries, they still hold its future within their collective stewardship.

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