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Great Lakes Ecological Protection and Restoration

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8

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Great Lakes Report to Congress 1994


February 1994
EPA 905-R-94-004

Chapter 4
Restoration of the Ecosystem


Actions to Implement the Water Quality Agreement

This chapter reports recent actions by EPA and States to implement the three major approaches of the Water Quality Agreement: Remedial Action Planning, Lakewide Management Planning, and the Phosphorus Load Reduction Plan. Following the section on remedial action, it discusses EPA's Assessment and Remediation of Contaminated Sediments (ARCS) program that will develop guidance on addressing contaminated bottom sediments. Before discussing these activities, however, the framework of the Water Quality Agreement is presented.


The United States and Canada have a long history of cooperation in their joint stewardship of the Lakes. In 1905, the two nations formed an International Waterways Commission to advise them about Great Lakes water levels and flows. Under their Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, they created an International Joint Commission (IJC) that superseded the earlier commission and continues today.

The IJC has six commissioners, three from each nation. The Commission has limited authority to approve diversions, obstructions, and uses of the Lakes that affect water flow or levels across the international boundary. Since the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement 1972, the IJC has assessed progress under it and reported findings to the governments and their citizens. The thrust of the 1972 Agreement was to reduce loadings of phosphorus that were causing nuisance levels of aquatic plant life. The two nations also agreed to coordinate their surveillance of the ecosystem. In 1978, the two nations revised their Agreement. By that time, clear progress had been made in reducing phosphorus. There was also growing appreciation of the threat to fish, wildlife, and human health from bioaccumulative toxic substances. Some species of fish in many locations had been found to contain unacceptable levels of contaminants. Therefore, the 1978 Agreement added commitments to prohibit the discharge of toxic substances in toxic amounts, virtually eliminate all bioaccumulative toxic substances, and restore the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the ecosystem. In 1983, the two nations further agreed to develop phosphorus reduction plans to reduce excessive plant life in areas that remained impaired.

In 1987, the nations revised their Agreement again, committing to ecosystem cleanup plans for Areas of Concern and to resolution of whole-lake problems associated with critical pollutants. The two types of plans are called Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) and Lakewide Management Plans (LAMPs), respectively. The nations agreed that these plans would be provided to the IJC for independent comment at various stages.

Areas of Concern

Since 1973, the United States and Canada have identified geographic problem areas around the Lakes. Over time, they have increased or decreased the number of these areas as they have learned more about their conditions. There are presently 43 Areas of Concern, of which the United States has 31, including five shared with Canada. Figure 4-1 shows their locations.

Although the United States has identified its Areas of Concern for more than a decade, it should be noted that there have generally been substantial environmental improvements in these areas during the same period. For instance, as result of a $1.5 to $2 billion investment in water pollution abatement along the Cuyahoga River, dissolved oxygen levels have been restored to the 30-mile stretch of river between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. Though deep bottom sediments of the lower Ashtabula River in Ohio are highly contaminated, a 1990 survey found that the upper layer of sediments is not contaminated, indicating that the contamination source ceased a number of years before.

The Fox River and lower Green Bay, Wisconsin, is an Area of Concern where there has been encouraging biological responses to improved water quality. In the early 1970s, low dissolved oxygen in the Fox made hardy fish, such as carp and bullhead, the dominant species. Since that time, the fish community in the river has returned to a more natural, year-around diversity of species, including walleye, northern pike, small-mouth bass, and perch. A recent report on the area also noted that the number of different bottom-dwelling species in Green Bay doubled in the ten years after 1978. Wild celery, a favored food of waterfowl and habitat for fish, began to reappear in the lower bay after a 20-year absence. The reproductive success of endangered Forster's terns in Green Bay improved during the 1980s, and the number of nesting pairs increased about 500 percent from 1986 through 1988 to nearly 600 pairs. In 1990, the mayfly, Hexagenia, an aquatic insect sensitive to pollution, was noted for the first time since 1939.

Remedial Action Planning

The United States and Canada formally agreed to prepare RAPs in 1987. One of the Agreement's general principles regarding RAPs is use of an ecosystem approach. Each RAP is to identify the nature and causes of problems and to indicate remedial actions. RAPs are provided to the IJC for independent comment at three stages--Stage I, after problems have been defined; Stage II, after appropriate remedial measures have been developed; and Stage III, after monitoring indicates that impairments have ended.

Another provision of the Agreement is that the public, particularly communities adjacent to the Area of Concern, be involved in RAP planning and implementation. The two nations realize that cleanup of many Areas of Concern will be a lengthy, costly process. Continuing public interest is integral to its success.

RAPs are developed and implemented by States. The completion of these planning documents is a measure of RAP progress. Through FY 1992, States had developed 23 Stage I and 12 Stage II RAPs. Other RAPs are under initial development.

As more is learned about Areas of Concern and the results of preventive and remedial actions are known, RAPs will be continually improved. EPA and States consider Remedial Action Planning a valuable, ongoing management process for identifying priority environmental problems, determining remedial steps, and evaluating progress.

Actions to Restore Areas of Concern Back to Top

Even as RAPs are being developed, EPA, States, and other participants are taking warranted actions to improve Areas of Concern. Highlights are summarized below:

Industrial Dischargers: During the last 20 years, regulation of dischargers to surface water has greatly reduced pollutant loadings to the Lakes. EPA took enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act against industrial dischargers in three Areas of Concern--Black River, Grand Calumet River, and Menominee River. In the Black River case, a steel company dredged 35,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the river in 1990.

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO): U.S. urban areas are required to eliminate or treat their CSO discharges of untreated waste water. Multiyear programs to eliminate CSOs are underway in many U.S. communities around the Lakes. CSO correction activities are of importance to 12 Areas of Concern-- Clinton River, Cuyahoga River, Grand Calumet River, Detroit River, Maumee River, Menominee River, Milwaukee Harbor, Rochester Embayment, Rouge River, Saginaw River, St. Clair River, and St. Marys River. CSO improvements often involve major infrastructure investments. The CSO plan for Rochester, New York, for instance, is estimated to cost $475 million.

Municipal Sewage Treatment Plants: Major investments in municipal wastewater treatment plants have improved water quality in many Areas of Concern. Since 1972, EPA, States, and towns have invested more than $8 billion in sewage system improvements around the Great Lakes watershed. As a result, 95 percent of U.S. treatment facilities in the Great Lakes region practice at least "secondary" treatment, and remaining jurisdictions are following schedules to achieve this level of treatment effectiveness. Upgrades have recently been completed or are in progress in five Areas of Concern--Black River, Cuyahoga River, Green Bay, Maumee River, and Milwaukee Harbor.

Industrial Pretreatment: Of 314 major U.S. municipal dischargers in the Great Lakes watershed, more than 65 percent are required to have industrial pretreatment programs. EPA and States took actions to enforce the pretreatment of industrial effluent in three Areas of Concern--Detroit River, Niagara River, and Rouge River.

Superfund Cleanups: The cleanup process is continuing at 14 Superfund sites integral to the restoration of seven Areas of Concern--Ashtabula River, Kalamazoo River, Niagara River, St. Lawrence River, Sheboygan River, Torch Lake, and Waukegan Harbor.

The Superfund program is also addressing another 11 sites that are significant, though generally to a lesser degree, to the restoration of seven other Areas of Concern--Clinton River, Grand Calumet River, Green Bay, Oswego River, St. Louis River, St. Marys River, and Saginaw River (its Shiawasee tributary).

Hazardous Waste Management Programs: EPA and States have obtained agreements from hazardous waste handlers to conduct facility assessments, investigations, or corrective actions relating to five Areas of Concern--Menominee River, Niagara River, Grand Calumet River, River Raisin, and St. Lawrence River.

Non-point Source Programs: Programs to prevent agricultural nonpoint pollution have focused on six Areas of Concern--Buffalo River, Green Bay, Maumee River, Milwaukee River, Saginaw River, and Sheboygan River.

Wetland Programs: EPA and States have completed Advance Identification projects of wetlands in northwest Indiana; southeast Wisconsin; Lake County, Illinois; Green Bay; Oswego County, New York; and northwest Ohio. These projects identify wetlands of high ecological value and notify land-users.

RAP Process Lessons

Some successes of the RAP process to date are:

  • Local community "stakeholder" groups are strongly involved in many RAPs. This grass roots participation has molded the goals of RAPs and strengthened the sense of local ownership of both problems and their solutions.
  • Stakeholder participation has helped to increase public awareness of environmental issues.
  • Stakeholder groups have provided an opportunity for local industry to join in restoration planning and to identify opportunities to prevent pollution.
  • The development of some RAPs has brought together nearby municipalities to address regional problems (e.g., Green Bay, Rouge, and Maumee RAPs).
  • RAPs developed to date represent an impressive assemblage of information on environmental problems and solutions. They serve to inform the public, guide government actions, and justify investments in Great Lakes restoration (e.g., the Great Lakes governors launched a $100 million Great Lakes Protection Fund in 1988).
  • RAPs have called upon a broad range of environmental programs to meet ecological needs. For instance, they rely on non-point source measures (Saginaw and Green Bays), industrial pretreatment (Rouge River), groundwater cleanup (Niagara River), better sewage treatment, and wetlands restoration (Green Bay).

The following general lessons have emerged from the Remedial Action Planning process:

  • The development of a strong RAP can be complex and protracted. The Rouge River RAP took three years to develop and grew into seven separate volumes.
  • Some RAP development efforts encounter a host of questions about the extent and causes of ecosystem impairments. Establishing causality between known sources of pollution and impaired fish and wildlife may entail years of study.
  • The RAP process is iterative and incremental. The first generation of the Rouge River RAP, for example, is a superb achievement, resulting from exemplary involvement by many communities. It addresses the most immediate problems of the Area of Concern--overflows from combined sewers and bacteria problems. In the future, the Rouge River RAP will be updated to address the problem of toxic substances.
  • There is considerable asymmetry of information available to different RAP teams. Sometimes there is extensive information about an Area of Concern (e.g., Green Bay) and, in other cases, the development effort must include analyses of water, fish, and sediment samples to fully define use impairments and their causes (e.g., Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers).
  • Some communities have citizens with a strong knowledge of local environmental conditions, which has helped their stakeholder groups (e.g., Duluth, Green Bay, and Milwaukee).
  • The RAP development process can be greatly helped by information provided by PRPs pursuant to enforcement actions (e.g., Ashtabula, Kalamazoo, and Sheboygan).
  • Major investments are required to restore some Areas of Concern. Large sewage system and treatment facility improvements are underway or will be needed in many Areas of Concern (e.g., Maumee, Rouge, and Detroit Rivers, and Milwaukee Harbor). Michigan estimates that the total cost of all improvements for CSOs that discharge into the Rouge River to be $l billion and for those that discharge into the Detroit River to be $2.6 billion.
  • Ways to address the common problem of contaminated bottom sediments in rivers and harbors are often unclear. EPA is testing technologies and will develop guidance to assist local decision-makers.

ARCS Program Back to Top

EPA continued to sponsor a study and demonstration program--the Assessment and Remediation of Contaminated Sediments (ARCS) program--to assess contaminated bottom sediments in the Great Lakes, test remedial technologies, and develop guidance on addressing such contamination. Five areas are receiving priority consideration: Ashtabula River, Ohio; Buffalo River, New York; Grand Calumet River, Indiana; Saginaw Bay, Michigan; and Sheboygan Harbor, Wisconsin. EPA is joined in the ARCS program by Federal and State agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Mines, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and a number of universities.

All 31 U.S. Areas of Concern, including the five given priority by ARCS, have contaminated bottom sediments. Developing scientific grounds and improved technologies for addressing contaminated sediments will be critical to restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem. Many existing technologies for removing contaminated sediments have unwanted environmental side effects. For example, many current methods of dredging bottom sediments release some contaminants from sediments.

The ARCS program assesses the scope and nature of contamination in the study areas, evaluates human and ecological health impacts of the contamination and of alternative remedial measures, and tests the efficacy of innovative remedial technologies. ARCS also informs and solicits comments from interested citizens in communities adjacent to the study areas about the intent and findings of the program. A final report on the ARCS program will be available in 1994. It will include guidance on how to assess freshwater contaminated sediment problems and guidance on remedial alternatives.

During FYs 1989-90, the ARCS program sampled bottom sediments at different depths in the Indiana Harbor/Grand Calumet River, Buffalo River, and Saginaw River. ARCS started analyzing sample chemistry, toxicity (both acute and chronic) to aquatic organisms exposed to the sediment, and identification of benthic organisms. These analyses were completed in 1991, and three-dimensional maps of the extent and nature of contamination will be prepared.

Preliminary data from Indiana Harbor samples indicate their acute toxicity to test organisms; they are among the most toxic Great Lakes sediments ever analyzed. Since this is true of samples from the surface of bottom sediment, continued contamination from sources in the area is a possibility. In the Grand Calumet River, surface sediments were also found to be highly toxic. Preliminary analytic results of surface samples from the Buffalo River indicate their toxicity was generally lower than those of samples from Indiana, though sediments from one Buffalo River site were found to be acutely toxic to some organisms. In 1989, ARCS took surficial samples in the Saginaw River. Preliminary analysis of these samples generally indicates less toxicity than in the Buffalo River, although two Saginaw sites had notably higher toxicity than the others.

Benthic organisms found living in the Indiana Harbor Canal were mainly pollution-tolerant species, whereas more pollution-sensitive species were found in the Saginaw and Buffalo Rivers. The Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed fish (bullheads) for tumors and abnormalities in the Ashtabula, Saginaw, Grand Calumet, and Buffalo Rivers. No bullheads or white suckers could be found in the Grand Calumet. The Service also began studying the transfer of contaminants from sediment to fish in the Saginaw and Buffalo Rivers.

ARCS is drawing on Superfund activities in the Ashtabula River to obtain samples and chemical analyses, both surficial and with depth. ARCS is also able to obtain its bioassays and chemistry analyses from a Superfund site in Sheboygan Harbor.

Hazard Evaluation
As contaminants in sediments are identified, the ARCS study evaluates their risks under current conditions and under various remedial alternatives. During FYs 1989-90, ARCS continued to assess human and ecological health impacts of sediment contamination and of remedial alternatives. The ARCS program continued evaluations of current hazards at each of the five priority locations.

In the Buffalo and Saginaw Rivers, the ARCS program began comprehensive hazard evaluations to assess risks under various remedial alternatives. Many industrial firms along the Buffalo River have closed since the 1970s or directed their discharges to municipal treatment facilities; thus, the Buffalo River analysis may prove to be less complex than that of the Saginaw River, which contains a larger watershed and likely a greater number of current sources of pollutants.

These comprehensive evaluations studied the sources and fates of contaminants in the Buffalo and Saginaw Rivers over a six week period. Water column, fish, and sediment samples were analyzed for selected pollutants. Contaminants being studied in the Buffalo River are PCBs, DDT, dieldrin, chlordane, lead, copper, benzo(a)anthracene, benzo(a)pyrene, benz(b/k)fluoranthene, and chrysene. PCBs, zinc, copper, and lead are being studied in the Saginaw River.

Once models of the sources and fates of these pollutants are refined, the ARCS program will predict risks under various remedial alternatives, including leaving sediments undisturbed (i.e., no-action alternative); dredging only the two or three worst hot spots; capping stretches of river with clean material rather than dredging them; and removing contaminated sediment completely. The ARCS program is considering all possible risks associated with each option, including dredging, treatment, and ultimate disposal of contaminated sediments.

Technology Evaluation
During FYs 1989-90, the ARCS program conducted small-scale laboratory tests of treatment technologies on sediments from the five study locations. These tests used between a few grams to a few kilograms of sediment. The laboratory tests provided information to help the study team select promising technologies to demonstrate in the field. The ARCS program also sponsored a binational research conference on biological treatment of sediments contaminated by PCBs, PAHs, and some metals.

The ARCS program chose 16 technologies as candidates for pilot-scale field demonstrations in the five study locations. Each was selected based on a number of criteria, including effectiveness and cost, the latter an important consideration given the large volume of contaminated sediments across the Lakes. Technologies fall into five general categories: thermal technologies (including incineration, but more often the use of high temperatures short of combustion to vaporize contaminants and water from sediment), chemical destruction (using chemical reactions to breakdown contaminants), biological treatment (using bacteria to break down contaminants), extraction technologies (using solvents to separate contaminants from sediments), and immobilization (such as processes that mix cement with sediments to reduce the availability of contaminants to the food web).

The ARCS program conducted pilot-scale field demonstrations in all five priority locations during FYs 1991-92.

  • On the Ashtabula River, ARCS demonstrateed a thermal stripping process to vaporize organic contaminants from sediment.
  • On the Buffalo River, ARCS demonstrated a thermal extraction process similar to that us at Ashtabula but tailored to the needs of the Buffalo sediment.
  • On the Grand Calumet River/Indiana Harbor, ARCS demonstrated the application of a solvent extraction process to separate organic contaminants.
  • On the Saginaw River, ARCS separated sediments by particle size, using a hydrocyclone. Since contaminants tend to adhere to finer sediment particles, this demonstration is expected to reduce the volume of heavily contaminated sediment by separating coarse-grained sediments that bear relatively less contamination from fine-grain particles that hold more contaminants. Thereafter, ARCS demonstrated bioremediation of the fine-grain particles in the confined disposal facility in Saginaw. Using native bacteria, the study team will add nutrients to stimulate the growth of bacteria and vary the amount of oxygen available to the bacteria to try to increase the effectiveness of the bioremediation.
  • On the Sheboygan River, ARCS provided technical assistance to Superfund cleanup activities through EPA's Environmental Research Laboratory-Athens. This entailed a scientific review of the Sheboygan bbioremediation pilot project already underway, including design and statistical recommendations.

Public Communication
A work group, including citizens living near the study areas, was formed to promote information exchange with the public. The work group established repositories in libraries near each of the five areas. ARCS also developed a slide-show presentation and sponsored public meetings to inform residents living near the priority areas about program activities and results.

Lakewide Management Back to Top

The second major remedial approach under the Water Quality Agreement is the development of LAMPs for critical pollutants to address whole-lake problems that extend beyond Areas of Concern. As with the RAP process, LAMPs are intended to follow a comprehensive ecosystem approach, drawing on the full range of Federal, State, and local environmental programs, as needed. Again, as with the RAP process, EPA and States view Lakewide Management Planning as an ongoing management process to identify priority environmental problems, the steps needed to solve the problems, and ecological outcomes.

EPA and States gave priority to completing Stage I LAMPs for Lakes Ontario and Michigan in FY 1991. The objectives of Stage I LAMPs are to identify key pollutants and their sources and to schedule reduction measures. In FY 1992, the Agency and states began work on a LAMP for Lake Superior. LAMPs for Lakes Erie and Huron will follow.

EPA will invite public participation in the LAMP process. The Agency will notify the public of proposed LAMPs through the Federal Register and conduct public meetings on these plans.

Lake Ontario

The LAMP will build upon the existing Lake Ontario Toxics Management Plan. In 1987, EPA, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and counterpart agencies in Canada (Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment) agreed to develop such a plan. Its first generation was adopted in February 1989. The goal of the Toxics Management Plan is a lake that provides drinking water and fish safe for unlimited human consumption and that allows natural reproduction of the most sensitive native species, such as bald eagles, ospreys, mink, and otters.

Under the plan, the four agencies have compared concentrations of toxic substances in fish and in water with water quality standards. They found no exceedances of drinking water standards. However, fish tissue concentrations exceeded human or wildlife health protection levels for dioxin, PCBs, chlordane, mirex, mercury, dieldrin, DDT and its metabolites, octachlorostyrene, and hexachlorobenzene.

The plan uses four approaches to address these exceedances. First, it relies on reduction of toxic inputs by the entire range of Federal and State programs, including the RCRA, CERCLA, and NPDES programs. Second, it calls for further reductions through special focus on five New York Areas of Concern and four others in the Province of Ontario. Third, it seeks future reductions based on lake wide analyses of pollutant fate to provide grounds for water quality-based regulation. Fourth, the plan calls for zero discharge of bioaccumulative toxic substances into Lake Ontario.

During FY 1989, the four agencies completed initial characterization of toxics in Lake Ontario. Differences in chemical-specific standards were identified and commitments made for their resolution. Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Environment Canada committed to work with Health and Welfare Canada to develop Canada's first water quality criteria for the protection of human health from contaminants in fish. During FY 1990, work continued on a model of steady-state exposure and bioaccumulation for toxic chemicals in Lake Ontario, including development of a time-response model of exposure and bioaccumulation of toxic substances. FY 1991 activities included a comprehensive estimation of loadings from groundwater, air, and sediment to test the bioaccumulation model. Also in l991, EPA and NYSDEC started to incorporate pollution prevention measures into their lakewide efforts. Such measures included focusing on the Rochester and Buffalo areas for urban nonpoint source prevention, focusing on facilities that emit any of the priority lakewide pollutants, and implementing a New York regulation for a 50-percent reduction of fugitive air emissions and New York State's requirement for progressive reduction in toxic chemicals generated by key dischargers.

During FY 1990, a team from EPA, NYSDEC, New York State Department of Health, Fish and Wildlife Service, and counterpart Canadian agencies developed ecosystem objectives for Lake Ontario. In 1992, the team continued to develop measurable ecosystem indicators for nearshore and open-lake water quality (trophic condition), human health, wildlife health, and habitat.

Lake Michigan

During 1991, EPA worked with the States of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin to develop a LaMP for Lake Michigan. This was published in the Federal Register for public comment in 1992.

Two early LaMP activities aim to prevent potential environmental releases of pesticides and PCBs. Under agricultural "clean sweeps," States invite farmers and pesticide dealers to turn-in pesticide stocks for proper disposal. The Lake Michigan States collected in excess of 120,000 pounds of pesticides in that Lake's watershed during 1992, including more than 10,000 pounds of suspended and cancelled pesticides such as DDT. Under the PCB prevention activity, EPA asked utility companies to accelerate their phase-out, within the Great Lakes watershed, of electrical equipment containing PCBs. By early 1992, the majority of utilities had already committed to speeding-up their PCB phaseouts.

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